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THE RETURN OF KISS ME, KATE By Peter Filichia

When I sauntered by Studio 54 where KISS ME, KATE has just
started previews, I saw what the posters were proclaiming:

“Featuring Cole Porter Hits Like ‘Another Op’nin’, Another Show,’ ‘Too
Darn Hot,’ ‘So in Love,’ ‘Why Can’t You Behave?’ and ‘Wunderbar.’

First off, let’s take issue with the word “like.” The songs aren’t “like”
the five cited; they ARE precisely those five songs.

But I had to wonder if those titles, trumpeted as “hits,” really are to
the average theatergoer.

Perhaps the poster should read “Featuring Great Cole Porter Songs,”
for KISS ME, KATE certainly has those in abundance.

Granted, Roundabout Theatre Company, which is producing the
revival, does attract playgoers who seem to be older than 41.
According to The Broadway League, that’s the average age of those
attending Main Stem productions. So the Roundabouters who have
been around and about Broadway since its Golden Age might well
think of those five songs as hits – along with the rest of the score.

For KISS ME, KATE’s original cast album has never been out-of-print
since it was released literally seventy years ago this week. (Twenty
years ago, the album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.)

Cole Porter’s score has been prized since the Philadelphia tryout. It
had the most atypical – and delightful – out-of-town experience; not
a single song was either dropped or added.

When those connected with the show read the reviews on New
Year’s Eve, 1948, they knew that 1949 was going to be a very good
year. So would 1950 and more than half of 1951, as KISS ME, KATE
finished as the third-longest-running book musical in Broadway
history.

So much for Porter being all washed up, as many had claimed
because he’d had two consecutive flops.

“A remarkable melodious score” (Atkinson, Times). “Cole Porter has
turned out one of his all-time best scores.” (Hawkins, World-
Telegram). “The excited congregation was crying ‘Bravo!’ for Cole
Porter.” (Garland, Journal-American). “The white-tied and be-ermined
customers demanded encore after encore.” (Coleman, Mirror).
“Captivating music, jaunty and witty lyrics” (Morehouse, Sun). “A
smash-hit of epic proportions” (Watts, Post).

Hence, that successful original cast album that sports those five
songs. But I define a hit as a song that the public comes to know
from a famous recording. Streisand’s “Memory,” The Fifth
Dimension’s “Let the Sunshine In,” Louis Armstrong’s ”Hello, Dolly!” –
hits all. Only one of the five songs cited from KISS ME, KATE fits that
criterion.

Don’t misunderstand; we’re not taking anything away from the
quality of the songs. Even after seven decades, “Another Op’nin’,
Another Show” remains as one of Broadway’s best opening numbers.

(We could argue that one line is a little dated: “The overture is about
to start.” We don’t have many overtures anymore, do we?)

Meanwhile, “Too Darn Hot” is one of Broadway’s best second-act
opening numbers – although it does suffer from a strange problem.

If it’s “too darn hot,” why is everyone dancing up a storm?

Well, having a big second-act “numba” was indeed de rigueur at the
time (and even now). Yet I’ve always wondered what choreographic
approach Tommy Tune would have taken with this song.

Considering the dazzling staging he brought to production numbers in
Nine, The Will Rogers Follies and especially Grand Hotel, I suspect
that he would have found a way to make his dancers go through minimized steps that would have taken the temperature into consideration.

Frenetic choreography doesn’t hurt the song itself, though. Note that
it also includes a then-state-of-the-art reference: “According to THE
KINSEY REPORT.” That landmark study on sex was published only
months before KISS ME, KATE’s debut. Porter’s fans had much earlier
learned to expect audaciousness from the songwriter, so they must
have given a there-he-goes-again smile when they heard it.

Some have also read into – or have correctly gleaned – an additional
meaning behind “a Marine for his queen.” You be the judge.

But in the great eleven o’clock number “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,”
there’s unmistakable ribaldry in one line that cites The Bard’s
penultimate tragedy play. Listen for it.

“Wunderbar” is a terrific swirling waltz that did get plenty of
recordings, but almost always on long-playing albums. A hit song
back then meant a song that was released on a 78 or 45 rpm
recording.

Expecting “Wunderbar” to be a pop hit would be a great deal to ask.
It was always intended to be a parody of a schmaltzy operetta song
– and operetta had been steadily falling out of favor since the ‘20s.

So why include this antique in the show? It’s the song that Fred and
Lilli, a theatrical couple that has since married and divorced, once
sang in an operetta. They’re reminiscing about happier times.

Maybe “Wunderbar” would have received many recordings on 78 rpm
records – or even cylinders – during operetta’s prime time. Not in
1948 or beyond, though.

One of its lyrics would amuse only world travelers (which Porter
proudly was): “Gazing down on the Jungfrau.” That mountain in
Switzerland is 13,642 feet tall, so finding a mountain higher from
which to gaze wouldn’t be easy. Granted, Mount Everest is more than
twice as high, but it’s half a world away.

Of the five songs that Roundabout has branded hits, “So in Love” is
the only one that really deserves the distinction. Merely forty-three
days after the show had opened, Patti Page’s recording had already
made the charts.

Since then, every decade has seen multiple recordings from both
male and female artists, be it the ‘50s (Mario Lanza; Ella Fitzgerald),
the ‘60s (Frank Sinatra; Shirley Bassey), the ‘70s (Sergio Franchi;
Vicki Carr), the ‘80s (Chick Corea; Julie Andrews), the ‘90s (Placido
Domingo; k.d. lang), the ‘00s (Bryn Terfel; Renée Fleming) and this
decade, too (Dave King; Deborah De De Wedekind).

Bing Crosby also recorded it only five days after KISS ME, KATE had
opened. He put “Why Can’t You Behave?” on the record’s other side
– which Sinatra also had recorded two weeks before the show’s New
York debut.

There’s an irony here. In the show, “Why Can’t You Behave?” is sung
by a woman who’s wearily chiding her boyfriend for gambling. Having
two male crooners sing it (in those pre-Stonewall days) meant that
they were singing it to a woman. Of what specific misbehavior do you
think they were accusing the woman?

By the way, singing “Why Can’t You Behave?” in KISS ME, KATE was
a character named Lois Lane. Why that name above all others was
chosen astonishes me; Superman and his so-called girlfriend had
been on the scene for more than a decade and had become very well
known in that time.

Dinah Shore’s pre-Broadway recording of “So in Love” also had
another song from the score on the flip side: “Always True to You in
My Fashion.” Lois has one of Porter’s best instances of wordplay: “Mr.
Harris, plutocrat, wants to give my cheek a pat. If the Harris pat
means a Paris hat” – well, you can guess what her answer would be

So yes, there’s marvelous and unforgettable work in KISS ME, KATE.
It’s not full of hits in the commercial sense, but every one of its
seventeen songs hits the spot.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at
www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com.
He can be heard most weeks of the year on
www.broadwayradio.com.