New Yorkers picked up their newspapers on New Year’s Eve to find that the critics were hailing the musical, which had opened the night before at the New Century Theatre, as a witty send-up of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew—except that this time, the Bard’s knockdown battle-of-the-sexes became a play-within-a-play featuring divorced and feuding co-stars. Brooks Atkinson’s review in The New York Times, for instance—then, as now, the paper with the make-or-break authority on a production’s chances—pronounced it “a blissfully enjoyable musical show.”
Porter had not had a bona fide hit since Mexican Hayride in 1944. His next two, Seven Lively Arts and Around the World, led some to wonder if his heyday was over.
Far worse than these blows to his ego were the blows to his body and spirit he’d sustained after an accident in 1937. In the 1950s, a distant cousin of mine, an accomplished Irish soccer player and equestrian, died after being thrown from an unruly horse.
Tragic as it was, his death might have been a blessing compared with the hell that Porter went through following his similar catastrophe. By the time of his death in 1964, Porter had become a recluse following amputation of a leg and electroshock therapy that only temporarily relieved his depression. In all, he endured 30 operations in the quarter century following the riding accident that left him crippled for life.
Far more than the undeniable wit and sophistication of his lyrics, I find the most compelling part of Porter’s life to be the gallantry he displayed after the accident. I can only shake my head, in wonder and awe, when I think that he wrote Kiss Me, Kate while recuperating after the 21st of his post-accident operations.
Maybe the challenge of writing the musical diverted him, if only momentarily, from his mounting depression. The story of Kiss Me, Kate can be likened to a mirror reflecting a mirror reflecting yet a third. The book was written by the husband-and-wife team of Sam and Bella Spewack. If Porter had hoped for an experience working with the pair as pleasurable as it had been during Leave It to Me 10 years before, however, he was quickly disabused of the notion.
At the time they were contacted about doing the show, the couple had been separated for a few years. How on earth they managed to turn out one of the great musicals of the postwar period, I’ll never know.
In those days, the workshop method of ironing out problems with a production, conceived by Michael Bennett for A Chorus Line, was not the norm. Instead, productions would be drastically reworked out of town before a Broadway opening, in places like New Haven and Boston. Sometimes, such out-of-town reworkings led to triumph, the kind recounted in Moss Hart’s marvelous memoir Act One about his first collaboration with George S. Kaufman, Once in a Lifetime. In other instances, such unrelenting, concentrated pressure could only have led to nervous breakdowns.
Incredibly, in a case of life imitating art (imitating, of course, more art), the battling Spewacks decided they were still “So In Love,” and reunited.
Kiss Me, Kate was a triumph for all concerned, going on for 1,077 performances—the only one Porter musical ever to go over 1,000. Yes, the quartet of stars—Alfred Drake, Patricia Morrison, Lisa Kirk, and Harold Lang—was top-notch. And yes, the Spewacks provided Porter plenty of great material in their libretto.
But the real star of the show was Porter’s score. It simultaneously combined songs so specific to the show that they can’t be wrenched out of their original context (e.g., “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua”) with others that have entered the Great American Songbook, such as “So In Love,” “Always True to You in My Fashion,” and “Too Darn Hot.”
My favorite song of the bunch, however—one that has made it onto my iPod, as a matter of fact—is “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” The script lists the two characters who sing this as “First Man” and “Second Man,” but, we soon learn, they are two gentlemen from the underworld who offer, in Porter’s hilarious parody of mob patois, advice on how to woo a woman through culture (“If she says your behavior is heinous/Kick her right in the Coriolanus”).
The original male lead of Kiss Me, Kate, Alfred Drake, is reputed to have been blessed with an incredible voice and comic talent to go along with his matinee-idol looks. If so, he had a very worthy successor in his role as the egomaniacal Fred Graham/Petruchio in Brian Stokes Mitchell, who co-starred with Marin Mazzie in a 1999 revival that I was lucky to see.
But my favorite part of the show came after the cast took their final bows, and it involved not so much the estimable Mitchell but the two actors playing the gangsters, Michael Mulheren and Lee Wilkof. Mitchell came out, just before the audience was ready to leave, to urge us to contribute to one of Broadway’s traditional charities (I believe that this one involved AIDS).
“When you leave the theater, we’ll have two members of the cast collecting”—whereupon Mulheren and Wilkof stepped forward, with their hands noticeably thrust forward in their characters’ dark suit pockets—“and, as you can see, they can be very convincing and I’m afraid won’t take no for an answer!” Mitchell chuckled.