Of all the television versions of Broadway shows that seem to be appearing on DVD these days, the one that more accurately reflects the experience of seeing the show as it was on stage as any I have seen is the 1958 Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Cole Porter’s masterpiece, Kiss Me, Kate.
While the video runs only 78 minutes and there are, as a result, significant cuts —including the Act II opener “Too Darn Hot” — it plays very much like a live, on-stage performance and the stars are the ones every true Broadway musical fan wishes he saw in person: Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison as the feuding divorced thespians.
It doesn’t have the originals, Lisa Kirk or Harold Lang, in the supporting roles, but Julie Wilson and Bill Hayes do a fine job as the secondary love interest, and the team of Harvey Lembeck and Jack Klugman do well in place of Harry Clark and Jack Diamond as the mobsters who have to brush up their Shakespeare.
The text is also changed at certain spots, partially for time and partially to make the script meet the standards of the day for what was “fit to come into the family living room.” The word “louse” is substituted for “bastard.” How, then, the line about the star’s inability to “ride the mule” was retained is a mystery.
Alfred Drake is spectacularly good as the has-been attempting a comeback in a musical adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew with his former wife as a reluctant co-star. He’s in fabulous voice and delivers a wonderful performance in all three elements of the part: comedy, drama and romance. True, Brian Stokes Mitchell was marvelous opposite Marin Mazzie in the 1999 revival, but once you have seen Drake in the role he created in 1948, it will be his image that pops into your head whenever you think of the show or of songs such as “Wunderbar,” “I’ve Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua,” “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?,” “So in Love” or the title song.
Patricia Morison is nearly as good in the role she originated as his co-star forced to remain in the show by gangsters attempting to enforce an I-O-U. Her performance in the back-stage portions of the role is a delight — including her part of the duet of “Wunderbar” and her solo on “So In Love.” But her work in the play-within-a-play as the shrew herself is even better, and the plate-smashing temper tantrum in “I Hate Men” is in a class by itself.
It is interesting to see Jack Klugman as one of the mobsters. This was a year before his big Broadway break when he co-starred with Ethel Merman in Gypsy and a dozen years before his face became the image of a slob opposite Tony Randall in television’s The Odd Couple. Here he’s teamed with Harvey Lembeck, whose name may not be familiar to many today, but whose face will instantly register when you screen the disc.
The telecast was directed by George Schaeffer who clearly respected the original stage direction of John C. Wilson. The truncating of the script to fit the timing of television was done with care. Where the show does suffer a bit is in the choreography with the limited space and flexibility resulting from the technical limits of the production.
This black and white DVD is clear and the sound is acceptable without being particularly noteworthy. It gets off to a bit of a shaky start, what with an unidentified face looking around the edge of the screen as the first number begins. “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” is delivered in a cramped space by Lorenzo Fuller and a cast of young dancers who look a bit like they’ve just come over from a performance of West Side Story (what’s with all that finger snapping?) but it soon opens up with Drake taking full charge of the show within a show and Morison matching him in the strength of her performance.
Any production of Kiss Me, Kate has a built in star – the score. However, Cole Porter’s most successful musical benefits from a superb book as well and Bella and Sam Spewack’s script seems to lend itself to cross-genre adaptation quite well.
Here, the TV version gives a good feel for how the songs flow naturally from the situations both in the on-stage version of The Taming of the Shrew, with their faux-classic formality of language like “I’ve Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua” and “Where Is the Life That Late I Led,” and in the back-stage comic complications that fuel some of the brighter, contemporary pop tunes like “Why Can’t You Behave?,” “Always True to You (In My Fashion)” and “Another Op’nin’, Another Show”.
Kiss Me, Kate fans are fortunate, for we not only have the Columbia Records album documenting the original production which is available from Masterworks Broadway (ASIN B002M2Z3RE) and the 1999 revival recording featuring sparkling new orchestrations by Don Sebesky on the DRG label (ASIN B00003OP0U,) we have John McGlinn’s complete recording using the original orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett, which is on the EMI label (ASIN B000GRGUM4). The soundtrack recording from the Hollywood movie version is also out there. It is on the Rhino label (ASIN B0000033MR). That movie, starring Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson stayed fairly close to the original, although it was done in then-gimmicky 3-D.
Now we have this fine copy of the television version to make our theatre shelves groan just a bit more under the weight of Kates.