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The Taming of the Screwball

By Drew Lichtenberg, Literary Manager  

The success of Kiss Me, Kate in 1948 could not have been more unexpected. Cole Porter, who had experienced a glittering string of successes in the 1930s, was yesterday’s news by the mid-’40s. His previous two Broadway ventures, Seven Lively Arts (1944) and Around the World in Eighty Days (1945)—the former a collaboration with Salvador Dali, Igor Stravinsky, Benny Goodman, and Moss Hart, the latter with Orson Welles “in the style of Georges Méliès”—were both eccentric and expensive flops. Worse, they hinted that Porter, who had never written his own books, had lost the magic touch of choosing an ideal collaborator.

As luck would have it, his next collaborators would choose him. Sam and Bella Spewack had worked with Porter previously, adapting their 1932 play Clear All Wires into the 1938 musical Leave It to Me! Based (very) loosely on their experiences as foreign correspondents in Moscow, in Porter’s hands the piece became a sublimely nonsensical romp, flimsily plotted but chockablock with risqué set pieces. Most notable is Mary Martin’s striptease in Siberia, discarding her ermine muff while mewling “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” Porter, who had elevated doggerel rhyme to the status of high art, topped himself here, stringing together a line of sexually suggestive rhymes for “Daddy” such as “Finnan haddie” (smoked cod), “Paddy” (for a Saint Patrick’s Day assignation), “the caddy” (an aroused golf companion), and “strong under-graddy.” The original finale consisted of Stalin leading a line dance to “The Internationale,” rewritten hastily after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Like all of Porter’s pieces from the ’30s, Leave It to Me! is high on fizz and fun, and all but unrevivable today.

By 1948, the world had changed. The success of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! in 1943, followed by Carousel and Allegro, effectively ushered in the era of the “book musical,” in which all the songs and dances were subordinated to the needs of the story and characters. Taking a cue from Richard Wagner, composers were now expected to sprinkle musical themes or leitmotifs throughout the piece, uniting disparate plot strands into a contrapuntal unity. Vaudeville was out, and Aristotle was in. It was no longer enough to add blue coloration to a string of ingenious rhymes, or to wow people with a dance number. Now one had to write plays with music. “The librettos are much better,” Porter would later lament, “and the scores are much closer to the librettos than they used to be. Those two [Rodgers and Hammerstein] made it much harder for everybody else.”

Two stories vividly evoke the changing of the guard. Irving Berlin, Porter’s 1930s compatriot, had joined the times with 1946’s Annie Get Your Gun, a star vehicle for Porter’s favorite 1930s naughty girl Ethel Merman, unrecognizably transformed as a sharpshooter with a heart of gold. Hitting closer to home, when Porter and the Spewacks began casting the all-important role of Lilli Vanessi, Kate’s female lead, they thought instantly of Mary Martin. She turned them down for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.

Making matters worse, the Spewacks were supported by a motley crew of an artistic team consisting of a brilliant set designer (Lemuel “Lem” Ayers, who had created the Oklahoma! plains) and a veteran stage manager (Arnold “Saint” Subber), both unproven as producers. The director was a producer, John C. Wilson, most famous for mounting Noël Coward’s works in America. He had never directed a musical before. For that matter, the Spewacks were perceived as playwrights, not librettists. None of them, except for Bella, particularly wanted Porter.

How wrong they were. Porter worked uncharacteristically hard on Kiss Me, Kate, taking particular care to integrate his songs with the Spewacks’ book. By opening night of tryouts in Philadelphia, the text of the show was set, not to be changed, a phenomenon all but unknown in Broadway musicals. Furthermore, the challenge of composing a unified “musical play” liberated the erudite Porter, resulting in the most sophisticated and purely musical score of his career. The contrasting worlds of Shakespeare’s Padua and backstage Baltimore are drawn in complementary musical vernaculars, flitting from the Renaissance madrigal of “Tom, Dick, or Harry” to the Bowery waltz of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” The Porterian cadence of minor to major, lending such previous hits as “Begin the Beguine” an exotic Middle Eastern air, becomes a dramaturgical device here, uniting like and unlike songs. In Porter’s most overtly Wagnerian moment, Fred Graham/Petruchio sings “So in Love” at a crucial stage in the action, picking up the tune from Lilli Vanessi/Kate, even though he hadn’t been onstage for her rendition. The effect is sublime, of a dream remembered, or of a romantic kinship with unspeakable depths. Porter, who for so long had endowed lusty thoughts with double meanings, was now letting his music limn ineffable emotions, writing lieder worthy of Strauss or Debussy. “The climax comes quite a while before the end of the song,” Porter would say about it, elliptically, “a situation that would never have been accepted 20 years ago.”

But old habits die hard. The last two songs added to the show have proven two of the most popular, and would not be out of place in a 1930s musical revue. Harold Lang, who played Bill Calhoun, had angered Porter during rehearsals, showing up late for calls, and with a much-too-large codpiece. Not yet the star he would become after the 1952 revival of Pal Joey, he was nonetheless petulant and unhappy, complaining about his lack of a dance solo. One evening, Porter invited Lisa Kirk (Lois Lane, Bill’s counterpart) back to his penthouse for drinks, and began whistling a tune on the elevator, finishing it before they reached the 41st floor. He turned to her, and said simply, “It’s Harold’s Number.” Sure enough, in the show, Bill Calhoun whistles as he wows the audience with “Bianca,” a showstopping dance number.

The last tune added, and one that would strain relations with the Spewacks (“Bella will probably cut her throat when she gets this,” Porter said when mailing it), is “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” Unexpected, unwelcome, and entirely ingenious, “Brush Up” was a ribald list song for the gangsters in the show, dotted with doggerel rhymes, much in the style of his greatest hits from the 1930s. As Bella eventually realized, incorrigibility would win out over integration, showbiz over Shakespeare. When Kate Cole, Porter’s beloved mother, came to the opening night of Kiss Me, Kate, she sat, stone-faced, through much of the show, letting most of the racy lyrics pass by unnoticed. When the company got to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” and Porter’s immortal couplet, “Just acclaim a few lines from Othello / And she’ll think you’re a helluva fella,” she turned to her companion and said, smiling, “Cole is a naughty boy.”

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