Marvin Hamlisch returns to his pops post with Seattle Symphony to conduct "A Tribute to Cole Porter" March 3-6, 2011.

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“If Irving Berlin was meat loaf, Cole Porter was filet mignon,” says Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Pops Conductor Marvin Hamlisch.

Hamlisch, a recipient of Oscars, Grammys, Emmys, a Tony, Golden Globes and a Pulitzer Prize (“A Chorus Line”) for his own contributions to the Great American Songbook, is in town to conduct “A Tribute to Cole Porter” this weekend at Benaroya Hall.

Despite that gastronomic analogy, Hamlisch isn’t actually suggesting a preference for one legendary composer over another.

But where Berlin wrote brilliantly and beautifully for the average person, in a common vernacular and often about common touchstones and feelings, Porter (who, like Berlin, wrote his own lyrics as well as music), “was ultra-New York, writing satire about high-society troubles and travails,” says Hamlisch. “He was wickedly funny, sometimes skirting the line [of propriety].”

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Hamlisch has previously dedicated pops programs to the work of such diverse American composers as Stephen Sondheim, Meredith Wilson, George Gershwin and (at least for part of one show) Berlin. Now it’s Porter’s turn.

“There are a huge amount of songs to choose from,” he says. ” ‘Let’s Do It,’ ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy.’ I’m going to make somebody upset when they don’t hear their favorite.”

Born in 1891, the only child in a wealthy family and grandson of the dominating James Omar “J.O.” Cole (reputedly the “richest man in Indiana”), Porter’s education and career path in the practice of law were laid out for him.

But a secret switch from Harvard Law School to music studies led Porter to his destiny. Persistence — as well as inherited wealth that fueled his taste for luxurious living and high-society carousing — saw Porter through years of failure in writing songs and Broadway flops.

“He could have lived a different life, but show business was his passion,” says Hamlisch.

Porter continued to write for decades following a horse-riding accident in 1937 that crushed his legs, resulting in chronic pain, multiple surgeries and eventual amputation.

“It’s a great lesson in following your heart, and in tenacity,” Hamlisch says.

Success took solid hold in the 1930s. Porter wrote Fred Astaire’s last stage show, “Gay Divorce” (renamed “Gay Divorcee” for the film, and including the hit “Night and Day”), and the hugely popular “Anything Goes” (featuring “I Get a Kick Out of You”). Subsequent years yielded such standards as “Just One of Those Things,” “It’s De-Lovely” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”

Hamlisch has enlisted marquee-name singers Kelli O’Hara (star of the Tony Award-winning revival of “South Pacific”) and Doug LaBrecque (“Phantom of the Opera”) to join the orchestra in honoring Porter.

As always, Hamlisch encourages parents to bring their children to the show.

“We have a big problem in this country, shaving away music and art as required subjects in children’s lives,” he says. “The chances of hearing Porter are not high. The music is not out there.”

Tom Keogh:

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