Kiss Me, Kate in Philadelphia


KISS ME, KATE and its premiere at the Shubert Theater in Philadelphia 

As the students of the Ira Brind School of Theater Arts prepare to perform the classic musical "Kiss Me, Kate" on the stage of the Merriam Theater this week, they can’t help but recall another production of that same show that took place on this same stage more than 65 years ago.

In December of 1948, the authors and original cast of "Kiss Me, Kate" arrived in Philadelphia for that show's first-ever performances, only weeks before the show opened on Broadway. Acclaimed songwriter Cole Porter, librettist Bella Spewack and stars Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison were among the dozens of artists who traveled from New York to Philadelphia for a month-long "out of town tryout" at what was then called the Shubert Theater. Materials in the Theatre Collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia provide a fascinating glimpse of what that must have been like. 

In December of 1948, the show was hardly the legendary crowd-pleaser it is presently known to be; rather, it was a speculative endeavor featuring a score by an acclaimed master who many thought was past his prime, and the producing team of Arnold Saint-Subber and Lemuel Ayers had spent many hours at backers' auditions raising the necessary $150,000 needed to capitalize their show. Even so, the New York-based press agents for the show, George and Dorothy Ross, were predicting success in a typewritten press release that proclaimed, 

"A riotously colorful, tuneful show, with scenery and costumes designed by producer Lemuel Ayers, it bids fair on the basis of the hubub [sic] at the Shubert's box office, to smash attendance records in Philadelphia."

Another items from those same press agents a few weeks later confirmed that, 

"Never at the Shubert has there been such an instantaneous demand for tickets and at one of the Saturday matinees, six policemen had to be summoned to maintain order in the lobby, because the congestion was so great."

The price of those tickets might come as a shock to modern-day audiences, who have resigned themselves to paying over $100 for a seat at a Broadway musical. A pair of ticket stubs from the final Philadelphia performance of "Kiss Me, Kate" on Christmas Day, December 25, can be found among the artifacts in the Free Library's Theater Collection, and the price marked on them is a mere $1.95 apiece for admission to the balcony. 

Changes are often made in a musical during its out-of-town tryouts, and "Kiss Me, Kate" was no exception. The program from the Philadelphia engagement at the Shubert Theater shows the title of the opening song in the second act as "Too Damn Hot," using an expletive that someone apparently decided was a bit too vigorous for genteel Broadway ears; the song was retitled "Too Darn Hot" and is now a musical theater "standard." The playbill also lists a ninth scene in Act II, one that took place in the same alley where "Too Damn Hot" was danced; that scene was dropped by the time the show reached Broadway.

One other change in the program between Philadelphia and New York is worth noting: the program at the Shubert Theater reads "book by Bella Spewack," but by the time the show had reached the New Century Theater on Broadway, it had been modified to read "book by Sam and Bella Spewack." The Spewacks were a husband-and-wife team who collaborated on many projects during their marriage, but it's hard to account for the change in billing that occurred for Broadway. One is tempted to speculate that the change was indicative of some marital drama behind the scenes. 

Marital drama is, of course, at the heart of the comedy of "Kiss Me, Kate," a show whose plot pits the temperamental star Lilli Vanessi against her former husband, the egotistical producer Fred Graham. Fred and Lilli are modeled on the legendary couple Alfred Lunt ("Fred") and Lynne Fontanne (whose nickname was "Lilli"), who appeared together in a production of "The Taming of the Shrew" in 1935. That show not only appeared on Broadway but in a national tour that included several weeks at Philadelphia's Chestnut Street Opera House. It was produced by the esteemed Theatre Guild, an organization that gets a satirical nod in the "Kiss Me, Kate" song "We Open In Venice" - "No Theatre Guild attraction are we" - and the co-producer of the Lunt-Fontanne "Shrew," John C. Wilson, directed the musical "Kiss Me, Kate." 

When “Kiss Me, Kate” was revived on Broadway in 1999, the show was revised in a number of small but significant ways. New dance arrangements by David Chase and orchestrations by Don Sebesky gave the score a new aural sheen, while (uncredited) book revisions by playwright John Guare focused on changes to the character of Harrison Howell, Lilli’s “mystery lover” in Act II. The show currently being presented on the Merriam stage has undergone myriad modifications since those first performances sixty-five years ago, but the unforgettable characters, the classic songs and the lively drama are every bit as fresh and memorable as they were in those heady first days in Philadelphia.