Monday, October 5, 2015

Kiss Me Kate: The Play

Alfred Drake & Patricia Morison in original
production of Kiss Me, Kate
There’s disagreement on who came up with the core ideas for Kiss Me, Kate—producer Arnold Saint Subber or writer Bella Spewack, but one thing is uncontested: it wasn’t Cole Porter. 

Saint Subber claimed that it came to him when he observed offstage arguments between the legendary Lunts (Alfred Lunt married to Lynn Fontane) during their production of The Taming of the Shrew.  Bella Spewack insisted that she came up with the idea of the backstage story that parallels the play.

Eventually she wrote the story and script, with her husband Samuel. That process was complicated by their marital split, when Sam ran off with a ballerina. Whether he was inspired by this play’s plot or the other way around, it adds another dizzying layer to the play within a play.  (And in musical comedy fashion, they later reconciled.)

 In any event, Cole Porter had to be persuaded to participate. He wondered if Shakespeare could be the the basis of a Broadway entertainment. But as well as doubts about this specific show he had doubts about himself.  His last show had been a flop, as was last movie (The Pirate with Gene Kelly--now a classic.) He noted that in the latest shows, the songs and story were more integrated than in his musicals.  He wasn't sure he could do it.

But once he committed to the project, he was more than just the songwriter. He was involved in casting, attended rehearsals and suggested staging. Perhaps most importantly, he raised money for the show—which took a long time, because, sure enough, it was hard to persuade people that a musical with Shakespeare in it was a likely Broadway hit.

 He wrote 25 songs, dropped several in rehearsal. When the choreographer complained about a song, Porter substituted another. When a secondary lead complained he didn’t have a song, Porter wrote one for him.

He must have found a kindred spirit in Shakespeare, at least when it comes to double entendres of a sexual nature.  Porter outdid the Bard, especially in the delightful "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."

 After so much doubt, the show went to Philadelphia for a tryout and was such a triumph that not one song was changed or dropped. It was a hit on Broadway from opening night. Reviewers especially noted how well Cole Porter had integrated the songs with the story.  One reviewer also complimented Porter for attuning himself "to a counter-melody of the play, the strain of gentle romance that underlies the boisterous comedy."

Kiss Me, Kate broke box office records when it ran for more than two years, and became one of the first Broadway shows with more than 1,000 first-run performances. It won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score for Cole Porter, Best Author for the Spewacks, Best Producer for Saint Subber and his partner Lemuel Ayers.

The original cast album received a special Grammy Award. The show made a star of the previously unknown Patricia Morison (who played Lilli and Kate.) Porter had worked with her and championed her for the role.

In addition to other musicals, Morison played this role many times on stage and television over some 30 years. This year she celebrated her 100th birthday, and is the last surviving member of the original cast.

 Fifty years after it opened, a 1999 Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate again won multiple Tonys. The script was slightly revised and a song added.  When the producers for the 1953 movie version wanted another song, Porter gave them “From This Moment On,” which had been dropped from another show by the director.  It's become a Porter classic, and is now part of the stage version of Kiss Me, Kate.

  Kiss Me Kate was produced successfully in London in 2012, and has been performed in Italy and Greece, among other places. It is still regarded as Cole Porter’s best musical.

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