BY CARY GINELL
Cabrillo Music Theatre’s “Kiss Me, Kate,” which begins a nine-show run at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza October 18, is a show that could not have come at a more opportune time in the life and career of Cole Porter. In the spring of 1948, Porter, who was used to having hit after hit in the 1930s, had experienced three flops in a row: the Broadway musicals “Seven Lively Arts” and “Around the World in 80 Days” (the latter produced by Orson Welles), and the M-G-M film “The Pirate” (starring box office sensations Gene Kelly and Judy Garland). The prevailing notion amongst the press and the public was that Porter’s best days were behind him, and at the age of 57, he began to believe that his stature as one of show business’s most prolific and successful composers had become irrevocably tarnished. Faced with an increasingly bleak future, he was actually considering writing a score for a soap opera when his attention was directed to a proposed musical version of William Shakespeare’s comedy “The Taming of the Shrew.”
The idea to transform “The Taming of the Shrew” into a musical originated with Arnold Saint Subber, a young stage manager, and Lemuel Ayers, a designer of sets and costumes. Saint Subber had witnessed a backstage quarrel between Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne during a performance of “Shrew” and thought the argument would make a great sketch. Subber and Ayers talked playwright Bella Spewack into writing the book for a proposed musical and the three began discussing possible storylines. Spewack eventually recruited her husband and writing partner Samuel into completing the book. Spewack was never fond of Shakespeare’s original but thought it could work on Broadway if it were given a different context, so she decided to turn it into a behind-the-scenes look at the staging of a Broadway-bound production of “Shrew,” starring an embattled ex-husband-and-wife. When it came time to select someone to write the score, Saint Subber and Ayers first chose Burton Lane, whose “Finian’s Rainbow” was then the toast of Broadway. When Lane proved to be unavailable, Spewack suggested Porter. The producers, claming that Porter was on his way out as a Broadway force, could not talk Spewack out of it and reluctantly went along with her choice.
When approached by Spewack, Porter was initially repelled by the idea, believing that the concept was too highbrow and would not have sufficient mass appeal, ignoring the fact that his own songs had thrived in such a fashion for years. Spewack, however, was not to be denied, and after much brow-beating and wheedling, she wore Porter down until he consented to write the score.
During the time “Kiss Me, Kate” was being produced, Cole Porter was suffering from a variety of physical maladies, including an ulcer and persistent shin pain form a collision with his Schipperke dog. Through all this discomfort, as well as the depression he was experiencing due to his run of professional misfortunes, it was a wonder that Porter wrote such brilliantly romantic songs as “So in Love” and expansive, hilarious numbers like “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” Even up to the night of the opening, when his friends told him that “Kiss Me, Kate” would be the biggest smash of his career, Porter dreaded yet another flop. His fears, however, were unwarranted. After the Broadway premiere, Porter attended a cast party held at a lavish apartment of one of the show’s backers. As Porter entered the foyer, Saint Subber, who was standing on a second floor landing, waved a copy of the New York Times and yelled down at him: “Cole! The Times is out and it’s a hit!” Porter, who rarely walked without the aid of a cane because of a debilitating horseback riding accident sustained in 1937, threw his cane to the floor and bounded up the grand marble staircase, unassisted, to greet Saint Subber. It was probably the proudest moment of his life.
“Kiss Me, Kate” was not only a smash hit during the 1948-49 season, it became the most successful and best-loved musical of Cole Porter’s career. The score is rife with rip-roaring humor, outrageous contemporary references, and touching sentimentality, as Porter utilized all of his musical experience in creating songs drawn from jazz, vaudeville, and even old Vienna. It would become one of the most admired and honored scores in Broadway history. The original Broadway production, which starred Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison, ran for over 1,000 performances and, in 1949, won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Composer & Lyricist. A film version, shot in 3-D and starring Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson, was released in 1953. Drake and Morison returned in 1958 to star in a television production for “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” with Julie Wilson playing the role filled by Lisa Kirk in the original Broadway cast. “Kiss Me, Kate” was popularly revived in 1999 in a Broadway production starring Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie, which won five Tonys, including Best Revival of a Musical.
Next – an interview with Patricia Morison, the original “Kate” in the 1948-49 Broadway production. For dates and showtimes of Cabrillo Music Theatre’s “Kiss Me, Kate,” see the VC On Stage Calendar of Events.