STAGE TO SCREENS: "Kiss Me, Kate" Producer Jac Venza & Star Brent Barrett

STAGE TO SCREENS: "Kiss Me, Kate" Producer Jac Venza & Star Brent Barrett This month, we look at television's longest-running performing arts program, "Great Performances," which is celebrating its 30th anniversary on PBS, and chat with Brent Barrett, star of next month's presentation of "Kiss Me, Kate."

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"Great Performances," notes executive producer Jac Venza, "is the only network primetime series that focuses on the fine arts. When public television started, there were three commercial networks. It was only on 'The Ed Sullivan Show' that you'd see short bits of plays or musicals, or a dance, and they were treated as one of the vaudeville acts — between the juggler and the comedian."

Since its 1973 debut — with a production of Lanford Wilson's "The Rimers of Eldritch," starring Rue McClanahan, Susan Sarandon, and Frances Sternhagen — "Great Performances" has presented numerous plays, including "A Touch of the Poet," "Our Town," "The Norman Conquests," "Master Harold...and the Boys," "Once in a Lifetime," "All Over," "You Can't Take It with You," and "Ah, Wilderness!" Among the musicals were "Show Boat," "She Loves Me," "The Most Happy Fella," "Sweeney Todd," "Crazy for You," "Lena Horne: A Lady and Her Music," "Follies in Concert," "Les Misérables in Concert," "Cats" and "Fosse."

His series, says Venza, "has approached musical theatre in many different ways. We've done evenings of Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, Ira Gershwin, as well as shows based on the music of stars, such as 'Julie Andrews in Concert.'" Venza considers it "a tragedy" that the series was unable to present/preserve Jerome Robbins' Broadway. "'Fosse' was important because Gwen Verdon and Ann Reinking worked very hard to re-create [Fosse's choreography]. It would be very hard to assemble that again. Right now, we're talking to Jo [Sullivan] Loesser [about a tribute to Frank Loesser], and we're working on a show about Comden and Green. We'll also show the tape of Oklahoma! that was made in England [after the Broadway production ends]."

The Chicago-born Venza spells his first name with three letters, he explains, "because I was named for my grandfather, Giacchino [JAC-keeno], but I've never used the name. If it were spelled J-A-C-K, people would assume that that stood for John, which in Italian is Giovanni. That was the name of my other grandfather." As a child during the Depression, Venza "started getting involved with little theatrical things that were done in the parks. I knew then that I was interested in the other part [of theatre], not performing." That other part was theatrical design, which eventually led Venza to a career, starting at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. He came to New York in 1950, "and went to work for CBS." As much as he enjoys musical theatre, Venza doesn't have a favorite show. However, he fondly remembers the first Broadway musical he saw: Kiss Me, Kate. "I had just arrived in New York. It was a wonderfully designed show. It inspired me." Naturally, he jumped at the opportunity to film the latest incarnation of Kate during its last week in London: "It was Michael Blakemore's production, with a terrific American cast in the four leads."

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The original Broadway production of Kiss Me, Kate premiered Dec. 30, 1948, and turned out to be Cole Porter's masterwork. It cost $180,000 to produce and required 72 inventors. The composer purchased 97 tickets for a coterie of friends to attend opening night — at a cost of over $1,000. The musical ran 1,077 performances (the longest of any Porter show). Porter would write only three more scores for Broadway: Out of This World (1951), Can-Can (1953) and Silk Stockings (1955).

Inspired by the backstage bickering of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne during a production of The Taming of the Shrew, Kate has a book by Bella and Samuel Spewack. Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison originated the leading roles of Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi; Lisa Kirk and Harold Lang played the secondary leads, Lois Lane and Bill Calhoun. While Drake seems to have been first choice, the female lead was initially offered to Mary Martin. Others considered for Lilli were Jeanette MacDonald, Ruth Warrick and opera stars Lily Pons and Jarmila Novotna. Drake and Morison re-created their roles for a 1958 TV production. (A 1968 TV presentation starred Robert Goulet and Carol Lawrence.)

Morison became very much associated with her role. She starred, opposite Bill Johnson, in the original London company, co-starred with Howard Keel in a 1964 British-TV presentation and appeared with Bob Wright in a 1965 New York City Center production. Morison was singing "So in Love" as recently as this past October, during Town Hall's Cabaret Convention.

The original cast recording of Kiss Me, Kate was the first Broadway musical score to be released as an LP, and the principals re-recorded their performances in stereo ten years later. At the 1949 Tony Awards, Kate was named Best Musical, the first Tony ever awarded in that category. Other Tonys went to Porter's score, the Spewacks book, producers Saint Subber and Lemuel Ayers, and Ayers' costume designs.

MGM's 1953 movie version starred Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson, with Ann Miller and Tommy Rall. While it has some wonderful moments, including James Whitmore and Keenan Wynn as the comic henchman singing "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," the film begins poorly. It opens at what's supposed to be Porter's apartment, and has Ann Miller rushing in from a nightclub to sing "Too Darn Hot." During her number, she aims objects towards the camera, because the musical was filmed in 3-D. By the time of its release, the 3-D craze had ended. (During 2002, the 3-D version was briefly shown at Manhattan's Film Forum.)

Censors insisted that certain lyrics be changed from the stage version. In "I Hate Men," the line "mother had to marry father" became "mother deigned to marry father." In "Where Is the Life that Late I Led?" the lines "A married life may all be well/But raising an heir/Could never compare/With raising a bit of hell" were rewritten as "A married life is just a pain/And raising an heir/Could never compare/To raising a bit of Cain."

When another number was needed for the film, "From This Moment On" (dropped from Out of This World) was interpolated. A highlight of the movie, it was danced by three couples: Miller and Rall, Jeanne Coyne and Bobby Van, Carol Haney and Bob Fosse. Fosse received permission from choreographer Hermes Pan to stage his portion with Haney. Lasting just over a minute, it's executed in what would become known as the Fosse style. The song "From This Moment On" was added to the Blakemore production, sung by Lilli and suitor Halliwell Howell, whose occupation was changed from politician to a MacArthur-like General.

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Next month's "Kiss Me, Kate" stars Brent Barrett and Rachel York. Barrett, who played Fred Graham for the entire London run ("October 30 [2001] to August 24 [2002]"), considers it "one of the best male musical-comedy roles that's ever been written. You have to do everything. It's such a workout — physically, vocally, mentally — but so much fun! And when you're done [with a performance], it's totally rewarding. With some shows, like West Side Story, you work your butt off for the whole night as Tony, and Anita steals the show."

Barrett's three leading ladies during the London engagement were Marin Mazzie (who originated Lilli in the Broadway revival, opposite Brian Stokes Mitchell), Carolee Carmello (who also succeeded Mazzie on Broadway), and Rachel York, "who did it for the last two months [after having co-starred with Rex Smith in the U.S. tour]. They filmed during the last week. They'd been talking about possibly filming it since we opened. When the closing notice went up, everyone scrambled." The secondary leads are Nancy Anderson (also Lois in the U.S. tour) and Michael Berresse (re-creating his Broadway role as Bill). The "Great Performances" preserves the great dance sequence in "Bianca," in which Berresse does a fantastic gymnastic climb to reach Lois's dressing room.

"They filmed five live shows, and came in on two afternoons for close-up work. They wanted to get a different feeling for backstage and onstage [scenes]. It's not a foolproof show. Anybody can't do it and be successful. What [director] Michael Blakemore, [choreographer] Kathleen Marshall, and [music director] Paul Gemignani did made it as successful as it was."

Recalls Barrett, "I had auditioned for Broadway — as everyone else did." Between the Broadway and London productions, Michael Blakemore saw Barrett as Frank Butler, opposite Reba McEntire, in Annie Get Your Gun. Oddly enough, notes Barrett, there are certain similarities between the characters of Butler and Graham, "especially their egos." The offer to play Graham on the West End came just as Barrett was returning to the role of Billy Flynn in Chicago. What's his favorite number in Kate? "I loved doing 'Where Is the Life...' There were only a few nights I went up [forgetting a lyric]. That usually happened in 'I've Come to Wive It Wealthily,' because every verse is structured differently."

On Feb. 10, Barrett performs a one-man concert ("already sold out") at Del Ray Beach in Florida. The program consists of Cole Porter (Kiss Me, Kate), Kander & Ebb (selections from Barrett's CD of the team's work), and Alan Jay Lerner (songs from Barrett's latest CD). Recently released on the Fynsworth Alley label, "The Alan Jay Lerner Album" came about because of Barrett's memorable rendition of "She Wasn't You" in the Encores! production of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. The CD features some rarities, as well as a duet with Lauren Bacall. "We do a song from the first Lerner & Loewe show, The First Day of Spring, called 'You Haven't Changed at All,' which is coupled with 'I Remember It Well,' from 'Gigi.'"

As we speak, Brent Barrett has not seen a finished tape of "Kiss Me, Kate." He expresses some concern that "the style of performance [used onstage] is so over the top, and you don't know how that's going to transfer to the small screen. But I think it's going to look okay. I've seen some clips, and I don't think I'm going to embarrass myself." ***

END QUIZ: In what short-lived Broadway musical did the original Kiss Me, Kate leads, Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison, appear together ten years earlier: a) My One True Love; b) The Two Bouquets; c) Three Wishes for Mimi? (Answer: Next column, Feb. 16.)

The Dec. 22 question was: Who played Dana Carvey's girlfriend in the 1982 TV sitcom, "One of the Boys," which starred Mickey Rooney and featured Nathan Lane as Carvey's college roommate: a) Meg Ryan; b) Cheryl Ladd; c) Michelle Pfeiffer? The answer is A (whose name, for anagram fans, spells Germany).

—Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and The Sondheim Review.