One of the side effects of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s invention of the Musical Play in the Forties with such works as Carousel and South Pacific was the make the Operetta genre (which was already falling out of favor by that point) almost completely redundant. After all, Musical Plays essentially offered the same passionate music and dramatic fireworks as Operetta, but with plots that made sense and characters that resembled actual human beings.
Old-style Operetta continued to get made as late as the Sixties, but apart from one fluke hit called Song of Norway, they invariably flopped when they played the genre’s conventions straight. The only works in the genre to succeed, therefore, were the ones that tried to subvert and modernize the genre’s more dated elements. The Fifties would give us two such shows in Kismet and Candide (even if the latter would not find success until decades after its original production), but the first work in this field, and the one that proved Operetta could be modernized an audience used to the musical-theater renaissance of the Forties and Fifties, was legendary songwriter Cole Porter’s Magnum Opus for the theater, Kiss Me Kate.
This show has some unmistakable earmarks of an Operetta, with its Shakespearean source material and lush romantic music, but these elements are blended heavily with the Musical Comedy tropes of Porter’s early years, in effect creating an Operetta/Musical Comedy fusion very different from the one found in the Rodgers and Hammerstein-style Musical Play.
The show is an archetypical retelling of Shakespeare’s classic farce The Taming of the Shrew, told through a ferocious duel of passions between two ex-lovers who are in the process of performing in a musical production of the original play. This was probably a wiser idea than trying to do a straightforward adaptation, since the gender politics of Shakespeare’s play were uncomfortably dated even by 1940s standards. Unfortunately, the show’s book really has no more dramatic integrity than Porter’s Musical Comedies from the Twenties and Thirties. The song cues are often completely unmotivated, and there are several blatantly extraneous characters who exist for no other reason than to deliver songs. The show takes every opportunity it can to recite passages of Shakespeare’s dialogue word for word, probably because this gloss on the original plot isn’t really substantial enough to fill out a two-hour show on its own and the play-within-a-play scenes are a convenient source of filler.
However, despite all these flaws, the show still managed to attain the ranks of the top-level theater classics. It’s almost impossible for a Broadway Musical’s score to overpower an inadequate book, but this one manages it. Some of the music sounds virtually indistinguishable from a traditional Operetta, such as the mock-Viennese waltz of “Wunderbar” or the opulent romantic ballad “So in Love”. Much of the material for the play-within-a-play even attempts a period-appropriate Elizabethan sound, particularly Petruchio’s three big solos “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua”, “Were Thine That Special Face?”, and “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?”, and Katherina’s ferociously trilling credo “I Hate Men”. On the other hand, several of the songs are pure Jazz, such as “Tom, Dick or Harry”, “Too Darn Hot”, and “Always True to You, Darling (In My Fashion)”.
Most of the score sticks to Porter’s standard formulas: comedic list songs, lush, sensuous ballads, hot Jazz showstoppers, and lots of highly risqué double-entendres (“Tom, Dick or Harry” actually got away with repeatedly using the word “dick” in what is clearly meant to be its modern context). There was even a highly original number, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”, that managed to transform deliberate awfulness into comedy gold. This may have been the first prominent use of intentional camp on Broadway, and it would prove to have immense influence on everything from the “Baby June” numbers in Gypsy to such deliberately campy musicals as The Rocky Horror Show.
But overall, Porter had done almost everything he does in this score before, and usually just as well or even better. What made the show special is how much of that quality was now concentrated in one place. Porter has a reputation for consistent genius among those who only know him from his hits, but most of his theater scores are actually quite uneven. Nearly all of his Thirties shows, as well as his last two hits, Can-Can and Silk Stockings, consist of a handful of sublime hits surrounded by a lot of pleasant-but-undistinguished musical filler. Even Anything Goes, before it was padded out with interpolations, had plenty of just-okay material in its original incarnation. The real thing that made Kiss Me, Kate different from earlier Porter was not any breakthrough in dramatic cohesion but the sheer consistency and quality control of the show’s score.
But even if Kate’s Operetta leanings were given a pass because of that score, it’s worth remembering what happened to Porter’s follow-up work in the same vein, Out of This World. Despite having a score that very nearly matched Kiss Me, Kate’s in terms of brilliance and consistency, the show flopped because of a dated book and presentation…exactly the problem that was killing Operetta in general.
Kate, on the other hand, has lasted long enough for modern gender politics to overleap even the relatively equal struggle portrayed in the outer play, resulting in the current revival doing some fairly heavy rewrites to the show’s book. Now, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do this kind of thing…after all, the version of Porter’s other enduring hit, Anything Goes, that we perform today is a revision of a revision, and is probably the better for it.
On the other hand, there was the notorious debacle of the Flower Drum Song “revisal” in the Nineties. Flower Drum Song had admittedly dated enough to require some revision in order to play acceptably to a modern audience, but all that really needed to entail was a rewrite of some of the more stereotypical dialogue in the piece. Unfortunately, it fell into the hands of some smartass Asian playwright who thought he was better than Hammerstein, and wound up with a completely new (and frankly idiotic) plot, resulting in an abject failure that is still spoken of with revulsion to this day.
The rewriting in the current revival of Kate, while not note-perfect, is far from the disaster mentioned above. The story is almost entirely intact, the songs (which, as stated before, are the show’s real raison d’etre) are virtually untouched, and the rewrites to the show’s book are arguably an improvement (remember that the parts of Kiss Me, Kate‘s libretto that are not cribbed from Shakespeare were by no means great writing to begin with).
The only really destructive change is the lyrical rewrite on “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple” (or, as the revival would have it, “I Am Ashamed that People Are So Simple”). They only really change two words in the entire song, but the changes show an utter lack of comprehension on the part of the revisionist (in this case, Amanda Green, the daughter of legendary lyricist/librettist Adolph Green). The entire point of the song is that it consists of a sexist monologue from The Taming of the Shrew delivered by the actress to mean the exact opposite of what the words say. But apparently people today have to have their assurances of political correctness spelled out for them…either that, or the producers are so afraid of offending people that they don’t trust a brilliant singer-actress like Kelli O’Hara to properly convey the song’s intended meaning.
Apart from that one sour moment, the revival’s real fault is that it seems to timid to really cut loose with the comedy in the Shrew excerpts, which, while it probably stems from a similar impulse, is ultimately a performance problem rather than one of rewriting. The current revival honestly could be better, but it features strong leads and serves as a fine showcase for Porter’s glorious songs, and frankly that’s the best this show could really hope for on its best day anyway.