Revivals (as I have written) are revived for many reasons beyond mere remuneration — for rebirth or rediscovery or reinvention. Kiss Me, Kate! has clearly been revived to make money, which is not a crime. Its producer, The Roundabout Theater Company, though a non-profit enterprise, is pretty good at making money. As Bernie Gersten loved to point out (longtime Executive Producer of Lincoln Center Theatre and before that, even longer-time Associate Producer of Joe Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival): “There’s no profit like non-profit.” (Think: A Chorus Line.)
Kiss Me, Kate! does not need to be reborn or rediscovered but many would insist (including Roundabout perhaps) that it did need to be reinvented. Last seen in 1999 on Broadway (with Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell) Kiss Me, Kate! retains fairly automatic box office appeal. It is sublimely scored (Cole Porter’s finest), expertly crafted and often terrifically funny. By today’s #MeToo measure, it is also, at times, more than a little misogynistic. I would argue that it is Shakespeare who has the problem here, not Kiss Me, Kate!; specifically Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which Kiss Me, Kate! is written around, as a play within a play. I would further argue that, as in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare was incapable of embracing a cultural stereotype without probing it, exposing it and ultimately detonating it; whether a Jew or a shrew. But that really is an argument for another place and time.
Roundabout’s Kiss Me, Kate! has been politically-corrected by a designated literary corrector, the lyricist-librettist Amanda Green, eminent daughter of Adolph. I think she’s done a very nice job with a few concise snips, defusing some potentially touchy lyrics and expansively healing the show’s finale by simply expanding its title, from “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple” to “I Am Ashamed That People Are So Simple.” It truly helps. I also appreciated director Scott Ellis’s clever, focus-flipping staging touches, whereby the simple act of pulling open a door during the shrew Kate’s diatribe, “I Hate Men,” reveals a tavern-full of dudes behaving so badly they instantly reframe the song hilariously as no diatribe at all but, rather, as an exasperated lament.
Kiss Me, Kate! has not, however, been reinvented here. It has, if anything, undergone a cleanse. And all to the good. I nevertheless believe that its essential view of women, and of men, for that matter, is way subtler and infinitely more sophisticated than some give Kiss Me, Kate! credit for. The show’s book writers, the barely married team of Sam and Bella Spewack, were pretty hip to the nuances of marital relations and male-to-female power struggles. Their Kiss Me, Kate! book is…well, full of it.
Overall, this production is nicely cast and nicely done. Kelli O’Hara really is something, as fine a musical comedy star as any Golden Age luminary, though her cool elegance and effortless virtuosity really are at odds with the unhinged fireball that her character, the diva Lilli Vanesi, is supposed to be. Not a big problem for me. I definitely felt that Will Chase had to work a little too hard to capture his character Fred Graham’s suave savoir faire, but Chase sang well, nailed his punch lines and looked damned good doing it. Stephanie Styles was delightful as the anything-but-demure ingenue, Lois Lane, with a big voice and a feisty stage presence. I would swear that Corbin Bleu’s tap dancing, as her beau, Bill, was more out of tempo than in, but who’s to say.
What really hit me, more than anything, was how much Kiss Me, Kate! is all about marriage – bad and good. This led me to ponder the various marriages of the show’s originals. I knew of Cole Porter’s, of course, he who was openly gay and married to socialite Linda Porter in an open marriage that lasted 35 years, until her death.
The rest I had to look up. I pretty quickly learned that Alfred Drake (the original Fred, and that musical era’s greatest leading man) was married to the same woman for 48 years, following an early, first marriage that had lasted less than a year. Patricia Morison (the legendary original Lilli) never married, and lived to be 103. Lisa Kirk (Lois) was married for 41 years to the man who co-wrote “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” with Mel Torme. Harold Lang (Bill) was quietly gay, never married and reportedly had affairs with Arthur Laurents and Gore Vidal that they both later wrote about. Hanya Holm, the show’s original choreographer, was German and married to a German sculptor who remained in Germany and sided with the Nazis, effectively ending their marriage after Ms. Holm had come to America to dance.
And the Spewacks? It would appear they had practically separated when Bella was hired to write the book for Kiss Me, Kate!. Porter seems to have nudged them to reunite on the project, perhaps because he wanted a male name attached to the libretto. Bella probably wrote most of it, in the end, with Sam here and there revising. Her early drafts also apparently sought to rehabilitate the shrew Kate as a more enlightened female. Her male collaborators wouldn’t have it, though. And that was that.