I have lost count of how many operas are based on the plays of Shakespeare. I am also losing count of the Broadway shows that try to translate the plays, mostly the comedies, into contemporary terms. One of the most successful is the one I will start with.
Back in the late 1940s, Cole Porter was in deep trouble. His last few wartime musicals did not do very well while two others were outright disasters, and he was having the devil’s own time raising money for this next show. But the money came his way, and the show opened on December 30, 1948, the first of 1,077 performances; and it went on to garnish awards for best musical, best composer, best libretto (by Bella and Samuel Spewack), best producers, best scenic and costume designs, and even best leading man (Alfred Drake). The source: “The Taming of the Shrew.” The title: “Kiss Me Kate.”
The critics went wild. Of the 9 major papers, 8 gave it raves while the other was merely very favorable. The Times called it a miracle and compared the score surprisingly with Puccini! The Post called it “a smash hit of epic proportions.” Everything worked right. Even Patricia Morrison, whose voice was predicted not to go further than the third row, was marvelous. And this was on Broadway, where Shakespeare was considered box office poison. The Spewacks were very careful to give the audience two plots, each mirroring the other: Petrucchio:Kate = Fred:Lilly. Not all that original, but very well handled.
This is one of those musicals in which the dialogue is as good as the lyrics. However, audiences went to musicals to hear songs (not to look at computer-driven stage effects as they do today); and great songs were what they got. Those sung as part of the framing plot include “Too Darn Hot,” “True to You in my Fashion,” “Were Thine That Special Face,” “Wunderbar,” “Another Op’nin’Another Show,” and the very Gilbertian-trick-rhyme song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” which have been heard so often out of context. What is really unusual is that even the songs from the play within the play are just as good: “We Open in Venice,” “I Hate Men,” “Were Thine That Special Face.”
Actually, Shakespeare did very well for himself earlier, in 1938, when Larry Hart wanted to write a part for his brother Teddy who looked so much like comedian Jimmy Savo that he could never get a role. Well, since they looked so much alike, Larry went to “The Comedy of Errors,” which involves two sets of twins, one of which is a pair of comic servants. Not surprisingly, Savo was cast as one twin and Teddy fell neatly into place. The result was “The Boys from Syracuse.”
It only ran for 235 performances–remember, the Depression was still with us–and is very seldom performed. Even the 1940 film with Alan Jones seems to have disappeared; and I dearly wish some television station would restore the it and some local group revive the show. There are at least three complete CD recordings of the score, and its absence from the stage is a genuine loss for us all.
Consider the two songs that became hits, “Falling in Love With Love” and “This Can’t Be Love.” Among the less familiar numbers are “You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea,” “Sing for Your Supper,” and “What Can You Do with a Man?” Finally, there is a comic duet titled “He and She” that should bring down the house.
Unlike “Kiss Me Kate,” the plot more or less sticks to the Shakespeare original but makes no attempt at period-sounding music. On the other hand, who knows what music sounded like in ancient Ephesus?
In 1981, something called “Oh, Brother!” also used “Comedy of Errors” as the basis for a musical, but it closed in two days. You see, the creators decided to reset the story in the Persian Gulf in modern times. Ken Mandelbaum in his fabulous history of Broadway flops, “Not Since Carrie” (St. Martin’s Press, 1991), declares it deserved better. It suffered mainly from a small cast with too many lead roles in a single set. He suggests that with singers like Judy Kaye in the cast, they should have revived “The Boys from Syracuse.” In fact, there was a revival in 1963 that ran longer than did the original.
Now these are two very successful adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. I’ll bet anyone could name the blockbuster adaptation that outran even “Kiss Me Kate,” but very few could discuss a 1938 musical based on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and other flashes in the Broadway pan. Some of them will be discussed in the next issue.