The Production of The Taming of the Shrew Behind Kiss Me, Kate
By Elizabeth Williamson, Associate Artistic Director
The original idea for Kiss Me, Kate was inspired by tales of the backstage antics of early 20th Century theatre stars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Lunt and Fontanne married in 1922 and performed together in over two dozen shows, becoming known as one of the greatest husband and wife acting teams of all time. They were especially well known for their work in comedies, and Noël Coward wrote his Design for Living especially for them.
Lunt and Fontanne’s turns in The Taming of the Shrew made it one of the most popular productions the play had ever had. It had a cast of 52, including acrobats, musicians, and comic horses, and it ran, on and off, in New York and on tour, for five years. But it’s remembered less for its scale than for the way Lunt and Fontanne played their roles. As Katharina, Fontanne threw objects from offstage at Lunt’s Petruchio. When she finally came on stage, he spanked her. And their onstage behavior was widely perceived to mirror a tumultuous off-stage relationship.
Arnold Saint-Subber, the co-producer of Kiss Me, Kate, had worked backstage on the Lunt/Fontanne Shrew, and he thought that a backstage show about a feuding couple performing in The Taming of the Shrew could make a terrific musical. He brought the idea to Bella and Sam Spewack.
From the names of the lead characters (Fontanne was christened Lillie Louise, and Fred could well be short for Alfred Lunt) to some of the stage directions, a number of the onstage antics that ended up in Kiss Me, Kate seem to have been taken directly from the Lunt/Fontanne Shrew. When Lunt as Petruchio was sending her dinner away, Fontanne as Katharina grabbed some sausages and started to shove them down her dress, as Lilli does in Kate. On her first appearance a bird was shot from the sky by a blunderbuss, which is echoed in the finale of Act One of Kiss Me, Kate. And Petruchio spanking Katharina became a major plot point for the musical.
The Spewacks agreed to write the book, and they insisted on bringing in Cole Porter, whom they’d worked happily with in the late 30’s. Porter had had major successes (including Anything Goes in 1934) but after World War II he’d had several flops, and the producers weren’t eager to bring him on board; Bella Spewack eventually had to tell Saint-Subber that she simply wouldn’t do Kiss Me, Kate without Cole Porter.
Porter had already written a number of his greatest songs (including “Let’s Do It,” “Night and Day,” and “You’re the Top”), but Kiss Me, Kate was by far his most challenging score to compose yet. He had to create two different musical worlds – one Shakespearean world for the musical of The Taming of the Shrew that Fred and Lilli are starring in, and one for their “real-life” backstage.
When Kiss Me, Kate opened on Broadway in 1948 it more than justified the Spewacks’ faith in Porter. It ran for 1,077 performances in New York. The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson wrote that ‘’Kiss Me, Kate,’’ had ‘’the best musical comedy book of the year” and that Porter had “written his best score in years.” It won 5 Tony Awards, for Best Musical, Best Produced Show, Best Script, Best Score and Best Costumes.