While Shakespeare’s plays are regularly turned into musicals these days, the origins of Kiss Me, Kate go far beyond the notion of making The Taming of the Shrew sing.
Back in 1935, there was perhaps no bigger pair of theatrical stars than the husband and wife team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. But while they sparkled on the stage, they had a different kind of spark behind the scenes. As the two performed in a production of Shrew, the verbal sparring between their characters became almost impossible to separate from the bickering between the Lunts themselves. A young stagehand named Arnold Saint Subber witnessed the backstage arguing and realized that it had a great deal of dramatic potential all its own.
Years later, Saint Subber, now a producer, decided to pursue the idea of this onstage/offstage marital fight in the form of a musical. He and partner Lemuel Ayers thought of the husband and wife writing team of Samuel and Bella Spewack to create the script. As fate would have it, the Spewacks were in a marital dispute of their own at the time, so Bella was approached on her own first. She jumped at the idea and knew exactly who should do the music and lyrics: Cole Porter.
Porter was already a wildly popular songwriter, but he had never composed a score that was fully integrated with the book of a show. In fact, almost no one had attempted to do so, with one major exception: Oklahoma! When that musical opened on Broadway in 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score caused a sensation. Their songs didn’t just divert – they actually advanced the plot. Porter was eager to try his hand at this approach himself, and he was intrigued by the duality offered by the onstage/offstage story. He immediately saw what fun could be had with writing songs both for the Shrew characters and for the people playing them.
As work on the show progressed, Bella Spewack realized that that her estranged husband could make a contribution, so they put aside their differences and began collaborating again, with Bella working on the structure and Sam concentrating on the humor, particularly for the gangster characters. Happily, life would later imitate art, with the Spewacks rekindling their own romance in time for the show to open in 1948, remaining together for the rest of their lives.
When Kiss Me, Kate opened, it was an immediate hit, with the New York Times praising it as “terribly enjoyable” and Variety declaring it “unquestionably a smash.” The show would win the first Tony Award for Best Musical ever given out, and it would run for more than 1000 performances on Broadway. Even in a career as fantastic as Cole Porter’s, it would be this show that was considered his greatest success.
2016-2017 Season, Special Events