Essay Series Essays

Shakespeare on Broadway, 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Shakespeare on Broadway

Shakespeare on Broadway – 1Kiss_Me_Kate_1950_LP_Cover

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.”

Tamer taming the tamee by turning their honeymoon meal into a nightmare

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.”

51icpKKNZoL._AA160_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.

Drama Shakespeare

A Shrew is Tamed at Shakespeare’s Globe


A-SH-Taming [Globe]A Shrew is Tamed at Shakespeare’s Globe

Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” might be done as a comedy rather than as a farce; but that would be very hard to pull off. After all, Petruchio is sadistic in his taming techniques. And if we consider Katherina as a sentient human being, this play can be painful. Also a modern audience’s attitude toward the husband-is-master axiom is not that of the 1590s. So farce is the way to go.

And that is the course taken at Shakespeare’s Globe production in London in 2012, now available on a Kultur 2-DVD set. Here Simon Paisley Day plays a tall, unsexy shrew-tamer to Samantha Spiro’s unwilling bride. Using an unabridged script, they decided to introduce a drunk “from the audience” to play Christopher Sly, who is gulled into thinking he is a noble lord. This gimmick doesn’t work, because the drunk wakes up to speak Elizabethan English for no discernible reason.

As I found Spiro to be the worst professional Lady Macbeth ever in the Globe production—or parody—of that play, I find her Katherina to be too one-dimensional up to the scene in which she realizes what Petruchio is up to. Then she gets some non-shouting comedy into her characterization. The famous/infamous speech at the end about women being wholly subservient to their husbands is done straight without any winks to the audience or any other suggestion of irony. The audience is deadly silent during the lines and applauds her reading, if not the sentiments.

Sarah Macrae shows Bianca to be the real shrew early in the play and a really nasty piece of goods at the end when the three newlywed husbands bet on their wives’ obedience. (You do know the plot, don’t’ you?)

Quigley, a very good Grumio

I really like how Pearce Quigley plays Petruchio’s much abused servant Grumio. He reminds me of Baldrick in the “Black Adder” series, and is given that horse-hoof clapping gimmick from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” to make up for lack of that animal on stage. It is not, however, necessary for Day to show his bare bottom to cast and audience when he shows up for the wedding. (The idea is stolen, I think, from a live Monty Python performance in which the entire male cast moons the audience. Very funny.)

The costumes are colorful, the pacing fast but with little loss of comprehensibility. And if it is too much to expect Kultur to include the subtitles that are on the British DVDs (on the OpusArte label), one can always keep an open text on one’s lap. I do so enjoy the productions’ keeping the Shakespearean tradition of a dance before and during the final bows.

The running time is 167 minutes and there is no cast or tracking lists provided.