Many of the great musical theatre hits of the Golden Age of Broadway found their way to the silver screen, big stars, big voices and big everything (especially with the introduction of widescreen in the 1950s). However, it was less likely that you would find the stage stars who helped to make the show a big hit recreating their roles on screen. There were some notable exceptions: Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam, Yul Brynner in The King and I and Robert Preston in The Music Man (to name a few). But for the most part, Hollywood wanted to bank on their bigger, more established stars.
Kiss Me, Kate opened on Broadway at the tail end of 1948, and was smash hit for composer Cole Porter, whose style up to that point had been considered passé. The musical was a farcical romp, using Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew as inspiration. Sam and Bella Spewack wrote the book, framing the Shakespeare play as a show-within-a-show during a Baltimore tryout. The two larger than life stars of the musical have more in common with their characters as they battle it out backstage, onstage and in the dressing room rehearsal during this world premiere performance. The leading lady’s first line: “You bastard!” And they were off!
The show starred Alfred Drake, Patricia Morison, Harold Lang and Lisa Kirk. It opened to unanimous raves in late 1948, running for 1077 performances. Kiss Me Kate would win the first-ever Tony award given for Best Musical. Drake found the greatest stage success of the four, winning a 1954 Tony for his star turn in Kismet and numerous operetta, musical and Shakespearean performances (most notably as Claudius in Richard Burton’s Hamlet in 1964). Morison, who will turn 95 this month, made only one more appearance on Broadway as a replacement Anna in The King and I. The cast made an original cast album for Columbia records in 1949, and reunited in 1959 to record a stereo cast album for Capitol.
Though Drake and Morison found indelible success with the project, when MGM got around to making the film version they signed two of their leading musical contract players: Howard Keel (who would also take Drake’s role in the movie version of Kismet) and the recently deceased Kathryn Grayson to play the roles. MGM, as is their wont, played around with the script and score. The stage libretto and Porter’s risque lyrics were toned down considerably. The famed “Another Openin’, Another Show” was reduced to underscoring. A rather bad prologue was invented with Fred and Lilli meeting with a fictional Cole Porter. To top it off, the musical was filmed for 3-D, and as a result the performers constantly throw things at the camera throughout.
I have loved Kiss Me Kate ever since I saw this bowdlerized film version. Then the show opened in an acclaimed Tony-winning revival in 1999 starring Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie. I listened to the revival cast album ad nauseam until I saw that production on January 9, 2001. It was my third Broadway show, but the first that gave me that transportive feeling that can be best described as walking on air. The London production was taped for TV and DVD with Brent Barrett and Rachel York. They’re fun, but it’s got nothing on the superlative original NY cast (though Michael Berresse repeated his showstopping turn as Bill Calhoun).
Getting back to my initial thought, there were many musical theatre performers who didn’t get to recreate their acclaimed turns on film. Since television musicals were quite the ratings boon in the 50s, there were many occasions when a star would make a live appearance in his or her hit show. Ethel Merman performed with Frank Sinatra in Anything Goes, Rosalind Russell recreated Wonderful Town and most famously Mary Martin was Peter Pan. The trend continues well into the 60s and 70s, but most of those productions are mostly notable for their camp value (Lee Remick as Lola in Damn Yankees, Jose Ferrer and an unbelievably awful George Chakiris in Kismet, and a ridiculous It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman).
In 1958, the Hallmark Hall of Fame presented an abridged version of Kiss Me Kate (almost all musicals adapted for TV were cut down significantly) reuniting Drake and Morison. Bill Hayes and Julie Wilson were the younger lovers. Jack Klugman and Harvey Lembeck played the gangsters. The telecast was one of the earliest uses of long-form videotape and was aired in color. I’ve never seen the color video, and wonder if it still exists. But a black and white tape has survived and that has since been shown on PBS in recent years. I nominate that the powers-that-be bring it to DVD. (And for my money, Patricia Morison may be the most beautiful woman who ever appeared anywhere).
Here’s Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison singing “Wunderbar” from that Hallmark telecast: