Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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KISSES

On this date, the original Broadway production of Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate gave its final performance at the New Century Theater after 1,077 performances. Nearly three years earlier, this was Porter's late career triumph and one for which he had been pining. The exemplar of sophistication in the 1930s, his last two attempts on Broadway had been failures (although one of those shows, a revue called The Seven Lively Arts, produced one of his greatest standards, "Ev'rytime We Say Goodbye").

Patricia Morrison and Alfred Drake in Kiss Me, Kate (1948)

Kiss Me, Kate would turn out to be the longest running show of Porter's 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 never 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 his 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 the power of Ethel Merman at the time). It surely must have made Porter believe the audience would always be there for him as well. That is, until they weren't.

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 he came up at a time when the books for Broadway musicals were often thought of as mere means to an end ("Let's get to the next musical number!"). All that changed with Oklahoma! in 1943, and from then on, Porter had a much more difficult time integrating his songs with a strong book to make for the kind of musical audiences and critics were becoming accustomed to with groundbreaking (and often darker fare) like Carousel and 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 recent book Finishing the Hat, where he heaps great praise on Porter's talents, describing him as having the attitude of the amused observer. "He was always the character who sang his songs." Sondheim also states emphatically that "technically, in both music and lyrics, no one is better than Porter and few are his equals."

It's one of the reasons that Kiss Me, Kate was such a revelation when it opened in 1948. Not only did Porter offer a score that had one great song after another, he married them with an original concept. Its book, by the husband and wife writing team of Sam and Bella Spewack, was a witty valentine to vain actors, involving ex-lovers cast as Petruchio and Kate in Taming of the Shrew. It also offered a behind-the-scenes satire of how a show gets produced with inside jokes about the theatre and its denizens. With the injection of gangsters looking for an actor in the show who hasn't paid his gambling debts, the plot leads to their thinking it's the leading man who is their "client," and that oldest of farcical situations—mistaken identity. It's silly, but manages a certain sophistication, which was always Porter's stock-in-trade. At the 3rd Tony Awards ceremony it took home five awards, including Best Musical.

Kate starred Alfred Drake, one of the most desired leading men of the day, appearing in such hits as Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms and creating the role of Curly in Oklahoma! His leading lady was Patricia Morison, who never quite got the star treatment her talents deserved. Strikingly beautiful, a wonderful singer and actress, she lives in Los Angeles and recently celebrated her 101st birthday.

Oddly, it was never revived on Broadway until 1999, when a production directed by Michael Blakemore and starring Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie won the Tony Award for Best Musical Revival (Blakemore and Stokes won Tonys as well). It ran for two years and gave proof positive of the endurance of this property. If you've never heard of the songs "Another Openin', Another Show", "Why Can't You Behave?", "Wunderbar", "So In Love", "Tom, Dick or Harry", "I Hate Men", "Too Darn Hot", "Where is the Life That Late I Led", "Always True to You Darling in My Fashion", "From This Moment On" and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare", then where have you been? And I left a few titles off—that's not even the complete score. It's really one of the best ever composed for a musical.

The last years of Porter's life were not happy ones. A combination of his feeling left out of the game and ill health plagued him. He died in 1964, almost ten years after Silk Stockings, his last Broadway show had opened. But if he only wrote Kiss Me, Kate he would have a standing in the American musical theatre. Lucky for us, he wrote or contributed to an astounding 29 Broadway shows.

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© 2016 Ron Fassler - All rights Reserved

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