Whoever said ‘They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore’ could easily be describing the 1958 TV adaptation of Cole Porter‘s classic musical, “Kiss Me Kate”. Starring the legendary original Broadway leads, Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison, it was first seen as part of the popular “Hallmark Hall Of Fame”, and to this day remains one of the most acclaimed televised translations of a Broadway musical ever. Then again, the show itself is considered one of the best “back-stage“ musicals ever written, involving the star-crossed tale of actors Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi–once married and now performing opposite each other in a musical version of Shakespeare’s “Taming Of The Shrew”–that is, if they can tolerate each other long enough to do it.
Released through V.A.I. Music, presented here is a pristine digital restoration of the black and white kinescope with similar audio enhancements that guarantee the sharpest sound quality. Interestingly enough though, it was initially aired in color (for those whose sets were compatible with RCA’s system in use at the time) Given all the elements, the feel of the program loses nothing in the translation. (In fact, in many ways the actors provide more than a rainbow’s worth via their dynamic performances.) With direction by George Schaefer and staged by Ernest Flatt from Hanya Holm’s original choreography, it was shot live utilizing two studios in Astoria Long Island, with the orchestra located in the second, away from the actors. The finished Special was broadcast two days later. Boasting a truly stellar company, Julie Wilson is also featured in the double-role of Lois Lane and Bianca (in the play-within-a-play) which she created in London. Opposite her is Bill Hayes as Lois’ likable-but-shiftless boyfriend, Bill Calhoun, while Lorenzo Fuller recreates his part from the original 1948 Broadway blockbuster as Fred’s dresser, Paul.
“My real memory about it was that NBC was going to go on strike at midnight when we were shooting,” recalls Morison, who, today remains as vital and vibrant as ever–which is delightfully apparent when discussing her famous role; although they were almost finished, she reveals that in the very last scene, a stage hand walked on and looked directly into the camera; “Now it was nearly eleven o’clock then,” she chuckles, “and we had to shoot the entire second act over–and we just made it by midnight!”
Likewise Wilson, who herself continues to be a passionate and well-respected performer, reminisces, “Patricia Morison was so gorgeous and Alfred Drake was so tremendous as the leading man, and ‘Wunderbar’, which they sang together, and ’So in Love’ were such wonderful songs.” Julie too, is a treasure to watch in this; her smile couldn’t be any brighter during “Always True To You”. (Is it any surprise that it also happens to be her favorite song from the show?) “I love all of them,” she declares, “but this one is a built-in great song. You just can’t go wrong with it!” As for her personal favourite, Patricia confesses “I love ‘I Am Ashamed that Women Are So Simple”–it was a very lovely finish to the whole play”. Curiously, the piece continues to be something of a standout in Musical Theater, as Porter took Katherine’s actual final monologue pretty much as Shakespeare wrote it and simply set it to his music.
Happily, the score is basically all intact with a few deletions, mostly due to time constraints. Among the numbers not in evidence are “Bianca”–Bill’s declaration of devotion to Lois, as well as the act two opener “Too Darn Hot” (whose subject matter and numerous risqué double-entendres–considered by many to be among the best ever written by Porter, were obviously ‘too darn controversial’ for Network TV back then.) However, even though the hit, introduced by Fuller on stage wasn’t included, the producers wisely gave him the rousing curtain-riser, “Another Op’nin Another Show”. So too, many of Cole’s lyrics, and their placement throughout the script, wonderfully evoke the feel of bonafide Shakespeare soliloquies. Then there’s the moments in Sam and Bella Spewack’s award-winning libretto that are both penned and performed with such nuanced virtuosity that they actually play like a musical number sans music (take for instance, the backstage scene in Lilli’s dressing room between her, Fred, and her stodgy, millionaire fiancée’!) Remarkably refreshing also is how everyone seems to have a deep-seated connection to the character they’re playing. Doubtless for most this comes from the intimate familiarity they’d gained from playing–or even debuting–their roles previously. This is especially true for Drake and Morison. Their experience as Fred and Lilli allow them to convey numerous subtle–but powerful moments particularly when the camera goes in tight. “When you originate something and then you have a rapport with whoever you’re working with,” observes Morison, “there’s something extra that you never get again.” It’s exactly this ’extra’ magic that she exhibits here with Alfred.
Furthermore, Patricia playfully divulges that casting both she and Julie required a little extra work for the hair and make-up designers. “Dear Julie Wilson has dark hair which she wears very much like I do, so the producers put her in a blond wig.” For her part, Wilson remembers this with a similar grin. “I had a long golden hair-piece on, and I think blonds DO have more fun!” Ironically, she credits Morison with her entire involvement with both the stage and TV productions in the first place “If it wasn’t for Patricia and her friends Sam and Bella Spewack, I don’t think I would’ve been involved, but they both had Cole Porter’s ear,” acknowledges Julie, explaining how they urged the renowned songwriter to see her act at the Mocombo Room and consider her for “Lois“. “I got to do the national tour and then I wound up going to England with Patricia.” Several years after, when asked to reprise the role in the television version, the celebrated chanteuse admits to jumping at the chance. “I said ‘oh how exciting, how wonderful’–especially with Bill Hayes set to play ‘Bill’ the gambler, my ‘sweetie pie’ in the story, so it all just worked out.” Rounding out the cast, Harvey Lembeck and Jack Klugman are a pair of light-hearted heavies, who seem to have more in common with “The Apple Dumpling Gang” than the ‘Corleones‘. Lembeck, who would become a pop-culture icon in the “Beach Party” movies, offers a preview of that bumbling ’rebel without a clue’ persona that made his “Eric Von Zipper” so endearing. Klugman matches him step-for-step and note-for-note several months before he took the “Great White Way” by storm opposite Ethel Merman in the equally illustrious “Gypsy‘. While the placement of their eleventh hour showstopper, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” may seem a little contrived, together, if comedy has a perfect pitch, these Bard-quoting not-so-wise-guys come pretty close to reaching it! “They were terrific” Wilson agrees, “they both knew comedy and really delivered!”
For more information regarding “Kiss Me Kate” or other terrific, hard-to-find titles V.A.I. Music has released, as well as to order on-line checkout: www.vaimusic.com, ; it’s also available from Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com “I hope a lot of younger people and a lot of would-be performers can get something from it,” Patricia stresses, to which Julie adds, “It’s a wonderful, ‘theatrical’ show that was so well written. It works because it’s such a good piece of musical history!” .
Photos Courtesy Of Paul Lambert; Extra Special Thanks To Patricia Morison, Julie Wilson, Ron Cohn, Paul Lambert, Foster Grimm & Everyone At Video Artists International (V.A.I.) For Making This Story Possible.