This post was written by a student in Susan Schuyler’s Narrative, Rhetoric, and Identity class at Stanford University. Each student in this class will complete a research-based argument related to the course topic.
In December 1948, Kiss Me, Kate, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter and a book by Sam and Bella Spewack, opened on Broadway. Kiss Me, Kate is a play-within-a-play about a company of actors putting on a musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew–and includes both scenes from the “opening night” performance and from the shenanigans backstage. Kiss Me, Kate did very well on Broadway, winning a Tony Award for Best Musical in 1949. The revival in 2001 also was an award-winner.
How did the root Shakespeare text, which could theoretically have been too antiquated to appeal to its intended audience, make for such a successful show? How did the Shakespearean references and song lyrics contribute to the overarching plot–that of the “off-stage” actors in the “on-stage” play? Most importantly, what is it about Porter and the Spewacks’ interpretation Shakespeare’s work that makes it accessible to a modern audience?
By examining the ways in which Kiss Me, Kate explores the identities of both the onstage Shakespearean characters and the offstage actors, I want to explore the relevancy and the role of the Shakespeare aspect within the musical and the approach the authors of the work use to incorporate, interpret, and reinvent the Bard.
Shakespeare’s works have been reinvented and revitalized time and again in thousands of ways: what fascinates me is the translation of Shakespeare into a full, triple-threat musical–with two levels of action and character! Consider Shrew, a centuries-old romantic comedy about a woman essentially forced into marriage by a patriarchal society and a boy-crazy baby sister and now consider Kate, a postwar musical comedy about a divorced couple costarring in a Shakespearean romcom and falling back in love. How did the authors reconcile these concepts in such a way that Kate’s actor-characters become so completely intertwined with their Shrew roles that the last two numbers of the onstage-and-offstage show apply equally to both? What component of their identity as modern characters connects to the personalities, ideas, and insights that derive from the original Shakespearean text?