When I first began rehearsing a musical, I discovered to my genuine surprise that I was breaking an unwritten rule…that directors of serious ‘legitimate’ theatre should not dirty their hands by contact with such a lower form of entertainment! Since that time, it’s become almost impossible to name a leading play director who has not been successful and influential with musicals.
It’s just possible that, back in 1986, our Royal Shakespeare Company show Les Misérables, which survived a universal critical drubbing in this country, was a vital step forward in proving that a musical could actually be about something — poverty, injustice, revolution, religious fundamentalism, that sort of thing. But it’s more likely that the change came about through the gradual recognition of the genius of Stephen Sondheim, a composer/lyricist of Shakespearean dexterity, felicity and originality. A thaw has slowly set in, a climate change, still at times as difficult to prove as the melting of the ice caps.
I confess I have no idea from where this frigid antipathy arose. Perhaps I was lucky, growing up in a place and at a time when the staple entertainment in the local touring theatre was music hall. My first-ever experience of the interior of a theatre — with tickets won by my sister in a ‘colouring in’ competition — was listening to a pit orchestra tuning up. I was eight, and it was by far the most exciting sound I had heard in my life. But this was also the great age of the movie musical.
When I was 13, I went to see a film called Kiss Me, Kate. I emerged from the local Ritz Cinema that evening, intoxicated with the certainty that the life of the theatre, on stage and off, was the only life I wanted to lead.
The film starred the vocally and physically magnificent Howard Keel, a fitting object of hero worship, and in one scene he sang a Petruchio soliloquy from a runway promontory that jutted far out into the midst of his audience. So when, waiting to go up to university, I created a youth theatre company and directed them in Hamlet (I thought I should start with an easy one), I built a runway into the auditorium from which my electrifying young Dane delivered all his soliloquies — in the midst of his audience.
A few years have gone by since then, and I have now directed 30 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, and 20 musicals; so me directing Kiss Me, Kate, the Shakespeare musical, could be described as inevitable.
But, in not perceiving any barrier separating straight from musical theatre, I have always felt myself to be in good company. The great satirist Ben Jonson wrote book and lyrics for masques, which were the spectacular musicals of his age. And who can deny that in Shakespeare’s thrilling final burst of energy, he wrote plays with an increasing use of song (the pastoral section of The Winter’s Tale is constructed almost like a musical) and of visual and choreographic opportunities, as in The Tempest. John Gay, a respectable comic dramatist, came up with the smash hit of his age, The Beggar’s Opera, crammed with tunes you can’t get out of your head. Noël Coward, capable of Strindbergian astringency in his comedies, was a composer and lyricist of musicals…and a great friend of Cole Porter, who was in the same trade.
But perhaps the most relevant name I can recruit to my cause is Laurence Olivier, greatest actor of his age, creator and leader of the National Theatre. When he announced his intention that his new National company would do a production (in which he would star) of Guys and Dolls, he was showered with criticism — to which he responded, ‘Nothing is taboo.’ His company, he said, should be capable of responding to any and every theatrical challenge. The only necessity was that they should do it well. So the great man, I sense, would have happily approved of a production of Kiss Me, Kate, the ‘Shakespeare musical’, opening under the banner of his beloved Old Vic.
Actually, though, my route to this moment has been anything but straightforward. I first proposed directing a production of Kiss Me, Kate at Stratford back in 1977, after I had, somewhat mischievously, made a musical out of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, which became something of a cult hit. Alas, the rights turned out to be unavailable, so ‘The RSC in Cole Porter’ had to go on the back-burner. Happily, my colleague Adrian Noble eventually did a hugely successful RSC production of the show in 1987.
At the end of my stint at the National Theatre, I created a single acting company that played both a Shakespeare and a music theatre classic in repertoire. Kiss Me, Kate was my preferred NT option, but I discovered that Michael Blakemore’s hit Broadway production of the show was on its way to London. Besotted with Cole Porter as I was, Anything Goes became my alternative choice, and a very happy choice it was.
That show confirmed my view that Porter — a composer/lyricist of stunning dexterity and linguistic wickedness — is the precursor of Sondheim, and it’s no surprise that he should have become fascinated by the Pirandellian overtones of the plot of Kiss Me, Kate, with its shifting interface between art and life, life and art. It was conceived by a producer who was involved when that great husband and wife acting duo Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne performed The Taming of the Shrew. He was fascinated by their flashes of offstage temperament and began to define the idea of a show about a (fictional) couple whose relationship was even more explosive in life than that between the explosive characters they were acting on stage.
Porter, who had triumphed with Anything Goes as the world emerged from the Depression, triumphed again with Kiss Me, Kate as the world emerged from the second world war.
Generations later, I met my boyhood hero Howard Keel when he came to a cast party having seen my production of Oklahoma!. Feet of clay? The opposite. He was delightful, generous, attentive, witty and won the heart of everybody present. I have remembered him, and felt a surge of gratitude for his inspiration every day of these rehearsals. Art and life…life and art.
Kiss Me, Kate is previewing at the Old Vic from 20 November; it runs until 2 March 2013.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 17 November 2012