Understanding Musical Theater Song Performance Through Analysis of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top”

Understanding Musical Theater Song Performance Through Analysis of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top”

So, you’ve spent your whole life learning how to sing, three months learning the notes to your favorite cabaret song, and six months perfecting your technique on that song- or perhaps you’ve been learning to sing for a week, you know most of the notes, and your technique is shaky at best. Either way, you are guaranteed to have a successful performance if you know all of the words to your song, and you know exactly what they mean.

It’s one thing to know the definition of a word- in fact it’s expected that you, as a singer will look up all of words you are unclear about in a dictionary. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary is my personal favorite. But it’s another thing to know the colloquial meanings of words, including metaphorical figures of speech, cultural references, and all the different shades of innuendo.

It is extremely common for songs, both of the musical theater and popular variety, to contain phrases in which the words used do not adhere to a textbook definition. For instance, in Cole Porter’s classic, “You’re the Top,” the singers repeatedly refer to each other as, “The Top.” It may seem simple enough to not take this literally, but few singers take the extra step to truly consider what being “The Top” means. With a little research, you can discover that few people in history have used the phrase in that form; rather it is a clever rearrangement of the phrase, “You’re tops,” or “This is tops.” The phrase “You’re tops,” has familiar connotations, as well as connotations to being the best at something specific, which leads us in two directions at the same time, allowing us to create more specificity for our character. Now we know that these characters are in a familiar relationship, and they each see each other as the top in something specific.

Porter makes many unique references throughout the song, to places like the Louvre museum and characters like Mickey Mouse. By using the logic established above, we can understand that each specific reference is an example of how the character in question is the best at some specific thing. For instance, when Porter says, “You’re the top…you’re the Louvre museum,” he is really saying, “You are the most classy and artistically relevant thing I’ve ever seen.” When he says, “You’re mickey mouse,” he is really saying, “I have never met anyone as fun and free-spirited as you.”

This is just a beginning to the kind of text work that is necessary in the discovery of a musical theater song. Every word must be dissected in order to get inside the mind of the writer. Only then can you truly deliver on their intent.