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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Petruchio?:
Kiss Me, Kate as a product of its time and place

The writer of a theatrical adaptation faces issues particular to that art form: he or she must stay faithful to the source material, while presenting an audience with something new and fresh. Devotees of the original material must be satisfied with the adaptation, and not feel betrayed. A newcomer to the material must be able to follow and understand the adaptation, without having to call back to any prior knowledge or experience. How can a writer take a classic, eloquent, and well-known play by William Shakespeare, and adapt it into a new, emerging, and purely American art form: the integrated musical? This paper will discuss Bella Spewack and Cole Porter’s scheme to do just that. Their musical Kiss Me, Kate, based upon Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, is a successfully refreshing adaptation. It is a product of its time, when integrated musicals were first coming into vogue, and when sexual politics were in flux; and of its place, since its form is distinctly American.

By the 1890s, the musical revue had established itself as a popular form of entertainment in America. Revues had no real plot, and no throughline. Geoffrey Block points out that “what normally survives from Broadway’s revues are its songs and the memory of its stars.” People flocked to Florenz Ziegfield’s shows in order to see beautiful women dancing and singing in gorgeously elaborate costumes, not to be emotionally involved. That all changed with the opening of Show Boat in 1927. The success of Show Boat marked the emergence of musical comedies and operettas as legitimate genres alongside revues. These two styles still had the music and spectacle of the revue, but added a story with integrated songs, creating a new, purely American, art form.

The “golden age” of the integrated musical spanned fourteen years, from 1943 (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!) to 1957 (Bernstein and Sondheim’s West Side Story). Plays that followed Oklahoma! had a great deal to live up to. From 1957 on, writers of musicals stopped attempting to keep their songs within the same genre; instead, they moved towards stylistic heterogeneity. This shift increased “interest and scope while supporting differentiation of character/mood and moving toward dramatic/musical integrity.” In musical comedies and operettas, the songs were not only there to show off the singers’ voices and entertain the audience; now, a song could illuminate a character, and his realizations, aspirations, and perceptions. Twelve now-iconic musicals premiered during the fourteen years between Oklahoma! and West Side Story. These musicals constitute the Broadway Canon, and represent the work of only seven composers and seven lyricists, if, as Block points out, “we include composer-lyricists [Cole] Porter and [Frank] Loesser. twice” Kiss Me, Kate, Bella Spewack and Cole Porter’s adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, holds its place in the Canonic Twelve, and, not coincidentally, is number seven on the list of top thirty longest running musicals on Broadway, through 1957.

Kiss Me, Kate has rightfully secured its place in the musical theatre canon. It is the most-produced American musical in light opera houses around the world, and barely a summer-stock, high school, or college theatrical experience would be complete without a performance. Spewack and Porter successfully transformed William Shakespeare’s story and language into a backstage look at a traveling company performing a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. Spewack’s script and Porter’s lyrics echo Shakespeare’s cadences and entendres, and the score remains classic. This blending of traditional comedy with a new American theatre form, the integrated musical, came at the perfect time for success.

The story of Kiss Me, Kate does not begin, however, with the already-well-known Porter and Spewack. It begins with Arnold Saint-Subber, who aided in production of the 1940 Broadway revival of The Taming of the Shrew, which featured the famous married team of Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne. During the production, he witnessed the two fighting, and, as Laurence Maslon describes it, “marveled at how the Lunts carried their onstage feuding in the play back to their dressing rooms, where their egos clashed nightly.” Subber asked production designer Lemuel Ayers to co-produce a play based on the heated passion between Lunt and Fontanne, and the two courted Bella Spewack to write the book. Spewack hated Shakespeare’s play, but said that she would give it some thought and let them know if anything worthwhile developed. Six weeks later, after overcoming her distaste for Shrew, she had devised the script that would later become Kiss Me, Kate.

Burton Lane, who had previously had a hit in Finian’s Rainbow, was the team’s first choice for a composer/lyricist, but he was busy with a previous commitment. Spewack then turned to Cole Porter, her collaborator with Spewack’s now-ex-husband, Sam, on the musical Leave it to Me! (1939). Porter was dejected in the late 1940s, following a string of flops both on the stage and on the screen. He had considered doing a score for a script written by Edith Carrington, a writer of soap operas. Porter thought that he had fallen out of touch with audiences and found a way to get back their favor with Carrington’s script. As Charles Schwartz explains, “Soap operas – as evidenced by the enormous popularity of many daily radio serials – had great audience appeal, and he, for some reason, no longer seemed to have the touch for reading a broad public.” Subbers and Ayers were wary about the partnership, due to Porter’s recent string of flops, and Porter was none too keen on the idea. Spewack was very convincing with her arguments, pointing out that the plot of The Taming of the Shrew echoed the matchmaking practices of then-modern New York Jewish families. Porter ultimately relented.

After Spewack and Porter wrote the play, actors had the daunting task of bringing the characters to life. Alfred Drake was chosen for the dual roles of Fred Graham and Petruchio, after four Broadway failures. He was chosen mainly on the impression that he had made five years before as the original Curly in Oklahoma! Patricia Morison was cast as Lilli Vanessi/Kate. Morison was practically unknown on Broadway; her last appearance in a New York musical had been ten years earlier in, as Schwartz phrases it, the “less-than-exalted production” of The Two Bouquets. After understudying Helen Hayes in the Broadway production of Victoria Regina (1936) – and never going on, even when Hayes was sick – Morison moved to Hollywood, and appeared in several B-movies, the most notable of which was Lady on a Train (1945). Rounding out the main cast of Kiss Me, Kate were Lisa Kirk as Lois Lane/Bianca, and former American Ballet Theatre dancer Harold Lang as Bill Calhoun/Lucentio. The writing of Lilli/Kate as a soprano was odd for Porter; he vastly preferred mezzo-soprano/alto belters like Ethel Merman, but wrote Lilli/Kate with an “odd tessitura, which stays low most of the time but climbs high now and again, even if not to truly operatic heights,” according to Ethan Mordden. The part is nearly impossible to perform without some sort of operatic-soprano training. Porter created Lois/Bianca as his built-in belter, and her bluesy numbers fulfill Porter’s quota. Songs like “Always True to You in My Fashion” and “Why Can’t You Behave” are what audiences think of as “Porter-esque,” and are, if nothing else, fun to sing.

Potential investors were skeptical about backing the production. Not only was $180,000 a tremendous amount of money, but eyebrows were also raised due to a lack of big-name stars, and Porter’s bad reputation at the time. There was also the intrinsic intellectual snobbery that caused people to balk at the idea of making a musical out of a Shakespearean play. Mordden states, “Smart Broadway went, ‘Oh, really?’ while the show was putting itself together. That washed-up Porter…the strange idea.” Since Subbers and Ayers were first-time producers, they brought in a ringer: Jack Wilson, who acted as both co-producer and director. Wilson had been a friend of Porter’s since the mid-1920s. They had many things in common: they were both polished and urbane, both were heavy drinkers and smokers, both were gay men with insatiable sexual appetites, and both were married to beautiful, regal-looking women. The pair reportedly became lovers during the production of Kiss Me, Kate, but they were discreet about the affair. Even Noel Coward, a man so connected to the world of entertainment (and Wilson’s former lover) didn’t know about the relationship.

After a warm reception at previews in Philadelphia, Kiss Me, Kate was set to open on Broadway at the New Century Theater on December 30, 1948. Lemuel Ayers designed the sets and costumes, as well as acting as co-producer. Ayers’s sets and costumes were, Mordden asserts, “perhaps the most magnificent in all the decade, contrasting the bare stage, theatre alley, and dreary dressing rooms of the real life with the Renaissance riot going on ‘onstage.’” Advance ticket sales for the Broadway run amassed $350,000. There were rumors that tickets were being sold under the table for as much as $100, an astronomical amount at the time. These rumors did not dissuade potential buyers; knowing that there was such fervor only made people more eager to buy tickets.

Reviewers were ecstatic about the premiere. Richard F. Cooke of The Wall Street Journal wrote, “These musical bounties were largely dependent upon the excellence of Cole Porter’s music and lyrics. The old master (if nearly 30 years of it make him other than young) has outdone himself. There are so many good ones this time that their description would outrun this allotted space considerably.” Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times agreed, “Without losing his sense of humor, he [Porter] has written a remarkable melodious score with an occasional suggestion of Puccini, who was a good composer, too.” The actors got equally good notes, with the exception of Harold Lang, who was brushed aside with mere mention of his dancing ability. Atkinson mentioned that Lisa Kirk “plays a subordinate part in a style that might be described as well-bred impudence. Given a sardonic song like ‘Always True to You (In My Fashion),’ she can translate it into pert and gleaming buffoonery.” He also admired Alfred Drake’s performance, “Mr. Drake’s pleasant style of acting and his unaffected singing are the heart of the show. By hard work, and through personal sincerity, Mr. Drake has become about the most valuable man in his field.” Cooke spoke out about the leading lady: “Miss Morison, a somewhat icy beauty, can not only sing beautifully, but warm up to incandescent rage when required, and play at slapstick expertly.” No wonder, Schwartz notes, the New York Press Corps honored the show with their Page One Award for theatrical excellence.

Schwartz goes on to say, “It was easy to see why Cole enjoyed himself so much at a show for which he had expressed so many doubts so far. For his songs had all the Porter earmarks of twentieth-century sophistication and topicality, even without the context to The Taming of the Shrew.” Porter himself had invited a large party of 97 guests to see the show on opening night, costing him more than $1,000 for tickets alone. After the reviews came out, he enthusiastically returned with other guests fourteen times within the space of several weeks. The show was a tremendous success.

Kate amassed three Tony Awards for the 1948-49 season: best musical production, best book, and best score. In 1949, the US national company kicked off a three-year tour, and the British production opened on March 8, 1951 at London’s Coliseum. Patricia Morison repeated her role as Lilli Vanessi in the production, which ran for 400 performances.

The problem inherent in The Taming of the Shrew – one assumes, why Bella Spewack had a problem with the play in the first place – is the treatment of the central couple. Petruchio wears Katharina down; he beats her, starves her, and debases her until she finally gives in. Directors of modern productions must decide how to treat the blatant overtones of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse in this central relationship. Different views of societal relationships in different time periods may dictate how audience members view the play. And if the director chooses to set the play in a more modern time period, the relationship often shifts; as Charles Marowitz explains, "In the theatre, the actors’ and directors’ job is to make a play concrete, to make specific choices about décor, costume, textual emphasis, and thematic interpretation. In the theatre, one cannot put on the stage a kind of multi-faceted resonating chamber called a 'classic,' and allow all members of the public to draw their own conclusions from it." It is up to the director, and all writers, designers, and actors involved in a given production, to lead the audience to a conclusion. One cannot be nebulous in his or her vision.

Shrew provides a director with a problem specific to time period, much as The Merchant of Venice does. In a time when women are coming into their own, how can a production show an abusive relationship and get away with it? Beyond the central relationship, Shakespeare also paints a picture of a willful woman, one who rails and stomps her foot. As Barbara Hodgdon explains, “In the twentieth century, as in the sixteenth, the public spectacle of a woman behaving properly stamps her with the culture’s prerogatives, and, being looked at, whether by male or female spectators, reconfirms her meaning.” In the late 1940s, the time during which Kiss Me, Kate was being written, women had left the home and entered a workforce which had been vacated by men, due to World War Two. After the war ended, many women stayed at work, rather than return to lives as homemakers. Women were becoming their own people, not spoken for and represented by their husbands, or judged solely on the merits of their families. This was the dynamic with which Spewack and Porter were faced when writing Kiss Me, Kate. Placing the Petruchio-Kate relationship into a framework of play-within-a-play accomplishes the feat of equalizing the central relationship.

By making the central relationship Lilli-Fred instead of Petruchio-Kate, Spewack bends and breaks the dynamic of abuse contained in The Taming of the Shrew. Fred and Lilli obviously adore each other, but the breakdown of their previous relationship has damaged their faith in love. Lilli is a willful woman, yes, but in the strictures of “modern day,” it suits her, and is allowable by the audience. As an actor – and a Shakespearean actor, at that – Fred’s arrogance is recognized, even perhaps, expected by the audience. This is, indeed, a loving relationship; like the Lunts, the lovers’ flames are actually fanned by the Petruchio-Kate fighting onstage. It is wholly believable that Lilli would leave her rich Texan-politic lover, Harrison, for her ex-husband Fred, whereas Katharina has no choice in her lovers. This choice itself speaks volumes about male-female relationship politics in the mid-twentieth century.

Katharina’s final speech, the troublesome one in which she pledges her love for Petruchio and commands all women to be subservient and kiss their husbands’ feet, was also reconciled in this fashion. Lilli has finally come around to the realization that she loves Fred, and would like to continue their relationship. After fleeing the theatre, she comes back onstage and delivers the speech, backed by Porter’s instrumentals:

I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
So wife, hold your temper and meekly put
Your hand ‘neath the sole of your husband’s foot.

But this speech is certainly Kate’s and not Lilli’s. Lilli does not believe these words, although Kate does. She uses the entrance itself to apologize to Fred; it is the fact that she is there speaking Shakespeare’s words, within the confines of the character she is playing, that counts.

The songs in Kiss Me, Kate can be divided into three categories: those with lyrics in Porter’s own style, those whose lyrics are in the spirit of The Taming of the Shrew, and those that come nearly straight from Shakespeare’s own pen. Porter made sure that the songs worked together, even with their stylistic differences. The first three songs in the play (“Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” “Why Can’t You Behave,” and “Wunderbar”) have practically nothing in common. One is upbeat exposition, the second a blues number, and the third a satirical Viennese waltz. But with Porter’s inimitable style, they gel together, giving the audience an intimate view of who the characters are behind the songs.

Cole Porter’s racy lyrics intimate Shakespeare’s own ribald language. In songs like “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua,” Porter takes the title and several lines from Shakespeare’s text, and adds his own Porter-esque touches:

I’ve come to wive it wealthily in Padua,
If wealthily then happily in Padua.
If my wife has a bag of gold
Do I care if the bag is old?
I’ve come to wive it wealthily in Padua.

This is the first song in the play in which Porter uses Shakespeare’s own language while blending his own vernacular in seamlessly. The best of these pseudo-Shakespeare songs appears late in the second act, in what would now be called the “eleven o’clock number.” By this point, the play’s two gangster characters have entangled themselves in a screwball plot, involving a bettor’s IOU and a kidnapping, and have accidentally wandered through the theatre’s asbestos curtain. The characters spontaneously improvise “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” a show-stopping number, where they prove the theatre fandom that they’ve been professing throughout the show. Spewack called on her ex-husband, Sam, to write the gangster subplot; his dialogue foresees Loesser’s gangsters of Guys and Dolls. Porter matched Sam Spewack’s low-class comedic dialogue with stylized (and stylish) lyrics.

Of all the songs in the play, this one comes closest to Shakespeare’s tradition of double entendres. “Too Darn Hot” was, indeed, banned from the major radio stations for racy lyrics like “I’d like to fool with my baby tonight, / Break ev’ry rule with my baby tonight.” But for all of that song’s subtle eroticism, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is awash in blatant, but still masked, entendre. Maslon remarks, “The second-act soft-shoe showstopper ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ has nothing to do with an integrated musical, a good deal to do with old-fashioned specialty numbers, and everything to do with Porter’s ability to flirt playfully with downright obscenity.” Checking off the names of eleven of Shakespeare’s plays, and making reference to three more, this song is Cole Porter at the height of wordplay, something which has become a Porter trademark. Porter writes brilliant couplets into this song, rhyming “Merchant of Venice” with “flesh you would menace,” and, in a saucy turn, “heinous” with “Coriolanus.” The height of the double entendres comes in these lines:

Just recite an occasional sonnet
And your lap’ll have “Honey” upon it.
When your baby is pleading for pleasure
Let her sample your Measure for Measure.

Hodgdon maintains that the hoods’ song “brushes in the tangled links between Shakespeare’s titular erotics and mid-twentieth century misogyny to recirculate Shrew’s discourse of phallic potency.” Porter blends modern vernacular with Shakespeare’s to bring across the spirit of the play: both Kate and Shrew are bawdy and playful, making the audience blush, giggle, stomp their feet in anger, and catch their breath. This is Porter’s brilliance, in conjunction, of course, with Shakespeare.

Bella Spewack accomplished much the same feat by blending the backstage text in with the players’ production of The Taming of the Shrew. Several times during Kiss Me, Kate, performers bring their backstage business onto the stage, interrupting the text proper. This is best shown in Act 2, scene 8. The actress playing Kate has stormed out of the theatre, and the cast ad-libs using made-up Shakespearean language to cover her lack of entrance:

BAPTISTA: My dear Bianca, and her new-found spouse –
Brother Petruchio – daughter Katharine –
(Then stalling)
… But where is Katharine?
Where is she?
(To one of the dancers)
Sirrah, command you to Mistress Katharine.
Say I command her to come to me.
PETRUCHIO: [Back to Shakespeare’s original text] I know she will not come.
The fouler fortune mine and there an end.

As well as this convention works through most of the show, it also unfortunately lends itself to the least-believable moment in the show. We, as an audience, can suspend disbelief through a play-within-a-play where the actors “offstage” burst into song as frequently as the actors “onstage.” As in all integrated musicals, the entire cast knows the words to these songs and is able to join in on a chorus. Having been bred on opera and previous canonical musicals like Oklahoma!, we can accept this.

Our disbelief is stretched to its limits, however, in Act 2, scene 4. In this scene, five messengers and deliverymen come to the stage door with packages for Lois from her various suitors. Bill catches them at the door, and interrupts a number onstage with his own improvised song for his “Bianca.” The chorus sings along; as the stage directions note, “SINGING GIRLS whistle. DANCERS dance. What else can they do?” There is a practical reason for this poorly-placed song. Mordden explains that Harold Lang, who played Bill Calhoun/Lucentio, was dissatisfied with his part, and so the song “Bianca” was written to placate him. Indeed, Lang was primarily a dancer, and even after the song was added and performed to his utmost ability, reviews pointed this fact out. Richard F. Cooke wrote in his Wall Street Journal column, “Harold Lang didn’t do much in the acting department, but danced with his usual skill and aplomb.” Mordden contends, however, that “Kiss Me, Kate is a show we love not despite its sloppy realism and irrelevant hunks of Shakespeare but because the score is so good that the rest doesn’t matter.” How is “Bianca” different from “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” in its improvisational glory?

The play’s libretto provides evidence that the gangsters know their Shakespeare. For grammatically-challenged men who speak Brooklynese in the middle of Baltimore, these men know of what they sing. They seem to have practiced these puns. And we can imagine the orchestra sitting there dumbfounded as they sing a cappella. Bill, on the other hand, not only extemporizes his song, and cloaks it under the name of “Bianca,” even though it is about Lois, but an entire orchestra plays along with him, chorus girls sing, and dancers dance. “What else can they do?” This is the sole low point of an otherwise glorious play.

Porter and Spewack took Shakespeare’s script and tailored it perfectly to the musical tastes of the time. Maslon notes that “Nothing about the story of Kiss Me, Kate required Porter to master the sweeping narrative of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals; he confined himself instead to the sweeping emotions of the leading characters.” As Shakespeare took his inspiration from plays that come before, and stories of his time, so can Shakespeare’s works be the motivation for other writers. Charles Marowitz notes, “His ‘greatness’ is nothing more than the sperm-bank from which we must spawn our own offspring.” Spewack didn’t want simply to insert music into an adaptation of a Shakespearean script. Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and George Abbot had already used that stunt in their musical The Boys from Syracuse, which took the characters, location, and plot of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, and adopted a modern setting. She stumbled upon the gimmick of adapting Shrew, into a backstager, as Mordden puts it, “showing the lives of a theatre company putting on someone else’s adaptation of Shrew: thus pulling off a different stunt altogether.” The gimmick worked.

October 2006

From guest contributor Jennifer Erin Book

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