The Original Kiss Me Kate, Part 2: Making the Show

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To mount Kiss Me Kate on Broadway, producers Saint Subber and Lemuel Ayers needed the same two things that any theater production requires: cash and cast. The budget was set at $180,000, which had to be cajoled out of investors, known in the business as ‘angels’. It took over a year, and 76 ‘auditions’ of the show, to get the money together; in all, there were 78 backers, from tycoons and playboys to a farmer who sold a cow to buy his piece of the action.

But who in particular were they buying into?

The business of casting the leading roles of Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi got underway in the summer of 1948. Fred was the easier part to fill; Alfred Drake signed in August. He had made his name as the original Curly in Oklahoma! (1943), in which among many other things he threatened to spank his girlfriend, played by Joan Roberts (who did get spanked onstage a few years later in Marinka). Drake was admirably qualified, but he wasn’t entirely a foregone conclusion; on July 12, for example, they auditioned John Howard (who had been the cinema’s Bulldog Drummond in seven films before the War and was trying to relaunch his career). But the tricky casting was Lilli: at least ten stars were considered for the part, and seven of them managed to escape totally unspanked…

The producers approached the 1930s Hollywood singing star Jeanette MacDonald, now in her mid-40s.

But MGM had just promised her a picture with her long-term screen partner Nelson Eddy, and she wanted to do that more than she wanted to be spanked every night on Broadway. She ended up doing neither: the MGM project fell through.

Mary Martin did want to be in a hit Broadway show.

But not one with a spanking scene: she turned down Lilli Vanessi and headed for the safety of South Pacific, the other great musical success story of 1949, in which she created the role of Nellie Forbush.

So how about Kitty Carlisle, opera singer and future television game show panelist?

She opted instead for the title role in a show that opened the night before KMK and was praised by theater critics as artistically the more important of the two: Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia.

Then there was Dorothy Sandlin, noted for her leading role in the 1946 Broadway production of The Desert Song, but not destined to be notable for Kiss Me Kate:

Over on the west coast, Cole Porter had a few ideas of his own. He hoped to cast his friend the Czech soprano Jarmila Novotna to play Lilli.

She wasn’t available, so he tried the radio soprano Lily Pons, now fifty years old.

She couldn’t do it either, so he approached Dorothy Kirsten, lead singer of the Metropolitan Opera.

She might have been free, but she simply wasn’t interested.

There’s a running theme here: what Cole Porter particularly wanted was for Lilli to be played by an experienced opera singer. But he changed his mind after hearing a striking, long-haired movie actress singing a Rodgers and Hammerstein number at a party.

She hadn’t been on Broadway for ten years, and her screen career had been disappointing – but her voice entranced Porter. He gave her the score for Kiss Me Kate, told her to learn it and auditioned her at his home, accompanying her on the piano himself. Her name was Patricia Morison.

But there was a fly in the ointment. Porter talked the producers into giving her a hearing; but they were in New York and she was in Hollywood, and she couldn’t afford the air fare to travel east. Her big break began to slip away as Cole Porter considered other options, and went so far as to offer Miss Vanessi to the 25-year-old singer and former model Anne Jeffreys.

Anne, the youngest actress to be considered for the role, was trying to break into Broadway, but opted to do it in My Romance, which opened in mid-October, rather than waiting the extra ten weeks for Kiss Me Kate. So, back to the drawing board again for Cole Porter. How about red-haired, green-eyed soprano Frances McCann?

She had a radio show in California, and decided it wasn’t worth her while going east for the audition. But we haven’t heard the last of her, nor of Anne Jeffreys, nor indeed of Patricia Morison…

For Patricia, luck struck in the form of a broken arm for Diana Lynn, the former child prodigy singer who featured in the mass spanking scene in And the Angels Sing (1944):

She wasn’t under consideration to play Lilli – she was three years younger even than Anne Jeffreys and still playing juves – but her injury left her unable to fulfil her engagement to appear in an armed services show in Madison Square Garden. Her manager promptly recommended another of his clients, none other than Patricia Morison, who found herself whisked off to New York courtesy of the US air force. To cut a long story short, the audition went well, and in early October she was duly signed to play Lilli.

By then, pre-production work was well underway. Eleven seamstresses had begun putting the costumes together at the end of the summer, four months before the show was scheduled to open. The buzz began to build: this was a lavish, spectacular hit in the making. One sign of this early confidence is that, weeks before opening night, the management approached the ‘angels’ with an offer to buy back their shares for twice the original investment. Any who accepted the deal would surely have regretted it later…

Rehearsals began on November 1, four weeks before the first try-out in Philadelphia on December 2. At Cole Porter’s suggestion, Patricia Morison got some coaching for the Shakespearean elements of her role, from the distinguished British actress Constance Collier (1878-1955). She also got spanked – a lot, and very loudly. The noise could be heard all over the streets around the theater!

KMKstage

After spending most of December in Philadelphia winning some approving notices, Kiss Me Kate finally opened at the New Century Theatre on December 30, 1948, and a Broadway phenomenon was born.

‘Occasionally by some baffling miracle, everything seems to drop gracefully into its appointed place in the composition of a song show, and that is the case here.’

So said the New York Times, heading up its rave review with a photograph of a scene from the play. Yes, the spanking scene, of course…

1948 New York Times

This was also the scene the Times had chosen to caricature in its Boxing Day preview, drawn by Don Freeman:

KMK 1948 NYT

Kiss Me Kate was already a success before opening night. For a start, the production wound up $30,000 under budget – in other words, it cost $150,000 instead of the projected $180,000. And advance ticket orders exceeded anything known on Broadway in the past ten years; by the first days of 1949, it was booked out for months to come. It and Death of a Salesman were the two hot tickets on Broadway that year, and inevitably a lot of scalping went on: ‘To see Kate kissed – and spanked – in Kiss Me Kate, unless you know your way around, you can pay as much as 15 bucks a seat,’ said the newspapers in April 1949. Some tickets were going for a $100 asking price, and eventually the theater’s head of box office was subpoenaed in an investigation of the scam. And if you bought your tickets by mail order, you stood a good chance of having them stolen! Everyone wanted to see the show: the first six months’ box office amounted to $1.4 million, and nine months into its run it was raking in $47,200 every week. The 78 ‘angels’ recouped their investment in just sixteen weeks; everything from then on, for decades to come, was clear profit.

And the success was more than financial. In March, Kiss Me Kate won the ‘Page 1’ Award presented by the Newspaper Guild of New York for best musical comedy; the following month it won the Antoinette Perry Award for its ‘notable contribution to theater’; and later in the year it won a Tony Award in the new category of Best Musical. It had celebrity fans: Greta Garbo saw it three times, and Margaret Truman, the President’s daughter, four times. And, let’s not forget, this was, as one newspaper put it later in the run, ‘a show about a girl who gets spanked’.

Success breeds spin-offs. On May 9, 1949, a radio program dramatized the story of how Kiss Me Kate came to be written and produced: a backstage musical about a backstage musical! It starred the singer Gordon MacRae, who was also busy making Look for the Silver Lining, in which he spanks June Haver, and would later make On Moonlight Bay (1951), in which he spanks Doris Day. It’s not known whether the program called for him to administer a sound-only spanking to his co-star Lucille Norman,

but one thing is certain: whether or not the spanking scene was included, this was the first time any of Kiss Me Kate was heard on the radio. Success doesn’t only breed spin-offs, but protectionism too, and there was a general ban on radio stations playing the songs.

So if you wanted to hear Cole Porter’s lyrics and melodies outside of the New Century Theatre, you had one option: buy the soundtrack album!

Columbia Records snapped up the recording rights for a reported $30,000, and for a week in February 1949, the cast left the theater after their evening performance and rushed over to the recording studio, still in costume and make-up, for a series of late-night sessions to make the LP. Some of the songs were considered too raunchy, so the lyrics were sanitized. What’s more, Patricia Morison had to adjust her performance: what was appropriate onstage was too big for the studio. But she also found that there was an advantage to performing KMK in this medium, as the press pointed out: ‘no spanking’!

Kiss Me Kate without spanking scarcely bears thinking about. It was the one piece of imagery that most defined the show, from publicity pictures right down to advertisements in the program:

So it was a publicity opportunity not to be missed when, in the fall of 1949, the Margaret Webster Shakespeare Company began a tour of The Taming of the Shrew and billed it as ‘the original Kiss Me Kate’. Since it was partly an educational concern, the advertising also borrowed a tagline from Cole Porter: ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’! Even more serendipitously, it was to be one of those Shrew productions in which Kate (Louisa Horton) is spanked – and what’s more, she insisted that her Petruchio (Kendall Clark) should spank her for real! Here they are in costume for what many reviewers described as a ‘rollicking’ production:

And before the Shrew company left New York, they seized the chance of some mutual publicity with the KMK company, and staged a press photocall with the four principal cast members giving a side-by-side rendition of the two productions’ most iconic scene:

Except the Petruchios swapped Kates, so Louisa Horton is being spanked by Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison by Kendall Clark!

He wasn’t the only other actor to have Patricia over his knee in the course of her Kiss Me Kate duties. Right from the start, Alfred Drake’s health was a little dicey: even during the preliminary run in Philadelphia, he caught a throat infection that looked as if it might prevent him from opening on Broadway. It then developed into full-blown flu, but ‘Doctor Theater’ worked the usual magic and he made the premiere. But three months in, the common cold got its revenge, and Patricia Morison had to be spanked by his understudy, Keith Andes. Drake’s troubles continued the following year: he was injured in an auto accident in May 1950 and had to have his head shaved, and, since the wound also prevented him from wearing a wig, he was temporarily out of the show again. In all, Andes took his place for 22 performances (and spankings) before leaving the production in June 1950 – and that’s not the last we’ll hear of him. His place was taken by Ted Scott, and he also got a turn spanking Patricia when Drake was off again in September. They were memorable spankings for her – because, she told the newspapers, Scott spanked a lot harder than Drake!

Front row: Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison. Back row: Ted Scott and Peggy Ferris.

In contrast, Peggy Ferris didn’t get to go on even once in place of Patricia Morison: her KMK spankings were limited to the unapplauded context of understudy rehearsals.

In other words, Patricia didn’t miss a single performance, something the press called ‘a minor miracle’:

‘she got mauled, slapped, spanked, yanked and dragged around by her hair for two back-breaking years.’

If she took pride in this achievement, she also felt bad for Peggy Ferris, and tried to get her a movie contract by way of compensation; it never happened, and Peggy eventually quit the show in October 1950 to get married.

Patricia herself was getting antsy, too. The leading actors were contracted to the show until June 1950, but in the summer of 1949 she asked her agent to explore the possibility of leaving early that December, after the show had run for a year. ‘I see no need of remaining in Kiss Me Kate indefinitely,’ she told the press – ironically, since it was a show she kept doing for thirty years, giving her last performance as Lilli in 1978. One of the issues was money: the actors were poorly paid across the board, so much so that some junior cast members had to take Christmas relief work at the post office to make ends meet. Eventually Patricia agreed to stay on in return for a large salary hike, but only until June 1950, not June 1951 as Cole Porter had hoped. And with that resolved, she set about planning her next project.

Her ambition was to become an opera singer, but what initially came her way was the prospect of more film work – only not film work in Hollywood, where her talents had never really been appreciated since she capriciously turned down the role of the spanked heroine in the Gene Autry Western The Singing Hill (1941). In February 1950, the Mexican production company Azteca approached her with a proposal for a movie alongside Pedro Armendariz, to be made in both Spanish and English for release on both sides of the border. The project arose out of a collocation of the two stars’ recent work: Kiss Me Kate for Patricia, while Armendariz had recently made the 1949 comedy Western, El Charro y la Dama, in which…

So what more natural than to put them together in a film version of The Taming of the Shrew? Unfazed by the prospect of another spanking scene, Patricia agreed, but the script proved unsatisfactory and the movie was never made. But that didn’t mean that leaving KMK put spanking out of her immediate professional future, because it turned out that her next major job would be… Kiss Me Kate again, this time in London!

But the Kiss Me Kate diaspora had begun well before the New York production lost Patricia Morison, and on the home side of the Atlantic Ocean. We’ll find out more in the next part of this article.

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