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Kiss Me, Kate Music Director’s Word

DOUG PECK ON COLE PORTER

It’s funny to say about someone you don’t know, but I’m very proud of Cole Porter. Much of his previous work before Kiss Me, Kate is from an era when people could not care less about fitting songs to the plot. You know, “Someone will juggle, then we’ll sing a song, then someone will swallow a sword,” and so on. He was a master of that form, and his songs were so diverting and witty that they worked brilliantly.

As all great artists do, however, Porter wanted to keep up with the trends and push himself. Think of how many people are going to write rap musicals now that Hamilton is dominating the form. Some successfully, some horribly, and I’m very much looking forward to all of it. Cole Porter—because he was a true master—evolved with the times. Following Kern and Hammerstein, and Rodgers and Hammerstein, he wrote a truly integrated musical. Kiss Me, Kate has elements of the previous style, of course, and there are some songs in this score that are just getting in by the skin of their teeth. But some of them are also among the great book-integrated songs of the musical theatre. I’m proud of him for evolving in that way, which is what we’re all trying to do as artists.

Porter revealed so much of himself in working on this piece. We all know him as the witty sophisticate, but there is such deep longing in this music, a strain of bittersweet romance underneath the comedy. There can be a sophisticated, even blasé veneer, but there’s also a whole world of passion underneath. The emotions are sublimated beneath wit in a manner that’s very reminiscent of Shakespeare, Wilde and other great writers of romantic comedy.

Porter was a flat-out brilliant composer. He was a Christian boy from Indiana, but he always said the success of his melodies is how Jewish they were. Maybe he was appropriating a little, but he knew exactly what that meant in terms of harmonic minor melodies. When he writes in that mode, it’s delicious. He was also able to write in two different styles for Kiss Me, Kate. He gives us the fabulous backstage jazz world of Baltimore in the 1940s and then he writes some honest-to-God Renaissance music for the show-within-a-show. We are going to realize what this 1940s version of a 17th-century show-within-a-show might have sounded like.

He’s also Porter the Progressive. We’re in an era where we applaud shows like Broad City for its sex-positivity, but Cole Porter was there 70 years ago. Lois Lane says filthy, juicy, delicious things onstage. Most of them are single entendres, not even double entendres. And he puts them out there. He is able to write these sassy, empowered songs. You have to give him credit. He’s up there with Noël Coward, W.S. Gilbert, and Stephen Sondheim as one of the great lyricists of all time. I want the audience to be able to understand and savor every word.

We’re still dealing with equality in terms of gender in our society, and this piece from 1948 has a female book writer and a gay composer. It was very important to them that they write about those issues explicitly in this piece. And they did. As I said, I’m very proud of Cole Porter.

Adapted from Doug Peck’s address to the cast on the first day of rehearsal.

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