Kiss Me, Kate

A Smashing Revival

Cole Porter’s 1948 score was his major effort at an “integrated” musical in the wake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel.” So the story hangs together and the songs all have their place. But here is the achievement of Blakemore and his team: they go beyond that, so the breadth of Porter’s musical genius — the vaudeville, jazz, operatic lyricism, and comic patter — seems a natural expression of the drama, much more so, certainly, than it does in the 1953 film version.

Michael Blakemore deservedly won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Director (Musical Revival) for “Kiss Me, Kate.” In fact, he won a second Tony for directing the straight play by Michael Frayn, “Copenhagen.” This unprecedented double triumph alerted all Broadway to the talents of the 72-year-old Australian-born British resident whose career has included directing plays by Arthur Miller, Anton Chekhov, and Peter Shaffer.

The range of his interests is reflected in this double whammy, at the helm of the revival of one of America’s greatest musicals and the intellectually challenging Michael Frayn play about nuclear physicists and the uncertainty principle. In fact, Blakemore nearly achieved a similar same-season feat ten years earlier, when he was nominated for the Tony for directing both “City of Angels,” a brilliantly clever new thriller musical, and Maggie Smith in Peter Shaffer’s “Lettice and Lovage.”

Blakemore started out as an actor and was a star associate during Laurence Olivier’s reign at the National Theatre in London, where he directed Olivier in an unforgettable production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Since then, he has directed six plays by Michael Frayn and several films, and memorialized a vanished era of English repertory theater in a classic theatrical novel, NEXT SEASON.

So this serious, cultivated man — he was the son of an eye surgeon and enrolled in medical school before sitting guiltily in cinemas and discovering his true passion — has the acting life embedded in his character. Which is why, no doubt, he produced such a definitive version of “Kiss Me, Kate.”

A great Broadway show was restored and the compliment was returned in the bestowing of the Tony Award. At the ceremony in Radio City Music Hall, Blakemore simply said, “All I can say is, thank you, America. And when I say ‘America,’ of course, I mean New York. And when I say ‘New York,’ I mean Broadway.”

Later, he expressed surprise that anyone should think that directing a musical is a less serious business than directing a play: “You simply try to understand the material and tell the story in the terms the musical demands.” The added bonus of a show like “Kiss Me, Kate” is that there are huge technical challenges, which, if met, ensure a spectacular treat alongside the emotional pleasure. And that’s what Mr. Blakemore has provided, to resounding, unforgettable effect.

–Michael Coveney