By Peter Royston
(Center Stage Magazine, Winter/Spring 2002)

Since it was first written over four centuries ago, many husband-and-wife acting teams have taken on the roles of William Shakespeare's famous bantering lovers, Katherina and Petruchio, in his play The Taming of the Shrew. Frank and Constance Benson, E.H. Sothern and Julia Marlowe, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, have all found something in the play that mirrors their own relationships: the unique and hard-to-define communication between husband and wife, that secret language that only married people know. This near-mythical bond and all it represents - the intense bantering, the glaring eye covering a loving glance, the vows of eternal hatred followed by a passionate embrace - would later inspire the Cole Porter/Sam and Bella Spewack musical version of Shrew: Kiss Me, Kate.

September, 1935: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne turn Broadway upside-down with their volatile revival of The Taming of the Shrew. Young Arthur Saint-Subber watches a fascinating phenomenon from the wings: Lunt and Fontanne quarrel mercilessly backstage, walk on stage and continue their bantering (albeit now using Shakespeare's language), then walk off, taking up the battle again without missing a beat! The young man was amazed at these theatrical giants; the curtain between their stage personas and their "real" lives was never closed.

This image of husband and wife actors, always on the verge of either passion or homicide (sometimes both in the same moment), stuck with Saint-Subber as he grew to become a Broadway producer. In 1947, he turned to the comedy writers Sam and Bella Spewack to create a musical around this story: the famous actors Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi mount a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, their own marital discord mirroring their onstage strife. Saint-Subber envisioned a show with many dimensions: an affectionate valentine to the theatre, a farce with bungling gangsters and mixed-up gambling debts, but especially a tribute to the romantic fire he had seen in Lunt and Fontanne in 1935.

Coincidentally, the Spewacks, always known as a turbulent couple, were in the midst of their own marital woes. Sam had moved out, so Bella began the project on her own. Her first job was to find a songwriter. She knew of only one man who could create the romantic tension and witty musical banter this show would require: Cole Porter. The Spewacks had worked with Porter in 1938 on the musical Leave It To Me, and Bella knew what the world knew: Porter was a master of sexy ballads and mind-bending wordplay. Porter signed on, creating such classic songs as "Another Op'nin', Another Show," "I Hate Men," and "So In Love."

Theatrical necessity overcame marital sparks, and Bella asked Sam to collaborate with her on the script. Bella would work on melding the on-stage, off-stage worlds, while Sam would concentrate on the low-brow humor of the two gangsters who invade Fred and Lilli's world and sing the famous song, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." The combination of Cole Porter's music and the Spewacks back together again proved unbeatable: Kiss Me, Kate opened on December 30, 1948 to rave reviews. Richard Watts in The New York Post wrote, "From the opening number it was obvious to everybody that the first-nighters were seeing a smash hit of epic proportions…Again the American musical comedy proved itself the best in the world."

So what is it about this 400 year-old story that continues to resonate today? Maybe it's simply that after all the quarreling and banter, some couples are simply better together than apart. In The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio and Kate come together, not because of his "taming" methods (today rightly decried as sexist), but because their fiery natures match so well. In Kiss Me, Kate, Lilli Vanessi chooses to stay with Fred Graham, despite, or perhaps because of, the drama and unpredictability of their lives in the theatre. And in real life? After the opening of Kiss Me, Kate in 1948, Sam and Bella Spewack remained together permanently, at home and on the printed page.

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