Compiled by Rachel Liuzzi, Public Relations Manager
Our production of Kiss Me, Kate comes at a time when women are speaking out more loudly and earnestly than ever about sexual harassment, consent, and gender equality. With the advent of #MeToo, a movement that supports survivors of sexual violence, producing a musical that has some outdated roots in sexism and misogyny requires a critical and thoughtful approach to direction and choreography. Director Alan Paul and choreographer Michele Lynch share some thoughts on what it means to place a contemporary lens on this classic musical today.
How does Kiss Me, Kate fit in with today’s social and cultural climate?
ALAN PAUL: Shakespeare was discussing gender and gender identity 400 years ago when he wrote The Taming of the Shrew. He was essentially asking the questions: What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? And how can they relate to each other? There’s a lot in The Taming of the Shrew about those kinds of relationships – father and daughter, husband and wife – and though he has a lot to say, Shakespeare is ultimately ambiguous at the end of the play. Kiss Me, Kate is not an adaptation of Shrew, and the writers put their own stamp on the ending. The musical makes sure Kate (and Lilli Vanessi) come out on top. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to direct it in 2018.
MICHELE LYNCH: Kiss Me, Kate gives us a backstage view of show business in the 1940s and is a reflection of how the intricacies of that time, including sexism and misogyny, played out. It’s exciting to have a chance to work on the show in the midst of the #MeToo movement. Everyone working on the show has a responsibility to tell the story in a different way and look at it with different eyes so the audience, cast and creative team can see and feel that we made an effort in putting it in perspective with today’s culture. I am so appreciative of this conversation and that I have a chance to be an active voice in it.
What is your approach to Kiss Me, Kate as we live amid the #MeToo movement?
AP: At the first rehearsal Michele and I opened up a conversation with the entire cast and creative team about telling this story now, especially with the women in the cast. It’s important to me that we work together as a team to make this production something we are all proud of, and something that represents our values and beliefs. Cole Porter intended to write a strong female lead, so that’s the spirit in which I’m approaching this production. There are subtle things throughout the show that I have changed through staging, and most importantly, I wanted to take a hard look at the misogyny that lives in both Shakespeare’s work and in musicals of the 1940s and 1950s.
ML: I look at big dance numbers first. There’s a part of social and cultural progress where it’s important to note how far we have come and how far we have to go – that’s what we’re working with right now. From the first time we did Kiss Me, Kate, Alan and I approached Kate not being a victim, which we are also doing now. I am going to choreograph from my point of view: I am never going to have the women in a subservient place – I am always going to give them power. I think I can always do that in the choreography. With #MeToo at the forefront, I will take a bolder approach with it than I have before – from an empowered place – not giving my power to men in any way. My job is always to see everyone as an equal and I take that responsibility very seriously.
Lilli Vanessi/Kate is a powerful woman. What is your take on this character and how did you approach her in this production?
AP: Cole Porter and Sam and Bella Spewack were using the great Lynn Fontanne as a model for Lilli Vanessi. They were drawing on all of her qualities as a great actress and very strong woman. However, I am sure the writers were influenced by the other great ladies of the 1930s and 1940s – Katherine Cornell, Katherine Hepburn and Carole Lombard to name a few.
What is significant in Kiss Me, Kate is that Lilli has left the theater to become a movie star. She has much more negotiating power than her ex-husband, Fred Graham, and she is undoubtedly the more famous one. That gives her agency in her professional relationship with Fred Graham, her ex-husband.
ML: Kate is such an interesting character from the 16th Century. She has a strong voice and she truly fights for what she wants. I believe that she defies all the odds of our time because of that and sadly, the show can portray her as a shrew. My job as choreographer is to show off all of the fabulous things that a woman like Kate has, such as strength, softness and vulnerability, to name just a few. I want to get the audience on Kate’s side and make them fall completely in love with her.
What does it mean to you as a theater artist to work on a production of Kiss Me, Kate today?
AP: To do Kiss Me, Kate today means that you jump straight into the fray of the most important national conversation we are having right now. I think it’s a great opportunity for us to be fearless about talking about a subject that we all care a lot about and doing it with humor. Gender and how men and women relate has fascinated us from the dawn of time. With this show, we see how both Shakespeare and Cole Porter were exploring this idea in the 16th and 20th Centuries.
ML: I had a career as a dancer where I didn’t have as much of a voice in the creative process. It’s been fascinating to work on this production now having seen how far we’ve come as a society with women speaking out. I am so grateful to be at the creative table and to help shape the conversation. As a female choreographer, it has been very meaningful for me to ensure that our female performers consent to everything we are doing onstage and feel comfortable working with the male performers, especially with partner work. It means a lot to me to continue to empower women in this way.