* Martin Beck Theatre, NYC * Music and lyrics by Cole Porter * Book by Sam and Bella Spewack * Directed by Michael Blakemore * Choreographed by Kathleen Marshall * Starring Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie

“Musicals were always gay,” proclaims Duke University professor John Clum in Something For the Boys, his fascinating new book on musical theater and gay culture (St. Martin’s Press, price TK). “They always attracted a gay audience, and, at their best, even in times of a policed closet, they were created by gay men.” That might be news to Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Richard Rodgers, and Oscar Hammerstein. But Clum, a self-identified “show queen,” exaggerates to support his thesis -- that the musical is a big gay party that everyone is welcome to attend.

Interestingly, Clum uses as a case in point Kiss Me, Kate, the 1948 musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew widely acknowledged as Cole Porter’s masterpiece. Clum claims gay parentage for this cartoon of heterosexuality, since in addition to the composer its original producer (Arnold Saint Subber) and director (John C. Wilson, Noel Coward’s manager and former lover) were openly gay and the male second lead, Harold Lang, was bisexual. Well, okay, but the success of the original production owed as much to the work of ostensible heterosexuals -- librettist Bella Spewack (and her husband Sam), choreographer Hanya Holm, and the stars Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison.

The current Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate -- the first since the original -- gives us a chance to ponder whether this question of gay parentage matters at all. And my first inclination is to say no. The show is absolutely terrific. When the Tony Awards roll around, it will be hard to top the talent on display here. I don’t know if British director Michael Blakemore is gay (the show’s publicist said he’s not married but not publicly gay either). But I do know that, after a string of hits including Noises Off, City of Angels, and The Life, he proves he’s still a master at creating high comedy with recognizable human emotions, as opposed to a Neil Simon laugh-track.

With the help of Kathleen Marshall’s dazzling and fresh choreography as well as Porter’s hit-laden score, Blakemore gives career-launching star moments to no less than seven members of the cast, most notably Amy Sparger and Michael Berresse in the second leads. Marin Mazzie steps into the pantheon of Broadway leading ladies as Lilli Vanessi, temperamental diva and ex-wife of actor-manager Frederic Graham (roles based on Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne). And though Brian Stokes Mitchell underplays Gramm’s raging ego, his warmth, his singing, and his good looks are extraordinarily impressive.

But just for fun, let’s consider: how does Cole Porter’s gayness figure in Kiss Me, Kate? Taming of the Shrew makes most of us groan because it seems to enshrine subjugation of women as a male prerogative. In this version, however, Kate finishes her surrender ballad “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple” with a wink at her sister Bianca that makes it clear she’s only telling the men what they want to hear. Cole Porter was able to carry on a flamboyantly gay life in Hollywood by maintaining a never- consummated marriage with a rich divorcee. Maybe he knew something about the masks people wear to achieve sexual freedom, huh?

The Advocate, December 21, 1999

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