What’s so great about Kiss Me, Kate?
Musical theatre is my passion. Hardly a surprising admission, but it is definitely true. There are many musicals which I like, many songs which I love to sing, hum or hear, many writers, composers, directors and performers I admire. And of course, there are the shows that I love. The cream of the crop, and Kiss Me, Kate is one of those. Convenient, really, as it’s going to be part of my life for the next few months! But what’s so great about it? What makes me rank it almost as highly as Cabaret, Sweeney Todd and West Side Story?
The songs. First and foremost, it’s the songs, a collection which surely amounts to Cole Porter’s finest hour. Each song, serious or silly, serves its purpose admirably, no matter what it’s purpose may be. And so much of it is instantly memorable, and has gone on to be part of our staple musical diet – ‘Another Op’nin’, Another Show’, ‘Wunderbar’, ‘So in Love’, ‘Too Darn Hot’ and ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ have been sung by countless people outside of the context of the show. And this is less than half of the score! Due to the nature of the show, which takes place both on-stage and off-stage at a performance of a musical Taming of the Shrew, half of the numbers are part of the Shakespearean action. Most of these are showcases for Cole Porter’s way with a lyric, featuring ever more outlandish rhymes as the verses pile up. Absolutely ridiculous, each and every one of them, but such magnificent fun! There are two dull spots, but they can be forgiven. ‘We Sing of Love’ only exists to cover a scene change (but then, so does ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’, a much better number). And ‘Bianca’ is meant to be bad – a brilliantly terrible love song written by one of the characters. The others, even ‘We Open in Venice’, are absolutely spot on – how else would this version of Shrew begin other than with a prologue song of incredible inanity?
The score. Unusually for Cole Porter, the songs for Kiss Me, Kate really hang together as an integrated score, representing the closest he ever came to the ‘Rodgers and Hammerstein model’ which was becoming all the rage during the 1940s. The style of the Shrew songs is quite distinct from the backstage numbers, and an operetta pastiche (‘Wunderbar’) is also thrown in, for a reasonably good reason. When Fred reprises ‘So in Love’, with exactly the same words that Lilli used earlier in the show, it manages to be perfectly right for his situation as well, rather than a lazy excuse to trot a good tune out again. It’s not sophisticated, with musical motifs and themes running through, but it’s not meant to be a sophisticated show.
The story. Ignore the unpleasant message, and the plot of The Taming of the Shrew is an absolute cracker, with strong characters and memorable situations. Combine it with the problems which always arise from mixing work with your personal life, and the show’s plot practically writes itself. The introduction of a couple of gangsters,who get sucked into the production, is an idea of true comic brilliance, which leads to the show’s most side-splitting moments. The dialogue has dated since 1948 (so thank goodness for the hilarious revised libretto), but the plot sparkles as much as ever.
Kiss Me, Kate does not have a serious message to impart to its audience. It isn’t ‘great art’ (whatever that is), nor does it aspire to be. But it has warmth, humour and skill in both words and music. It definitely gets the audience humming (which any good musical should) and gives them more than their money’s worth in entertainment. However, it is no mere trifle, and deserves to be taken seriously for its achievements. It is magnificent fun, but unlike some other fun musicals, it isn’t a theatrical McDonald’s which satisfies for a few minutes than leaves you feeling cheated. The performers can leave the theatre having worked hard but had a lot of fun. The audience can leave the theatre entertained and unashamed. And all of them can leave the theatre humming ‘Too Darn Hot’. For the next week or so…