Kiss Me Kate: 2019

With the show’s return to Broadway after two decades away, 2019 really shouldn’t have been a depressing year for Kiss Me Kate, but it was. The February production at Chaffin’s Barn Theatre, Nashville, Tennessee, starring Matthew Carlton and Martha Wilkinson, showed the way the wind was blowing. The two actors were revisiting roles they had played at the very same theater in the 1990s, but there was a signal difference between the two productions: in 2019, the spanking was done offstage – which completely undermines the play’s treatment of it as an egregious public insult that motivates Lilli’s attempted early exit from the show. Sadly, but predictably, an idiotic Nashville reviewer praised the decision for creating ‘doubt as to exactly who is on the receiving end of the taming’.

This kind of censorship reached its natural conclusion with the Broadway production starring Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase,

which had the script adapted in an effort to eliminate perceived sexism. Sadly but inevitably, this involved cutting out the spanking altogether: the director, the two stars and the adapter, Amanda Green, had a preliminary meeting and were unanimous in one opinion, to wit, ‘None of us wanted to see her spanked’ – so the business was out of the show right from the start. Meanwhile, several local theaters across America that had scheduled productions of Kiss Me Kate, did something even more drastic, but much more honest: when certain individuals complained that they were putting on a sexist musical with, horror of horrors, a spanking scene, KMK was pulled and replaced with something else.

I’ve written elsewhere about this irrational, illiberal, toxic phenomenon, so there’s no need to go on at length about it now. Instead, let’s accentuate the positive and settle down to enjoy the productions that did happen, in which Lilli was spanked, was seen to be spanked and was also shown being spanked in pictures released before or after the event. We begin on February 1 at a liberal arts college in Minnesota:

Also opening on February 1, and running until February 10, at a high school in Connecticut:

And the next day, KMK opened at St Petersburg Opera, Florida, and also ran until February 10. Michael Kelly was Fred, and during rehearsals he used social media to ‘tweet’ a KMK spanking picture from 1961 at Michele Sexton, anticipating what he was going to do to her onstage:

You may also like to know that the parts were understudied by Stephen M. Ray and Caitlyn McKechney, who would have had an experience similar to the above in their own rehearsals!

Also in February, at a high school in Oklahoma:

The musical played from March 22 through April 14 at the Ice House Theatre in Mount Dora, Florida, with this tabletop spanking:

And from April 18 through 28, at a community college in New Jersey:

The video may be viewable here.

An amateur production ran at Tinkers Farm Opera, Stourbridge, England, May 8-11. Here are husband-and-wife team Dan and Kate in rehearsal:

Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, produced a month’s run of Kiss Me Kate, May 17 to June 16, and made some publicity play of capitalizing on the fiery Latino temperaments of its two stars, Cuban Andrew Varela and Puerto Rican Rana Roman.

You might think this would make for an enjoyably tempestuous fight scene. But the production also suffered from 2019’s ongoing fit of irrational nerves about the spanking. At least, unlike more pusillanimous productions, the director, Ray Jivoff, didn’t cut it out: he recognized that it was ‘hard-baked’ into the show as part of an escalating sequence of progressively more unprofessional tit-for-tat behavior by Fred and Lilli, meaning it couldn’t be removed and had to take place onstage. But he also accepted the view that in itself it is an especially problematic moment, and tried to defuse it in the way it was staged. Here’s his version:

Repeat for emphasis: this is the spanking scene, not the later wedding scene when Petruchio carries off Kate over his shoulder. The objective was to put Lilli into a position where she could hit back at the same time as she was being spanked: OTS allows her to reach his rear end just as much as it lets him reach hers, so the thing can be ‘balanced’ in mutuality. The bespoke synopsis in the program makes it explicit:

Fred steps out of the play and throws Lilli over his shoulder, carrying her offstage as he spanks her and she spanks him.

At least they were trying, but of course, they’d totally missed the point that the spanking is his affront against her, and that it gets balanced by hers against him before and after. And as a result the production also painted itself into a corner and wound up having to change the wedding scene to avoid a duplication of business, meaning Kate was carried off like this:

It’s just not the same! But at least we can award points not only for rightly keeping the spanking onstage in a difficult climate, but also for the way the aftermath was presented, with Lilli’s phone call to tell her military beau what happened. Most productions have her upright and rubbing her rear, but in Milwaukee there was absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Miss Vanessi couldn’t sit down:

Apparently untroubled by American neuroses, Europe carried on regardless. June 28 saw the opening of a production at the Eutin theater festival in Germany, with Peter Bording and Patricia Hodell. It ran for two months, closing on August 24. And quite clearly nobody (with the probable exception of Miss Lilli Vanessi) was embarrassed by the spanking scene:

In this Bulgarian production, which opened in Burgas Opera September 4, Marco Apostolov’s Fred chose a less compromising angle for the spanking of Edelina Kaneva’s Lilli:

But let’s go round and see it from the other side…

November 5-9 saw a production by Our Lady’s Musical Society in Motherwell, Scotland:

And later that month, from November 21 through 24, here are husband and wife Tony and Angela Lowe in the production by Brussels Light Opera Company:

And on the very last day of the year, KMK opened at Theater Stralsund in Germany. Patricia Hodell returned to the role she had played in Eutin during the summer, and her Fred was Christian Alexander Muller. Here they are in rehearsal, trying the spanking scene one way…

and another:

But all of that doesn’t overturn the general sense that 2019 was a relatively disappointing year for KMK spanking. So let’s get a more balanced perspective by considering the fortunes of the spankingless Broadway revival with Kelli O’Hara, which began previews on February 14, officially opened a month later and closed June 30 – a run of less than five months overall, outstripped by almost every previous major revival and paltry compared with the 1077 performances of the original 1948-52 Broadway production, or the 881 (plus previews) of the revised 1999-2001 version. On the whole, the critics were underwhelmed, and although those connected with the show have tried to spin it as award-nominated, largely on the basis of four Tony nominations, the truth is that none of those four translated into a win, and the nomination for Best Revival of a Musical was less an accolade than an inevitability in view of the fact that Broadway saw only one other musical revival that year, Daniel Fish’s edgy version of Oklahoma! (which won, deservedly). This bowdlerized Kiss Me Kate was not so much award-nominated as award-losing. It would be ludicrously tunnel-visioned to suggest that was simply because they removed the spanking, but it is fair to say that Amanda Green’s overall efforts to sanitize the book were not felicitous, and deserve no praise.

Even so, it is sad to have to end with the observation that we can expect more of the same in years to come. Towards the end of 2019, a spring 2020 production at the University of Virginia pre-announced itself as paying ‘homage to the iconic Cole Porter show while also reimagining it for a modern audience’, and you can guess what that likely means for our favorite scene. It looks as if we remain stuck with the notion that Kiss Me Kate is not just a play to be performed (or else left in the historical archive), that it is also a problem that must be solved for the sake of twenty-first-century theatergoers who are presumed to have narrower minds than their parents and grandparents. Hopefully at least some modern audiences, especially in the more genuinely liberal and open-minded countries of Europe, will conversely remain stuck with, and so have the opportunity to enjoy, the spanking scene.

But then the unexpected happened, and not in a good way, as we shall see when we pass on to 2020.

4 thoughts on “Kiss Me Kate: 2019

  1. Sagebrush says:

    2019 was indeed a bad year for Kiss Me Kate, especially with the publicity the “revival” had on Broadway. Amanda Green made a mockery of the show with her changes to the original script done by Bella Spewack. Many of the mostly “woke” Broadway critics saw no problem with what they considered minor changes to the show made to appeal to today’s audiences.

    The changes weren’t minor. As Kelli O’Hara proclaimed in introducing one of the show’s scenes presented on stage at the Tony Awards, it’s now a female empowerment production. In the New York revival, she beats on her co-star for minutes at a time, and his weak retalitation consists of a couple of kicks to her behind at the end of their onstage battle. At the end of the fight scene, she actually chases him into the wings as he runs in fear of further attacks. Amanda turned Fred into a wuss.

    I saw a panel discussion with the stars of the show, and Will Chase tells the audience how he now submits to Lilli in the first act. Kelli, and the others, praise him for being so “woke”, and also sneered at the original production of the play. They said the changes to the play brought more equity to the battle of the sexes. I would say the 1948 version was probably more equal in that regard.

    I’m glad to see the New York version hasn’t become universal, and that other productions are still presenting the original play to their audiences. Obviously, some tweaks can be made to reflect changes in popular culture over the years, but they should be minor. Currently, it’s kind of come down to who is in charge of the play at whatever venue is presenting it. A showing at the Watermill Theater in Newbury, England last year had a Seattle feel to it, as Lilli, borrowing from that play, exchanged spankings with Fred. One critic of the Watermill play, who overall loved the show, said the change to the fight scene ruined the continuity of the play, and called the director’s changes “Kiss Me Kate gone wrong”. He said that KMK is a perfect musical comedy and only needs to be done well. Adding unneccesary changes is like putting lipstick on the Mona Lisa, and only weakens the play.

    I fear, with femininst directors tampering with the shows in Seattle, New York and Newbury, we’re in for a coin flip when it comes to how the show will be presented to future audiences. Those directors who consider themselves “woke”, will present a feminist version of the play, while other more traditional directors will present KMK in the more original version. With Cole Porter’s music and talented performers, people will still enjoy the show, no matter which version they see. Many won’t even be aware of the bowdlerization made to Bella’s script in the feminist productions.

    Highlighting today’s culture, the Royal Shakespeare Company in London has recently presented the Taming of the Shrew with the genders reversed. Let’s hope no one goes that far with Kiss Me Kate. We can only hope.

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    • Harry says:

      There are two mistakes that we can make in responding to this kind of situation. One is to make it about the politics. The other is to make it about the spanking.

      Human beings are prone to think in terms of binaries: it’s encoded in the very structure of our brains and bodies. So when you take up a position in a debate, it also establishes an alternate, opposing position. Therefore you have to be very careful what position you adopt, because that sets the terms of the argument – and it doesn’t help us for that argument to be about either politics or spanking.

      One especially unhelpful phenomenon I have seen of late is comments on social media about more traditional productions, which praise the producers for retaining the spanking scene. That is rather like saying, ‘Thank you for not stealing my purse’: it establishes the alternative as a thinkable option.

      On the other hand, focussing on the politics of the decision to drop the spanking scene means we put ourselves on the other side of the argument, and so risk aligning ourselves with the populist right. Some may be comfortable with that, and that’s their prerogative, but it doesn’t sit easily with my social and political beliefs.

      One of the really sickening things about the 2019 Roundabout Theatre Company production is the hypocrisy of the marketing:

      In the constellation of musical comedy masterpieces, Kiss Me Kate shines as perhaps Broadway’s most sparkling achievement.

      Yes, it’s such a classic… that it had to be rewritten to make it suitable for modern audiences. And then there was the essay in the program attempting to justify the adaptation:

      It is the show’s apparent approval of Fred’s more troublesome actions … that, for many, puts Kiss Me Kate on questionable moral footing.

      Except that the show quite obviously does not present the spanking or much else that Fred does with approval. In other words, they censored what they proclaimed as Broadway’s greatest musical comedy on the basis of a fundamental misunderstanding of its content. These people are either stupid or dishonest.

      So the terms on which we should be seeking to debate this are not to do with gender equality or the presence or absence of spanking. The issue is the proper treatment of works of art. The choices are, or ought to be, to produce KMK or not to produce it. If you want to do a musical promoting the good cause of gender equality, that’s great, but write your own.

      There’s one other reason why focussing on the spanking when we talk directly to producers can be counter-productive. One long-standing cause of discomfort in theatrical circles, especially among amateurs, has been expressed to me in the following terms:

      If you put up any material from this show, a creepy man comes on the site and says, ‘Please post the spanking scene.’

      Like it or not, spankos are widely misunderstood. We are thought to be sexists, which many of us are not. We are thought to be socially conservative, which many of us are not. We are thought to be sadists, which at least some of us are not. I don’t think it helps for us to be furtive about our particular enthusiasm (and, let’s face it, is there any meaningful difference between being a fan of the KMK spanking scene, or of any other part of the show – such as, say, Lilli’s song ‘I Hate Men’?), but we have to engage with the wider world respectfully and not treat it as something that exists merely to supply our niche interests. Even if you don’t share my sense of the importance of that as a point of principle, there is a practical repercussion: especial attention to the spanking scene makes it more likely that people will respond by finding us ‘creepy’, which in turn makes it less likely that they’ll share material we’d enjoy seeing.

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  2. Sagebrush says:

    You make some very good points in how to respond to the changes in current productions of KMK.

    I’ve been in some on-line and newspaper comment discussions over the 2019 Kiss Me Kate on Broadway. For the most part, I do raise the censorship issue. If Fred is sexist, what is Lilli with “I Hate Men.” She also throws many more punches in the show than he ever did. The 2019 play increased her pummeling of him, and took away his ability to fight back.

    I think the majority of today’s audiences aren’t as triggered by the original play as the woke Hollywood and Broadway social justice warriors think they are. As the critic of the Watermill production said, “Just do the play well.” That’s all you really need to do. Re-writing a classic play isn’t needed.

    The other point I try to make is advertising the revised play with Sam and Bella Spewack still shown as the show’s writers. That’s false advertising. Bella, who was the true author, would at least probably want a disclaimer posted, or perhaps her name removed entirely, considering the dramatic changes. Unfortunately, she no longer has a voice in the matter. The marquee in New York should have read “Kiss Me Kate, the Amanda Green version.”

    I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when Amanda talked to the Spewack estate to see how those changes were approved, as they altered the whole dynamic of the play. Perhaps those in charge of the estate should also now be considered “woke.”

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    • Harry says:

      Do you think that social justice is a bad thing?

      I happen to think that it’s a very good thing, without any shadow of a doubt or qualification. If you agree with me, then don’t call those on the other side in this argument ‘Social Justice Warriors’: that allows them to present themselves as fighting in a just cause.

      Do you think that feminism is a bad thing?

      Yes, bad things can be and have been done in its name, but that doesn’t make every one of its objectives and postulates inherently wicked. There are idiots on some other spanking sites who routinely pass comments along the lines of ‘All feminists should be spanked, tee hee,’ and who are so secure, or rather insecure, in their own butchness that they would probably run a mile if ever confronted with an independent and opinionated woman in real life. Do you really want to align yourselves with them? If not, don’t use the term ‘feminist’ to describe bad things you don’t want to happen.

      The point I’m trying to make is that, if you don’t take care with absolutely everything you say in this kind of debate, you risk sounding like you’re a long way to the political right. If you’re a liberal, a term I use in its proper sense of one who cares about moderation, tolerance and liberty, and not as a synonym for the extreme left, then you need to respond to illiberalism in ways that won’t compromise the integrity of that position, not allow your opposition to one side of the argument to push you to the other extreme.

      That is why the term ‘woke’ is such a gift. Since its origins are in African-American slang, its transfer into privileged white mouths is an act of racial appropriation, if those origins are known, or an ignorant abuse of the English language, if they are not. And its tone is insufferably smug. I think we can feel reasonably secure in quoting their own ‘wokefulness’ back at them.

      The other thing we need to be very careful about is assuming we know what the majority think, especially if we are inclined to suppose that they think along lines that are more on our side than the other. More and more of us today live the online part of our lives in an environment regulated by algorithms that feed us with opinions we are likely to agree with and block those we probably won’t: self-validation by social media.

      My own sense is that the big shift of taste over spanking scenes in particular happened around half a century ago, not always at the same rate in different countries, and that nowadays more people find such scenes uncomfortable than find them comical or otherwise appealing. But there are certainly national variations in play (attitudes are different in Europe from those prevailing in benighted Britain and America), and if there is still a large center ground that doesn’t much care either way, then it’s vital to get the terms of the argument right.

      Put simply, the advocates of censorship want the question to be ‘Should men be allowed to assault women, especially when there is a possible sexual dimension to the violence?’ The decent, uncommitted masses will answer, ‘No!’ Who wouldn’t? (The ‘all feminists should be spanked’ morons, that’s who, sadly.) So we have to make sure that the question is, ‘Do you want to allow a minority to control, over and above the limits set by what is lawful, the things that you are allowed to see, say and do?’ Who wouldn’t say ‘No!’ to that, too?

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