We started work on this project a year ago, so I’ve had a long time to think about Kiss Me, Kate and what precisely makes it so special. One of the reasons it isn’t produced often is because it’s very hard to do. You need a company of triple-threats who can dance, sing, and act. Most importantly, you need two actors of extraordinary depth and humor for Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi. And they have to be great singers. And they have to be able to handle Shakespeare!
When you look at The Taming of the Shrew, it forces you to think about gender. “Shrew-taming” is a topic we find distasteful, but Shakespeare looks at it unsparingly and in surprising ways, as he did everything. In the case of Kiss Me, Kate, Shakespeare gets funneled through 1940s attitudes about gender, and it becomes a different kind of play, a comedy of divorce and remarriage. I have always thought the first scene of Kiss Me, Kate is more like Coward’s Private Lives than it is like The Taming of the Shrew. Fred and Lilli reconnect in the dressing room and you watch them working through the subtext of everything they feel about each other. There is a lot of passion brewing just beneath the surface.
Lilli and Fred, unlike Kate and Petruchio, have a very modern relationship. They are two stars of the stage, now divorced. She’s gone to Hollywood and had some success, but her temper has gotten in the way of her own career. They say she has such a terrible temper that she “bit King Kong and gave him rabies,” and we see her temper played out backstage and onstage. She’s come back to be in this production with her ex, a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, which is on its out-of-town tryout in Baltimore. From that first moment you see them, it is crystal clear that they are meant to be together, and yet it takes them the length of the musical to muster up the courage to say it to each other. The journey in between is fascinating, because you see all the funny parts of their defensiveness and the walls they have put up.
Now, the book for Kate was technically written by Sam and Bella Spewack, but if you look closely you can see Bella’s fingerprints all over the work. Sam had one major contribution, which was the gangsters, those lovely gentlemen. But Bella wrote most of the book. And this is very much a woman’s take on Shakespeare’s play. Lilli is a strong and imperfect character, every bit the equal of Fred. The balance between them is that of two free agents.
The other thing that makes Kate so special is the music and lyrics of Cole Porter. When you think Cole Porter, you think of urbanity, of cosmopolitan and sophisticated tastes. You don’t necessarily think of someone with deep passion. Porter was, of course, a gay man, and if you look at his letters from the 1920s, when he was living in Venice, he writes of the pain in his clandestine love affairs. The depth of passion and tremendous longing in his letters makes them almost excruciating to read. Porter summons these unexpected emotions in “So in Love,” when Lilli sings:
[…] taunt me, and hurt me.
Deceive me, desert me,
I’m yours, till I die
So in love with you am I
There’s no question about the depth of feeling already there, 20 minutes into the evening, and that’s one of the things I want to capture with this production.
The other main couple is Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun. Lois is a club singer making her “legitimate” debut in the theatre. This is her big chance, and she doesn’t want to mess it up. Bill is similar, but he has a vice: he loves to gamble. They’re both incurable flirts, and they have a very different kind of relationship, in counterpoint to Fred and Lilli, much like Bianca and Lucentio have a completely different dynamic from Kate and Petruchio in Shakespeare’s play.
On top of these relationships, there is also the mise en scène: Kiss Me, Kate is the ultimate backstage musical. We have the rare opportunity to show the magic and the mystery of life backstage: the fun and hijinks, the drinking and flirting, the sex. “Too Darn Hot” is going to be too darn hot in our version. I’ve been fascinated by the photographer Rivka Katvan, who captures this tone in her book Backstage: Broadway Behind the Curtain. (You’ll see several of her photos later in this issue of Asides.)
Kiss Me, Kate is the ultimate valentine to the theatre and I’m so thrilled to direct it. It’s my chance to direct an unabashedly lush and romantic production that harkens back to all I love about the Golden Age of Broadway.
Adapted from Alan Paul’s address to the cast on the first day of rehearsal.