A Battle Royale—On Stage…and Off

 

It’s a musical about a feuding divorced couple, based on a Shakespeare play about a knock down, drag out courtship, written by a married couple that, you guessed it, were notorious for their back stage rumbles. Is it any wonder most Broadway insiders fully expected Kiss Me Kate to kiss the Great White Way good-bye after opening night?

 

Yet, the skirmishes that surrounded the development of this 1948 masterpiece from the Golden Age of American Musicals actually proved more inspirational than detrimental to what would eventually be regarded as Cole Porter’s comeback musical.

 

What skirmishes, you ask? They are innumerable.

 

The Fight that Inspires the Play

 

Some would argue that marriage and theatre are a better combination for a Molotov cocktail than a dry martini. But for actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne the combination, by all appearances, proved inspirational. Not only were they two of the leading actors of their generation, but they were so committed to working together that they actually had a clause included in their Theatre Guild contract guaranteeing that they would never work on plays separately. Unlike most couples working in entertainment today, Lunt and Fontanne actually lived up to their commitment, performing in hundreds of productions together before their joint retirement in 1962.

 

Yet, was their marriage truly as idyllic as the press made it out to be?

 

Aspiring producer Saint Subber found out the answer while stage-managing a touring production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew in the early 1940’s. He would later claim that it was while watching Lunt and Fontanne’s fierce offstage arguments—arguments that apparently rivaled the violent tirades taking place on stage between Katharine and Petruchio—that inspired him to develop a play within a play about feuding actors performing The Taming of the Shrew.  

 

Yet, the idea of doing a musical version of a Shakespearian comedy proved no easy sell to Broadway financiers. By the late 1940’s, several attempts had already been attempted to put Shakespeare to music with mixed results. The first was Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys of Syracuse (1938), which offered audiences a fairly intact version of Comedy of Errors done in contemporary dialogue. The following year brought Swinging on a Dream, which set A Midsummer’s Night Dream in 19th Century New Orleans, complete with Jazz music, Voodoo magic, and Louise Armstrong belting out tunes in the role of Bottom. Although not exactly bombs, these past attempts didn’t exactly inspire financers to jump on board another Shakespeare musical venture.

 

Subber fortunately found a partner in Broadway set designer Lemuel Ayers during a chance encounter at a party. Ayers loved the idea so much that he immediately recruited his friends Sam and Bella Spewack to write the book for the show. The Spewacks proved a perfect choice. Former newspaper correspondents, they had turned to play and screen writing upon their return to the States and had developed a reputation as first rate comedy writers with their own fiery backstage relationship. 

 

Fighting for the Composer  

 

It was Bella Spewack who insisted Cole Porter do the music for Kiss Me Kate. Yet, this too proved a difficult sell. Today Cole Porter is considered one of the greatest composers in musical theatre, so many often forget that even a master like Porter suffered through artistic slumps.

 

In 1937, Porter’s legs were crushed in a riding accident which left him in a state of chronic pain and depression. Although he managed to write several hits show like Leave it to Me (1938) and Mexican Hayride (1944) in between over 30 surgeries on his legs and several electroshock treatments to cure his depression, many critics felt Porter’s music had lost its magic. By the late 1940’s, the composer of such American Musical masterworks as Anything Goes (1934) and Red, Hot and Blue (1936) was widely considered to be a “has-been”.

 

Nevertheless, the Spewacks insisted Porter was the perfect composer for the musical. They had worked with him on Leave it to Me (1938), and Bella in particular was so enamored with the gallant composer that she gave Subber the ultimate ultimatum: either there will be a Spewack-Porter Kiss Me Kate or no Kiss Me Kate at all.

 

Her steadfast loyalty paid off. With Kiss Me Kate, Porter reasserted himself as a master of the musical comedy with songs like Brush up Your Shakespeare and Wunderbar. It became his biggest hit, and was the only one of his shows to run over 1,000 performances on Broadway.

 

Dan Tarker

Literary Associate