Kiss Me, Kate or Anything Goes


Posted by in June's Magazine

The witty, dextrous and racy lyrics of Cole Porter still sparkle decades after they were written. One of his most famous lines from his own personal anthem “Anything Goes” runs: “When every night the set that’s smart is intruding in nudist parties in studios, anything goes”. Opera North’s touring production of Kiss Me, Kate comes to Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre 4-7 July. This is a musical-within-a-musical, the leads Petruchio and Kate are played by divorced couple Fred and Lilli.

Kate opened at the Schubert Theatre in Philadelphia on 2 December 1948 (a good year for theatre, there was also the premier of South Pacific andDeath of a Salesman) and its New York debut three weeks later. It ran for 1,077 performances – the longest-running and most highly acclaimed of all Porter’s shows. He wrote more than 20 stage musicals (and 1,200 songs) but Kate was the exception. His other musicals were little more than ditties held together with flimsy plots. The 1948 critic of the New York Journal Americans said of the show “it is literate without being highbrow, sophisticated without being smarty, seasoned without being soiled and funny without being vulgar”.

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But it’s Porter’s music and lyrics that are the marvel. “He brought to the traditional and somewhat standardised tasks of songsmithinga great verbal ingenuity, a brave flexibility and resourcefulness, a cosmopolitan’s wide expertise in many mundane matters including foreign lands and tongues, and a spirit that always kept something of collegiate innocence about it,” wrote John Updike.

Nevertheless, there were often objections from performers, critics and local censors. Back in the 1930s famed singer Ethel Merman refused to sing the salty lyrics of one song from Anything Goes, a hymn to Catherine the Great’s (rumoured) insatiable sexual appetite: “she made the butler, she made the groom / she made the maid who made the room.” And Bert Lahr (who played the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz) would not sing a verse where Porter rhymed “cinema” with “enema” in another stage production. Many a song had to be rewritten for its recording onto a 78rpm record or airing on the radio. Salty double entendres were acceptable on the stage but not on the Victrola in the front parlour.

Porter loved using brand names, celebrities and news events in songs which gave them startling topicality. “Too Darn Hot” namechecks the Kinsey Report (on human sexuality). He might have been risqué but he was never rude. “In Kiss Me, Kate there is no sentimentality,” wrote one critic of Opera North’s production. “Just the occasional hint of a sexy melody by Offenbach; it is as starkly unlike the ghastly gooey West Side Story as possible.”

Sarcastic, homosexual, subversive, namedropping, sexually voracious, the world-travelled Cole Porter put many of his experiences and observations and much jaunty sang-froid into the songs.

There are some great memorable hits in Kateincluding “Oh Why Can’t You Behave”, the list song “Always True to You in My Fashion” and the novelty number “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”. In the latter two gangsters give advice on romance suggesting that if your girl acts heinous you should kick her “right in the Coriolanus”. The marital discord in the plot gives Porter much room for his classic silliness. In one song Kate lists all the types of men she hates. The athlete most of all who is bold and brassy. “He may have hair upon his chest but, sister, so has Lassie”. In another song Petruchio suggests that his lost love Lisa “gave a new meaning to the Leaning Tower of Pisa”. Go figure.

The 1990 album of rebooted Porter hits Red Hot + Blue was released to raise money for Aids relief. Over 20 artists including Tom Waits and Iggy Pop re-interpreted Porter′s themes of love, glamour and desolation in the context of Aids. However, the most inspired pairing of all was kd lang′s version of “So in Love”, from Kate, “it is surely one of the most haunting renditions of Porter,” wrote Lesley Chow in 2015 on the Popmatters website. “Not once does lang coast on her famous vibrato: instead, she goes for absolute mellowness, low and sweet,”

Info: Opera North’s touring production of Kiss Me, Kate comes to Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre 4-7 July. Tickets at www.capitaltheatres.com/kissmekate

 

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