Kiss Me, Kate, that problematic staple of the musical theatre repertoire, will be revived on Broadway next month, a little over 70 years after it opened on Broadway (on Dec. 30, 1948). (The new staging, from Roundabout Theatre Company, begins performances Feb. 14 and has an opening scheduled for March 14.) While the musical is often referred to as Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, the composer/lyricist’s collaborators played an important role, most primarily Bella Spewack, who co-wrote the book with her husband, Samuel. Indeed early drafts of the Kiss Me, Kate book, located in the Samuel and Bella Spewack papers at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New York City, show that Bella attempted to change the narrative of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, the basis and frame for Kiss Me, Kate, to create a more progressive Katharine. Unfortunately her attempts were edited out, apparently by her male collaborators, with the more active Katharine from her early drafts erased in favor of a more traditional take on the role.
Kiss Me, Kate depicts two concurrent “taming” narratives: Katharine, in a musical production of The Taming of the Shrew, and Lilli Vanessi, a divorcée reunited with her ex-husband while they perform the leads in a tour of the show. While Samuel and Bella Spewack are both credited with the book to Kate, it was written primarily by Bella. According to Bella, in an unpublished remembrance she wrote about Porter, Sam’s work consisted mostly of revising a few sections, notably the scenes with the lovable gangsters who “persuade” Lilli to continue performing in the show, even after she has tried to walk out due to her husband’s abusive behavior.
Born Bella Cohen in Transylvania and brought to the United States by her mother in 1902, she went on to write several plays and screenplays with her husband. They were always considered a team. But by 1948 Bella and Sam were having marital problems, and Bella initially took on the Kiss Me, Kate job independent of her husband, and even recruited Cole Porter to write the score—the Spewacks had collaborated with Porter in 1938 on Leave It to Me. Though Sam eventually worked on the book for Kate, he told Bella he didn’t want credit for it, until, in the summer of 1948, Porter prevailed on him via telegram, writing that it would make the public much happier to read “book by Sam and Bella Spewack.”
Porter’s comment to Sam implies that audiences did not want to see Bella’s name appear by itself—that it was only as a married woman that she was an acceptable career woman to the public. But the contention over the script, unsurprisingly, went deeper than simply where credit would be allotted. There is a letter in the Columbia archives in which Bella berates Lemuel Ayers and John Wilson (Kate’s producer/designer and director, respectively) for making changes to her book, and for implying that she would never finish writing it because she had been “confused, evasive, and mentally distraught.”
Bella was clearly frustrated by the way these men treated her, and the words she cites them using to describe her are gendered words—words that echo the kind of language traditionally used to disparage women. As Kate is receiving high-profile revivals alongside other vintage musicals such as Carousel and My Fair Lady—both exclusively created by white men in their original productions, and all three directed and choreographed by men in current Broadway revivals (as Diep Tran of American Theatre and Michael Paulson of The New York Times both pointed out last year)—it’s instructive to look back at Bella Spewack’s contributions to Kate. Her early iterations of the script show a road not taken for the American musical, and highlight what can happen to a woman’s voice in a male-dominated creative process.
In writing the book of Kiss Me, Kate, Bella hoped not only to create a sort of contemporary answer to Taming in the character of the actor Lilli; she also wanted create a more progressive Taming of the Shrew for the play-within-the-musical. Though her alterations to Shakespeare were eventually erased, both Spewacks remained clear-eyed about the essential nature of the material, referring in a Saturday Review piece five years after Kate’s opening to Taming as Shakespeare’s “slap your wife around, she’ll thank you for it” play.
In one of Bella’s drafts, Katharine dresses as a boy to tell Petruchio he should woo this cursed Katharine, suggesting an impulse on Bella’s part to amend some of the most troubling aspects of the misogynistic Taming. Indeed this cross-dressing Katharine resembles Rosalind from As You Like It. A reference to that other Shakespeare play even appears in earlier drafts to suggest an alternative, more appealing female lead. In one early and incomplete draft, Lilli’s character, called “Tilly,” asks her husband (Tilly and Fred are a happily married couple in this draft) why he chose to do an adaptation of Taming “rather than As You Like It.” The exchange continues:
Fred: Because I’ve let you pick everything’s [sic] so far – that we’ve done together.
Tilly: Really I wasn’t aware of that. Seems to me I’m always doing what you want to do.
Fred: I’ve always wanted to play Petruchio.
Tilly: It is a fat part.
Fred: And you’ll play Katharine like a dream.
Tilly: I don’t happen to like Katharine.
Fred: This is a helluva time to tell me.
Tilly: Audiences don’t like hard, bitten, nasty women with brains.
Fred: Well, I do, my sweet.
This exchange raises a number of important points about how Shakespeare’s heroines are perceived in Kate. First, there is some indication that Fred chose Taming on purpose, we assume to teach his wife some kind of lesson. He also thinks she will make a good Katharine. She then asserts that she does not like Katharine, not because of how she is treated but because of how audiences perceive her. Tilly’s assertion that audiences do not like “nasty women with brains,” coupled with Fred’s reply indicates that he regards Tilly herself as one such woman. The reference to As You Like It, especially as a contrast to The Taming of the Shrew, hints at the way that the greater agency of Rosalind in As You Like It would haunt later drafts of Kiss Me, Kate.
In one of the drafts in which Kate is dressed as a boy, she first meets Petruchio in her disguise on the streets of Padua. Katharine tries to engage Petruchio in a conversation about the Earth being round, which he derails by telling “him,” “Lad, thou should be concerned with sports and travel and buxom maids.” In this alternate Taming created by Bella, Katharine’s apparent interest in science is as inappropriate for a boy as it would be for a girl. Petruchio and Katharine then have the following exchange:
Katharine: A woman is a hapless thing: merely man’s puppet and convenience when convenient.
Petruchio: Which, my lad, is as it should be!
Katharine: There, I do not agree!
Bella appears to be both critiquing misogyny in general here but also the misogyny of Taming. Needless to say, this exchange isn’t in the final script.
This cross-dressing Katharine goes on to take control of the scene and of her future. After disagreeing with Petruchio about a woman’s role in the world, Katharine speaks slightly altered lines that in Taming belong to Hortensio. She tells Petruchio that she can help him to a wife. She includes, “Her only fault is that she is intolerable curst, / And shrewd, and forward, so beyond all measure. / That, were my state far worse than it is, / I would not wed her for a mine of gold.” By having Katharine (in disguise) ask Petruchio to woo her, Bella seems to have turned Katharine into a kind of Rosalind. There is, of course, no indication why Katharine would want a man she just disagreed with about a woman’s role in a relationship to woo her; we have to imagine there is something she has decided she likes about him. Perhaps we are meant to assume that Katharine wants to be “tamed.” And while this idea is troubling also, her choice to be “tamed” at least gives her more power in her relationship with Petruchio—at the very least Katharine is consenting to it. It also gives more credence to the idea that, in her final speech/song “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple,” Katharine is gesturing to the audience that she has not been “broken,” therefore also altering Lilli’s decision to stay with Fred in the end.
In early drafts of Kate, Katharine is also a poet. So not only is she a bit like Rosalind—she’s a bit like Orlando too. “Were Thine That Special Face,” a song sung by Petruchio in the final version of Kate, is sung in early drafts by this “boy” Katharine. She tells Petruchio that she has written a poem and begins by singing the verse:
I wrote a poem
In classic style
I wrote it with my tongue in my cheek
And my lips in a smile
But of late my poem has a meaning so new
For, to my surprise
It suddenly applies
to my darling—to you
She then sings the chorus, handing the poem to Petruchio, who then sings the chorus. In the final version of Kiss Me, Kate, though, the song is all his.
In early drafts of the last scene there are indications that perhaps marriage with Petruchio is what Katharine wanted all along. Katharine reprises “Were Thine That Special Face,” as herself, with no disguise. She sings it to Vincentio, who Petruchio tells her is a young woman. She says to the “young woman” that one day she will have a man and that “to thee, he’ll someday sing,” and goes into the chorus of “Were Thine That Special Face.” While the reprise of this song could have been read as showing that Katharine has agreed to her “taming” throughout the whole play, no mention of the connection is made between Katharine’s rendition of the song as a boy and her later reprise as a woman.
In a letter from Cole Porter to director John Wilson in June of 1948, also sent to Bella, Porter weighs in on what appear to be changes Wilson wanted to make to Bella’s script, which had the ultimate effect of reverting Bella’s more powerful Katharine to something closer to Shakespeare’s original. Porter writes, “As for cutting out Bella’s scenes, where Kate is dressed as a boy, I think this is a good idea if you won’t lose a lot of comedy by doing so and also if it won’t mean that ‘Were Thine That Special Face’ will be kicked around in different bad spots in the second act and finally cut out of the show.” Porter got his way on both points: Katharine’s cross-dressing was gone, but “Were Thine That Special Face” stayed. I have been unable to locate any responses from Bella to these specific changes, but it’s clear that Bella’s alterations to the role of Katharine were ultimately eliminated, at least in part by her male collaborators, in favor of a more traditional “shrew.”
Kiss Me, Kate is still a compelling piece of theatre in its current iteration, and Lilli’s position as an independent working actress should not be ignored. Though the show has her ultimately reconcile with Fred, the abusive husband she’d left previously, she does so on relatively more liberated terms than Taming’s Katharine.
That represents some kind of progress. Still, the apparent erasure of Bella’s efforts toward creating a more progressive reading of gender and consent in this Golden Age musical is both a missed opportunity and a cautionary tale. Future creative teams would do well not only to include more women’s voices in their process, but to listen to them.
Anne Potter is a Ph.D. student in theatre at Columbia University.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. This Giving Season, please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!