The annals of musical theatre misogyny are dense and teeming: there’s My Fair Lady, whose Professor Higgins sings “Why can’t a woman be more like a man”, and crushes the ego of a flowergirl who floats into his path, remaking her in his own preferred image. There’s Annie Get Your Gun, devoted to teaching a female sharpshooting champion to powder herself, preen, stop swearing, and most importantly to set herself below the man she fancies. Or, more generally, there’s every musical that centres on the discovery of an unformed girl and the punishment she endures as she’s converted into professional screen or stage goddess material, a theme most vividly explored in the 1954 movie musical A Star Is Born, where life uncomfortably, calculatingly mimics art – we see Judy Garland playing a hardened vaudeville hoofer who has her hair dyed and her nose formed into more acceptable shape in a clinical, sinister Hollywood studio salon. These narratives are about reshaping the female form, both physically and mentally, into a soft, compliant, aesthetically pleasing form. In a way, they’re all versions of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, with its narrative of a woman who’s ‘tamed’, through starvation, sleep-deprivation, and humiliation, into marriageable material.
But Kiss Me Kate is the only show that’s actually a rewrite of Shakespeare’s most memorably sexist play, to the extent that it retains whole scenes from its source material. It’s a musical I know inside out. The 1953 movie version held my childhood self in thrall with Ann Miller’s heightened, breathless long-limbed sexuality, and with her adversary Kathryn Grayson’s wonderfully high-minded, airily delivered put-downs. Ironically, musicals that are about crushing women tend to have the closest things the genre has ever produced to girl-power anthems: they’re violently misandrist, as well as misogynist, even though the latter party invariably wins their battle-of-the-sexes conflicts. In Calamity Jane, the story of a rugged frontierswoman who’s tamed into submission, Jane’s would-be anthem of newly acquired domesticity ‘A Woman’s Touch’ is basically a lesbian anthem, especially after the first half’s orgy of thigh-slapping, gun-toting dyke camp. My Fair Lady has outstanding murderous revenge fantasy ‘Just You Wait’, where Eliza fantasises about having her tormentor shot by a firing squad. And Kiss Me Kate is full of salty, man-hating, cynical lines, which reach their apex in ‘I Hate Men’. It’s misandrist torch song, a slow burn of fury which meticulously anatomises all the ways in which men are terrible: their infidelities, their emotional neglect, their braying pride: “He may have hair upon his chest/But sister so does Lassie”.
It’s the most jagged part of a musical that’s full of jagged pieces, mixing Shakespeare’s narrative of female submission with a cast of women who won’t be tamed, or at least not more than outwardly. Currently playing London Coliseum, Opera North’s version is sprightly and witty. Instead of opting for the movie’s fevered toyshop-bright camp, it’s soaked in the aesthetic of old-school Shakespeare productions: huge crowds of chorus members in padded velvet doublets and gowns, elaborate visual set-pieces, declamatory gestures and striking poses. It’s a sharp contrast to the more naturalistic backstage scenes, with their constant wise-cracking, in-fighting state of tension – although this contrast maybe feels less vivid in an era where acting styles have shifted again, to new levels of naturalism.
Cole Porter’s songs are brilliantly performed, even if they appear pretty much at random. ‘Too Darn Hot’ comes after the interval, as actors sweat into their thick costumes (it might include a reference to the Kinsey Report that the movie was forced to censor, but it’s not one iota as sexy as Ann Miller’s tapdancing frenzy). Will Tuckett’s choreography is full of camp and wit, especially the outbreak of overblown female fawning that rises to match Fred/Petruchio’s ‘Where is the Life That Late I Led’, an elegy for his lost wild-oat-sowing days that comes, ironically, on his wedding night, when he’s tyrannised his way through mere hours of married life.
Unusually, in a genre where male creatives still very much dominate, Opera North’s Kiss Me Kate has a female director. And it shows. Jo Davies consistently makes choices that problematise Lilli/Katherine’s journey from shrew to tame bird, from the violence she constantly metes out to her ex-husband/suitor, to the final rebellious slap on the bum she gives him at the curtain call.
The argument I want to make, and can almost make, is that Kiss Me Kate is a triumphant exercise in subverting stories of female submission: by showing real, well-rounded women rebelling against the constraints of female roles, this production shows the ultimate emptiness of stereotyped narrative lines. And yet.
The climax of Kiss Me Kate is still, like its source, a speech where its anti-heroine descends into the company of assembled women like a freshly-programmed Stepford Wife, ready to tell them all how to ‘woman’ properly. “Place your hand under your husband’s foot”, she tells them. Taken directly from Shakespeare’s original play, the phrasing of Kate’s speech still rankles. Her hand, representing agency, and independence, is symbolically both humbled and crushed under a man’s foot. In Opera North’s production, it’s a speech that’s delivered with a kind of defiance – a defiance that still can’t quite soften the sense that our furious, rebellious, righteously angry heroine has betrayed the female more-than-half of the audience.
Kiss Me Kate ends abruptly, and that ending feels even more abrupt on stage, somehow. There’s no time to unpack its uneasy resolution. But could you ever, in a genre with so much built-in reverence to its source material?
There’s an ongoing debate about how theatre handles its problematic back catalogue, and this debate feels extra-vivid when it comes to musical theatre. The straight play equivalents to something like Kiss Me Kate just aren’t staged any more: any number of saucy, snippy, endlessly sexist farces and comedies from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s have been forgotten, and it’s largely not much of a loss. But when it comes to musicals, a lot of these narratives are tied to some of the best musical theatre songs ever written, and to performance traditions that prize the kind of meticulously drilled, exhilarating excellence that’s got less in common with theatre than with classical music or ballet.
For now, golden age musicals have got an audience who are tethered in by memories, as well as a love of virtuoso performances: something about their swoony romance, huge musical numbers, and covetable costumes gives them an emotional tug that few other pieces of theatre can rival. Their audiences watched them as kids who were too young for ‘straight’ drama, and they’ve got an undeniable extra lure for gay or queer audiences. They make space for men to wear gorgeous clothes and to express their sexuality in ways that don’t involve grunting or shooting baddies, and their dance language makes space for alternative interpretations beyond Hollywood’s compulsory heterosexuality.
What worries me is: what happens when that nostalgia runs out? Because I’m not sure it has infinite, indefinite currency, and new audiences are already demanding more sophisticated interpretations.
The programme for Opera North’s Kiss Me Kate proudly announced the labour that had gone into restoring this 1949 Cole Porter creation to something as closely approximating the original as possible – an intensive exercise involving tracking down and comparing old scripts, hunting down the one true version with the diligence of a Hamlet scholar. Why, though? What’s the point in historiographic accuracy when golden age musicals were endlessly reformed: for different productions, to move from stage to cinema? Heck, even the songs were endlessly being shuffled from show to show, story to story, as their irrelevance to the broader narrative of the show often clearly demonstrates.
If it’s not too queasy an analogy, it seems to me that there’s no reason why old musicals can’t be remoulded into a more feminist shape, just as they moulded their spikiest female protagonists into something suited to the values of their age. That doesn’t mean sanitising them, or making them pappy or compliant – this stuff is complicated, because even putting the songs aside, some of the most interesting portrayals of women happen in some of the most sexist shows. I had a conversation with a feminist musical theatre fan who thought the domestic violence should be completely expunged from Carousel, which seems like a cowardly way to deal with a show that deliberately tried to show toxic male behaviour, and its corrosive impact on a three-dimensional female character, within a naturalistic frame (before the heaven scenes, that is). Still, leaving in lines like the infamous “he hit me, mother but it didn’t hurt – it felt like a kiss” feels wrong, too. Carrying these musicals into future centuries might mean reappraising them, and reappraising them might well mean involving contemporary playwrights who can add to, riff on and rework books that are already decades old.
It’s radical, but the alternative is pretty uninspiring: it’s a retreat deeper and deeper into layers of knowingly camp cultural irrelevance. Richard Jones’ controversial, endlessly witty revival of Annie Get Your Gun at the Young Vic in 2009 was rightly praised for aesthetic choices that broke with tradition, using kitsch Americana to unleash something free and spirited. But by leaving the book largely intact, it also sent its star Jane Horrocks so far into a perplexing Ironywoodland that the set was literally the shape of a cinema screen. In a script full of offensive portrayals of Native Americans and vomit-worthy sexist stereotypes (“The girl that I marry will have to be/ As soft and pink as a nursery”), it was a sort of directorial way of saying “Hey, we didn’t write this stuff! Don’t blame us!”. In such a contemporary-feeling frame, there was a renewed heartlessness to the narrative momentum that converted Annie from trainer-wearing butch icon to simpering heroine.
Musical theatre fandoms are dominated by women, gay men, and/or queer people who’ve got the most to lose by clinging to the same aesthetics that once nurtured them. These aesthetics are often glittering, subversive, spiky: but they still enforce a restrictive model of heterosexuality, the values of white supremacy, and the notion that bodies must be skinny, young, gender-conforming and almost always white before they can be beautifully dressed.
In cabaret, burlesque and live art, people of all body types, genders and ethnicities are remaking musical theatre, in shows like Jonny Woo and Le Gateau Chocolat’s Night at the Musicals, which brings the shambolic values of queer drag culture into collision with musical theatre’s tightly regimented quest for perfection. Both artists squabble over who gets to be the heroine, in an ironic comment on a genre that still places strict conditions around who gets to wear the frocks. And over in theatre, female playwrights and playwrights of colour are giving flesh and emotional weight to characters that have been on the margins for centuries. It feels like time for musical theatre to reach out to and collaborate with some of the creatives who are soaked in its legacy – before it becomes a heritage industry, devoted to preserving the most harmful parts of its own history.
Kiss Me Kate is on at London Coliseum until 30th June, more info here. A Night at the Musicals is on at Soho Theatre until June 30th, more info here.