Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Broadway Bliss—Shakespeare and Porter

Patricia Morrison, Alfred Drake, Lisa Kirk, and Harold Lang in the original Broadway production of Kiss Me Kate.

Cole Porter had a problem.  More than one, actually.  One of the most acclaimed composers and lyricists of his time was in the midst of a long dry spell.  The onset of World War II had driven him from his beloved Paris where he had churned out hit after hit while living an extravagant life style.  Back home in the U.S. and in constant pain from a horseback riding accident left both of his legs crushed, he had not had a genuine Broadway hit since DuBarry Was a Lady with Ethyl Merman and Burt Lahr in 1939.  His two most successful subsequent shows produced no hits or durable standards, three others had modest runs, and two were out and out flops.  Although he continued to contribute memorable songs to a string of Hollywood movie musicals, he yearned to once again reclaim the stage triumphs of shows like Anything Goes.
Worse than that, Porter saw an old rival who he considered to be no more than a journeyman lyricist—Oscar Hammerstein II—rise to unprecedented success.  Hammerstein, the son of a famed theatrical producer had collaborated with the like of Jerome Kern, Sigmund Romberg, and others producing a long string of hits.  He had teamed up with tunesmith Richard Rodgers, former partner of Lorenz Hart, and together they had created Oklahoma! in 1943, a show that revolutionized musical theater by fully integrating the songs and dance numbers into advancing the plot.  Almost immediately the revue style shows and flimsy farces during in which songs were inserted almost at random—the kinds of shows Porter had mastered—were out of fashion.
Porter was frankly not sure that he was capable of writing one of the new book shows.  His specialty was highly sophisticated patter laden with innuendo and often wry detachment which he did not think would lend themselves well to the new form. 
Then Bella Spewack approached him with an interesting proposition—collaboration on a musical based on William Shakespeare’s bawdy comedy, The Taming of the Shrew.  Bella was the distaff half of a prolific playwriting couple.  But she was currently estranged from her stormy relationship with husband Samuel Spewack.  Both were Eastern European born Jewish emigrants to New York who had met while working on the Socialist Daily Call.  The state of her tempestuous marriage clearly attracted Spewack to the project.
Despite the enormous differences in their backgrounds and politics—Porter was a wealthy WASP from Indiana who, as far as he had any politics at all, was a Republican—the composer agreed to give it a try.  At first it did not go well.  The tunes did not flow.  There was trouble with the book.  Eventually Samuel was brought in as a collaborator.  Working sessions were tense, and Porter clashed with the valuable male partner of the writing duo.
It was Porter who arrived at a solution to a major problem.  Instead of just setting the Bard’s play to music, why not make it a backstage musical and feature a show within a show—an operetta of the play being performed by bickering stars who mimic their personas on stage.  For bickering dialogue, the Spewack’s had a wealth of experience to draw on and Porter was comfortable in backstage milieu similar to some of his previous plays and several of the movies to which he had contributed.
Once that decision was made, things went much better.  Porter was able to salvage songs written for the original play and add very different material, to the behind the scenes high jinx. 
In the Spewack’s book an egotistic writer/director/producer, Fred Graham, is putting on a musical production of The Shrew casting himself, naturally as Petruchio and his ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi, as Katherine.  She is a full blown diva who returns to the stage after her once glittering career as a movie star begins to dim.  Graham seems to have an ulterior motive for the casting—to win back his ex-love.  All of the action takes place on opening night of the musical.  His ambitions are thwarted by being caught with a roving eye for the ingĂ©nue, Lois Lane—not Superman’s paramour—who plays Bianca.  Lois’s ne’re-do-well boyfriend, Bill Calhoun who doubles as Lucentio provides complication by signing a gambling marker for 10 Gs in Graham’s name attracting to Damon Runioneque hoods out to collect their boss’s money.  Fussing, fighting, and hilarity ensue on stage and off.

Morrison consults with Cole Porter during the recording of the original cast album.

Saint Subber and Lemuel Ayers, the producers, came up with brilliant casting.  For Graham/Petruchio they snared Alfred Drake, a handsome, booming voiced baritone who had catapulted to fame in the original production of Oklahoma!  Born Alfred Capurro in New York as the son of Italian emigrant parents from Genoa, he was perfect for the part.  Mezzo-soprano Patricia Morison as Lilli/Kate had a career that mirrored the part she played.  An exotic, raven haired beauty she had mostly minor rolls on Broadway in the 30’s before being signed by Paramount Pictures looking for a clone of their big star Dorothy Lamour.  She appeared in a string of mostly B movies, usually cast as the villainess, vamp, or other woman in both dramas and minor musicals.  She occasionally got leads in forgettable films.  So she was more of a starlet than a star.  But she gained a lot of attention when she went on a USO tour to Britain in 1943 with Al Jolson and Merle Oberon.  Her singing was broadcast back home.  Her voice, her striking beauty, and here experience with mercurial movie rolls made her a perfect fit for her bow as a Broadway leading lady.  Morrison, by the way, is still alive at 99 years of age and was active enough to sing a number from the show last year at a charity event.
Rounding out the cast were husky voiced alto Lisa Kirk, an accomplished comedienne and dancer as Lois/Bianca and British dancer Harold Lang as Bill/ Lucentio.
Kiss Me Kate had a short, hugely successful, three week try out in Philadelphia before opening on December 30, 1948 at the New Century Theatre, where it ran for nineteen months before transferring to the Shubert, for a total run of 1,077 performances.  It was by far Cole Porter’s longest running Broadway show.  Everything about the eye catching production wowed the critics and public alike—especially Porter’s songs.
It was an especially rich collection of future standards and memorable specialty and novelty numbers including in the original production the curtain raising Another Opening of Another Show, Wunderbar, So In Love, Tom Dick or Harry, I Hate Men, Too Darn Hot, Always True to You in My Fashion, Bianca, Brush Up Your Shakespeare, and the finale for both Act I and Act II, Kiss Me Kate.
The show nearly dominated the Tony Awards for 1949, the first year in which musicals were included in the competition.  It took home Best Musical, Best Author/Book for the battling Spewacks, Best Score for Porter, Best Producer for Subber and Ayers, and best costume design for Ayers.  Its four stars, however lost out to the cast of another show that opened that year, a little thing called South Pacific.
After the Broadway run ended, Morison successfully stared in a London East End production.
Kiss Me Kate has subsequently been revived successfully several times in both London and New York as well as enjoying productions around the world.  Most memorable was a 1999 Broadway revival that took home five Tony Awards, and five Drama Desk Awards.  It also was mounted several times on television on both sides of the Atlantic including a live 1958 production with the original cast.
Ann Miller, Bobby Van, Bob Fosse, and Tommy Rall in one of the dazzling dance numbers from the MGM musical.
But most people are familiar the show from its dazzling mounting as an MGM Technicolor extravaganza in 1953.  All of the major parts were re-cast.  MGM had its own deep pool of musical talent.  The beautiful Katheryn Grayson and the studio’s resident theatrical soprano, hot off the success of Show Boat was cast as Lilly.  Howard Keel was the big—6’4”—hyper masculine baritone who was an MGM heartthrob in such blockbuster musicals as Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat, and Calamity Jane was a natural for the male lead.  Leggy Ann Miller, then the reigning queen of the tap dance whose numbers stopped a lot of films, took over as Lois and Bianca.  Dancer Tommy Rall was the least known of the four leads and he shared memorable dance numbers with a couple of other rising hoofers Bobby Van and Bob Fosse.
In the movie the relatively minor characters of the two hoods, Lippy and Slug, were particular scene stealers.  Veteran character actor Keenan Wynn was cast as Lippy and rising star James Whitmore, known best then for his gritty soldiers in war films was Slug.  Their rendition of Brush Up Your Shakespeare is rightly considered a movie musical classic.
The movie also inserted a character named Cole Porter as the composer of the staged Taming of the Shrew.

1 comment:

  1. As said elsewhere, while Brush up your Shakespeare is funny in the movie, the Hayes Office so censored it from the staged production that it is a different number.

    In the production I did, one of the hoods was my fellow Shimer student Drew Eschelman.