About this Recording
8.120788 - PORTER: Kiss Me, Kate (Original Broadway Cast) (1949) / Let's Face It (1941)

Kiss Me, Kate
Original Broadway Cast 1949
Let’s Face It
Original Cast & Studio Recordings 1941-1942
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter

The overture is about to start. You cross your fingers and hold your heart.

Those lines from the opening number of Kiss Me, Kate were probably running through the brains of everyone connected with the nowclassic musical when it opened on 30 December 1948.

For most of the major players involved, this show was either the big break or the last chance: the musical that would put them on the map, or knock them off the board forever.

Saint Subber was a stage manager who dreamed of being a producer; this was his one big opportunity. Patricia Morison was a B picture ingénue who at 33 knew she had to become a star this time out or give up her dreams.

Bella Spewack had written numerous successful shows with her husband Sam, but he had left her for a younger woman and she felt she needed a hit on her own to redeem herself. Alfred Drake had scored big in 1943’s Oklahoma! but had been involved in five years of flops since then.

And then there was Cole Porter. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, his name had been synonymous with smart, sophisticated musicals. His score for Anything Goes alone would have earned him a place in theatre history.

But a tragic riding accident in 1937 had left him crippled and his work began a slow decline. By the time he started Kiss Me Kate, he hadn’t had a hit in five years, while Rodgers and Hammerstein and Irving Berlin were enjoying the biggest smashes of their careers.

Clearly a lot was at stake here, and the fact that a musicalization of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew was the vehicle that everyone pinned their anxious hopes on shows how desperate they were, because no one on Broadway thought it was a good idea.

Not even the mitigating factor that it was actually a play within a play about a recently divorced diva-ish husband and wife who happened to be doing a musical of Shakespeare’s battle-of-the-sexes comedy made it sound like a winner to the Shubert Alley regulars.

The question of who came up with the concept has never truly been settled. Saint Subber suggests the idea was his and stemmed from the days he was on tour with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne and watched the married stars bickering onstage as well as off.

Bella Spewack insists she was first approached about just turning Shrew into a musical and that she originated the backstage story, while Cole Porter is on record as saying the whole thing began with Alfred Drake.

Everyone agrees that Porter took a long time in being convinced of the project, but the dynamic Bella wouldn’t take no for an answer and the songwriter finally relented.

One reason for Porter’s reluctance may have been the fact that he was in what he later called ‘complete agony’ during the period, due to an abscess on one of his badly damaged legs. But, self-medicating with alcohol, he plowed ahead, usually writing in the wee small hours of the morning and awakening a not-delighted Spewack to sing her selections like Why Can’t You Behave?

Still Porter plowed ahead, driving past pain and insecurity to create his finest score. Some of the numbers (Where Is The Life that Late I Led?,Were Thine That Special Face and I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple) were inspired by actual lines of Shakespeare, while numbers like Too Darn Hot, Always True To You In My Fashion and So In Love were vintage Porter.

He recycled one old number called “Waltz Down The Aisle” which had been cut from Anything Goes, fitted it with a new lyric and rechristened it Wunderbar.

On the other hand, no other Porter score contained so many quality songs discarded before the opening for one reason or another, including the haunting “We Shall Never Be Younger” and the naughty “What Does Your Servant Dream About?”.

Spewack was struggling in her own way as much as Porter was and although it killed her to do so, she finally turned to her estranged husband Sam to help with the book. He came up with the subplot about the debt-collecting gangsters which gives the show much of its comic zip and inspired one of Porter’s wittiest songs, Brush Up Your Shakespeare.

A legendary case of ‘what do the experts know?’ happened at the final run-through before the show finished rehearsing in New York. An insecure Saint Subber had cognoscenti like Moss Hart, Edna Ferber and Agnes DeMille watch the production and offer their advice. They all told him it was doomed to failure.

However, when it opened in Philadelphia on 2 December 1948, the critics and audiences fell in love with it instantly and only a few minor cuts were necessary before it faced its Broadway debut four weeks later with similar wildly enthusiastic results.

It ran for 1077 performances,won five Tony Awards,was turned into a successful film and has been frequently revived over the years most recently in a 1999 Broadway version that starred Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie.

This recording was made by the complete original cast on 13 January 1949, shortly after the opening, and features most of the score, although several numbers were cut due to length including the first act ending that gives the show its title (although a fragment of it can be heard in the finale on this recording).

The other thing worth noting is that what is called the Overture is actually the “Entr’acte”, played before Act II. Kiss Me, Kate as originally performed had no Overture.

After all these years,we can still enjoy the lush theatricality of Alfred Drake, the razor-like control of Patricia Morison, the saucy charm of Lisa Kirk and the sheer cheekiness of Harold Lang. A great cast in a great score, no matter how hard it was to get together.

Also on this recording are nine selections that cover much of the score from Porter’s 1941 popular hit Let’s Face It!

This was a typical wartime romp, based on a 1925 farce called The Cradle Snatchers. In the original version, three bored society wives flirt with a trio of jazz age gigolos. In the musical, the men become recent draftees (although the show opened two months before Pearl Harbor brought America into World War II).

The star of the show was Danny Kaye, riding high from his smash debut earlier in 1941 in Lady In the Dark. Porter actually allowed Kaye’s wife, Sylvia Fine to interpolate some specialty comedy numbers of her own into the score for her husband, but Porter himself came up with two winners for the comedian, Farming and Let’s Not Talk About Love, both of which Kaye romps through on a 1942 recording.

The overly earnest cabaret artist who called herself ‘The Incomparable Hildegarde’ always loved Porter’s work, although the feeling wasn’t mutual. She recorded You Irritate Me So and A Little Rumba Numba in October of 1941.

Mary Jane Walsh was a popular Broadway singer of the period who was also in the original cast of Let’s Face It! and she is heard on a November 1941 version of three selections from the show, I Hate You Darling and Ace In the Hole and Ev’rything I Love.

Period bandleader William Scotty and his Cotillion Room Orchestra complete the collection with two medleys from November 1941 that cover five songs from the score.

Let’s Face It! shows Porter in a purely conventional vein, no better or worse than the material he had to work with. But Kiss Me, Kate, on the other hand, demonstrates the genius he was capable of when given a project that could truly inspire him.

Richard Ouzounian

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