Tomorrow, July 28th, will mark sixty-seven years since the original Broadway production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate gave its 1,077th and final performance at the Shubert Theatre in 1951. It had moved there from the New Century Theatre (demolished in 1962), and has always made me wonder if whoever sang the male lead had fun with the lyric “Like a show that’s typically Shuberty” (to rhyme with “puberty), during “Where is the Life That Late I Led,” on the stage of the flagship theatre bearing its owners’ name. Such sophisticated wit was Porter's stock-in-trade, and Kiss Me, Kate provided a late career triumph for the composer, whose first contribution to Broadway had been a song titled "As I Love You" in a 1915 musical Hands Up, that featured Will Rogers, just before he broke into "the big time."
Patricia Morison and Alfred Drake in Kiss Me, Kate (1948).
Porter was fifty-seven when Kiss Me, Kate premiered and it would turn out to be the longest running show of his career, one that included such famous titles as Leave It To Me, Gay Divorce, Fifty Million Frenchmen, Red Hot and Blue, Panama Hattie, Mexican Hayride, DuBarry Was a Lady ... wait! Come to think of it, these titles aren't famous at all anymore. They mean virtually nothing today as the shows are rarely (if ever) revived. With the exception of Porter's Anything Goes (revived twice on Broadway in 1987 and 2011, and once quite successfully Off-Broadway in 1962), the bulk of Porter's repertoire has gone the way of the dinosaur. But all of those above mentioned shows were big hits in their day and starred the starriest of musical comedy performers—Bert Lahr, Fred Astaire and, of course, Ethel Merman. The "Merm" appeared in five Porter shows and all were hits (such was her star power at the time).
Regardless of whether the shows themselves have lingered in memory, Porter's brilliant words and music will be with us forever. It mustn't be forgotten that in his heyday, the books for Broadway musicals were often thought of as mere means to an end ("Let's get to the next musical number!"). Having the songs advance the plot began in earnest with Show Boat in 1927, before becoming radicalized in 1943 by Oklahoma! Once that sea change occurred, Porter had a difficult time integrating his style of songs to a strong book. He continued with light-hearted comedies such as Mexican Hayride, and writing songs for the revue Seven Lively Arts. He was hardly interested in moving in the direction of more groundbreaking, and often darker fare, such as Carousel and Lady in the Dark. These shows were not the sort favored by the stylings of Porter (although if so challenged, he probably could have come up with a wonderful score for Lady in the Dark).
For a true appreciation of Porter as an artist, there is no need to look any further than Stephen Sondheim's 2010 book, Finishing the Hat, where he heaps praise on Porter's talents, emphatically stating that "technically, in both music and lyrics, no one is better than Porter and few are his equals."
Porter on the cover of Time Magazine (1949), shortly after the opening of Kiss Me, Kate.
If you doubt that, Kiss Me, Kate provides the proof. It was a revelation when it opened in 1948. Not only did Porter offer a score that had one great song after another, he married them to an original concept. Its book, by the husband and wife writing team of Sam and Bella Spewack, was a loving valentine to vain actors, involving ex-lovers cast as Petruchio and Kate in Taming of the Shrew. Its behind-the-scenes satire of how a show gets produced, complete with inside theatre jokes as well as that oldest of farcical situations—mistaken identity—by way of gangsters on the lookout for an actor in the show who hasn't paid his gambling debts, leading to their hounding its leading man. It's all pretty silly, but in Porter's capable hands, sophistication abounds. At the 3rd Tony Awards ceremony it took home five awards, including Best Musical.
Kiss Me, Kate starred Alfred Drake, who was the most in-demand musical theatre actor of the 1940s. Having created the role of Curly in Oklahoma!, Drake proceeded to star in four musicals in four years before taking on the role of the egotistical and flamboyant Fred Graham. His leading lady was Patricia Morison, who never quite got the star treatment her talents deserved. Strikingly beautiful, a wonderful singer and actress, she only just passed away in May, after having celebrated her 103rd birthday. Near the end of the long-running The King and I, Morison played "I" to the original "King," Yul Brynner. Of all the Miss Anna's he played opposite, it was Morison who Brynner requested perform "Shall We Dance?" with him on the 25th anniversary Tony Awards broadcast in 1971, where together they stopped the show.
Yul Brynner and Patricia Morison in The King and I (1954).