Ad for the new revival. Photo: Leida Snow
With “Kiss Me, Kate” once more lighting up Broadway in previews and due to open March 14th, fans of the classic musical might be mulling on the show’s misogynistic foundation in Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
The co-writer of the show’s narrative structure was once quoted as calling “Shrew” Shakespeare’s “slap your wife around and she’ll thank you for it play.” That was Bella Spewack who, with her husband Sam, created the book for many shows and films in the 1930’s through to the ’50’s. But in their successful body of work, “Kate” was recognized as something special. It was the first musical to win the top Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award in 1949. It was composer Cole Porter’s masterpiece, with dazzling music matched by witty lyrical wonders: “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” “So In Love,” “Too Darn Hot,” Always True To You (In My Fashion),” “Why Can’t You Behave?” among them. But it was also “a masterpiece of musical theatre,” as Alan Jay Lerner notes in his book about Broadway. Lerner, the great “My Fair Lady” lyricist, points out the imaginative play-within-a-play construction of the book for Kate, that interweaves Shakespeare’s “Shrew” into the story of a tumultuous backstage romance.
Revivals of “Kate” are left facing the problematic sexism in the original Shakespeare play. Sometimes, a director can make subtle changes in stage action without altering a word of dialogue. At the end of one revival of “Fiddler On the Roof,” minor costume modifications transformed the Jews leaving Anatevka into refugees in our own time. In the current “My Fair Lady,” Eliza is shown leaving Professor Higgins by the way she exits the final scene.
In the original 1948 “Kate,” the leading lady got spanked. That wouldn’t work for today’s #MeToo audiences, so that’s gone and the dialogue had to be tweaked. In reviving the musical, the producers looking to soften the sexism couldn’t make any revisions without running into a thicket of intellectual rights holders — organizations, estates and individuals who have control over what goes up on stage.
In the 1999 revival of “Kate,” any reworking had to get a green light from Sam and Bella Spewack. Sam died in 1971, Bella in 1990. They had no children and willed their intellectual property rights to their close friends, Lois and Arthur Elias.
The Eliases were vigilant in seeing that the script in that production honed closely to the original. They were also insistent that no one get credit for the book except the Spewacks. After their deaths, that authority rests with their daughter, Minna Elias, who lives on the Upper West Side with her husband and two teenage children. The 58-year-old lawyer, who works in the federal government, takes her showbiz responsibilities seriously.
Over eggs Benedict near her Upper East Side office, Elias said that whatever issues are presented by the underlying material, she is certain that the work remains viable and potent today. “It’s important that the Spewacks get the credit they deserve,” she emphasized.
“I met with [Director] Scott Ellis,” she said. What they arrived at, along with those representing the Cole Porter estate, is that “any changes are surgical rather than significant.” Elias said that what they’re aiming for is a “‘Kate’ that can shine and not be seen as a relic of the past.”
Productions of “Kate” have always been flexible, Elias said, but for this Roundabout Theatre revival, starring Kelli O’Hara, Will Chase and Corbin Bleu, she believes the audience will understand why the leading lady in both the play (Lili) and the play-within-the-play (Kate), returns to the man she’s been fighting with. “This production solves the issues of ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’” she said. “It allows us to see the resolution as the coming together of two equals. Lilli/Kate is not tamed. She returns to the man she loves on her terms, and to the theater, where she can have fun and be her true self.”
Some changes in staging contributed to this concept, Elias added. For example, if Kate were spanked, that “would make a contemporary audience cringe.” And, she said, Lilli/Kate is given additional stage business. She and her co-star tussle physically. Kate is not subdued.
Purists may not like some of the changes. When a single word, “women” is changed to “people,” how many in the audience will notice the shift in the famous Shakespearean line so it becomes “I am ashamed that people are so simple”?
In a post, Roundabout’s Artistic Director and CEO Todd Haimes said: “It is exactly the work of a revival ... [to present] the truth of our past alongside the perspective of our present.”