Seventy-three years ago tonight, the original Broadway production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate opened at the New Century Theatre (now demolished). The musical, a clever show-within-a-show about a troupe of eccentric actors performing Taming of the Shrew, provided a late career triumph for the composer (he was fifty-seven). His first contribution to Broadway had been a song titled “Esmeralda” in a 1915 musical Hands Up. At the time, Porter was a young upstart who had only graduated from Yale two years prior, although he’d gotten in some practice there. It is said that while at the university he composed some three hundred songs. In fact, his football fight songs “Bulldog” and “Bingo Eli Yale (aka “Bingo, That’s the Lingo), are still played at games.
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 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 — Fred Astaire, Bert Lahr 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 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 (get to the next musical number — and quickly!). 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 was slow to keep up with the times. Mexican Hayride (1944) was silly and light-hearted, followed that same year by a revue, Seven Lively Arts, which could only run five months, even though it produced the now classic standard “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” Moving in the direction of more groundbreaking, and often darker fare, such as Carousel and Lady in the Dark were not for him. Although if so challenged, one wonders if he could have come up with as wonderful a score for Lady in the Dark as Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin? The bottom line is that even after his phenomenal success with Kiss Me, Kate, Porter forever remained within the safe boundaries of musical comedy.
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.”
Perhaps of all the Porter musicals, Kiss Me, Kate provides proof for Sondheim’s statement. It was a revelation when it opened in 1948. Not only did the score offer one great song after another, they were married to an original concept. Its book, by the husband and wife writing team of Sam and Bella Spewack, was a loving valentine to every vain actor who tread the boards, involving ex-lovers Fred and Lilli 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. It’s all pretty dumb, 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 passed away in May of 2018 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.
Oddly, Kiss Me, Kate wasn’t revived on Broadway for fifty-one years. But in 1999, a very successful production directed by Michael Blakemore and starring Brian Stokes Mitchell and the late Marin Mazzie, won the Tony Award for Best Musical Revival (Blakemore and Stokes won Tonys as well). In 2019, the Roundabout Theatre Company brought it back to Broadway with Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase, but it was not considered on a par with the 1999 production. The plot line and characters were toyed with for political correctness and purists were not happy about it (count me among them). Still, any show that offers songs as good as “Too Darn Hot,” as good an Act Two opener as there’s ever been, will never fail to entertain.
The whole score for Kiss Me, Kate boasts genuine winners: “Another Op’nin’, Another Show”, “Why Can’t You Behave?”, “Wunderbar”, “So In Love”, “Tom, Dick or Harry”, “I Hate Men”, “Where is the Life That Late I Led”, “Always True to You Darling in My Fashion, “Bianca,” “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” and the aforementioned “Too Darn Hot” attest to that. “Bianca” includes my favorite lyric in the whole show:
I would gladly give up coffee for Sanka.
Even Sanka, Bianca
Gee, does anyone even know what Sanka is anymore? Does anyone still wear a hat?
In the years following, Porter composed Out of This World (1950), Can-Can(1953) and Silk Stockings (1955), but none came close to approaching the perfection that was Kiss Me, Kate. For the most part, they were able to run based on Porter’s popularity (Out of This World less so — only six months). But keep in mind that these were the days where Broadway show songs were covered by hundreds of singers and played on the radio all day long. “It’s All Right With Me” and “I Love Paris” (Can-Can) and “All of You” (Silk Stockings) provided audiences a taste and so, they went to hear the rest.
Sadly, the last years of Porter’s life were not happy ones, mainly due to the accident that had crushed his legs while riding a horse in 1937 and had left him permanently disabled. As the music and theatre historian Robert Kimball wrote: “Despite more than thirty operations over the years, and constant pain for the rest of his life, his courage remained enormous, his spirit indomitable, and his creative skill unimpaired. He finally lost the will to write, however, after the amputation of his right leg in 1958. He died in Santa Monica, California, six years later.”
Even had he been a one-hit wonder with Kiss Me, Kate, a show so well-written and entertaining would probably have still allowed Porter a certain level of standing in the American musical theatre. Lucky for us, he wrote or contributed to an astounding 29 Broadway shows. And as Irving Berlin once wrote Porter in a letter, inverting the lyrics to his own song, “Anything I can do, you can do better.”
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.