The time was the spring of 1990, the place a theatre on the campus of the State University of New York at Purchase in Westchester County. Onstage was a production of a work in progress called Kiss of the Spider Woman, based on the acclaimed novel by the Argentine writer Manuel Puig that had been turned into a successful movie.
The musical's creative team contained some of theatre's finest talents: John Kander and Fred Ebb, composer and lyricist, whose credits included Cabaret, Zorba and Chicago; Terrence McNally, librettist, author of The Ritz and The Lisbon Traviata; and Harold Prince, director, who counted among his many Broadway successes The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, Sweeney Todd, Company and the Kander-Ebb Cabaret. But despite these big names, things were not going well.
The critics, uninvited to what creators considered essentially a first draft, had come anyway and had been extremely unkind. Theatre people wondered whether the highly negative notices would extinguish any hopes that the musical would ever reach Broadway.
Now, more than a thousand days after that, a reconceived and recast, $7.5 million Kiss of the Spider Woman—with the legendary Broadway veteran Chita Rivera in the title role — opened on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre in early May to critical raves. The reviewers said the audience had a love affair with Chita every night; they said her co-star, a Canadian actor named Brent Carver, was riveting, magnetic and deeply moving. And they noted that the show, through its combination of fantasy and brutal reality, Broadway glitz and prison horror, had taken a major step forward for the American musical. Later that month, the New York Drama Critics Circle, including some of those same critics who had panned the show in Purchase, voted it the Best Musical of the 1992-93 season. And in June on national television, it won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
"I like that a lot," says a smiling Mr. Ebb, sitting in the living room of his apartment overlooking Central Park.
The story of how Kiss of the Spider Woman eventually became a Broadway smash is a journey of disappointment and failure, of perseverance and ultimate reward. And it is with Fred Ebb that the odyssey begins, for it is he who decided that Puig's 1978 novel would make a thrilling, meaningful musical.
Here's the plot: A Latin American revolutionary, Valentin, jailed by the dictatorship he is trying to overthrow, is placed in the same cell as a homosexual window dresser, Molina, jailed for morals offenses. To escape the horrors of his tiny cage and from the sounds of torture that engulf the grotesque prison, Molina dreams of a movie queen, Aurora — the Spider Woman — and tells his cellmate of her adventures. At first, the archly political Valentin refuses to have anything to do with his neighbor's dreams, or with the effeminate and determinedly apolitical Molina himself. But then...
"It's a story about passion and loyalty and courage," Ebb says. "And then there's the dichotomy of the two worlds — a small, encased nine by eight prison cell and the world into which Molina escapes in order to make that life bearable, the world of a glamorous Hollywood sound stage. It seemed to me that the juxtaposition of that horror and that glamour could be highly dramatic."
Ebb posed the idea to his partner, who confirmed the excitement. And then they contacted Harold Prince, their Cabaret collaborator, who was equally intrigued and agreed to direct.
For Prince the theme of the book was "escape. And what is a musical? It's escape!" The story is also, he says, about "love. If you put in a confined area two utterly antithetical people, they wither learn to live together and find what's good about each other, what's human in each other, or they annihilate each other. And Valentin and Molina would annihilate each other if they hadn't made the journey they make during the course of the evening."
Kander, Ebb and Prince next went to Terrence McNally, with whom Kander and Ebb had worked on the musical The Rink (in which Chita Rivera had won a Tony Award as Best Actress in 1984). McNally, too, was eager to be included. The work began. And then came Purchase, where the show was presented under the auspices of an organization called New Musicals, dedicated to the preparation of new work for Broadway. "The plan was always to play it for eight weeks, and then to close down, to go back and think what we had learned and then redo it and present a Broadway piece," Kander says. "That was the point of that whole program."
And so the revising began. The first mistake, they all agreed, was that they had created an entire movie plot for Aurora that competed with the story of Valentin and Molina, and that had confused the audience. "We took that movie away, and instead of a woman who had had one hit film, we made her a star who had been in many movies," McNally says. This way, they could allow many more variations in song and dance as metaphors commenting on the relationship of Valentin and Molina.
A second major problem, the creators decided, was the set. "We weren't able to maintain the atmosphere of a jail, of a prison, throughout the entire show, which was Hal's vision," Ebb says. And so eventually they came up with a set, designed by Jerome Sirlin, that is all bars, and in which much of the action between the two protagonists takes place in that small eight by nine cell, whose measurements were obtained by consultation with Amnesty International.
They kept at the changes for about a year. But as they worked, they were also aware that without financial backing, there would be no second chance.
Enter Garth Drabinsky, former chairman of the Cineplex Odeon Corporation in Canada, who had put up a significant amount of money to make the 1985 movie version. Drabinsky was "ecstatic" about the revised musical and agreed, through his Live Entertainment Corporation of Canada (LIVENT), to produce it, provided they did it on a "stepped basis"—first in a reading in New York, then in Toronto and London before trying it again in New York.
"Mounting a show like this requires time and painstaking attention to try to get things right," Drabinsky says. "Without that attention and that time, it would have been impossible to succeed."
With the reconception came recasting. In Purchase, John Rubinstein had played Molina, Kevin Gray was Valentin and Lauren Mitchell was Aurora. Kander, Ebb and McNally had always had in the back of their minds the idea that Chita Rivera would be a natural for the Spider Woman. "Lauren Mitchell was a very capable performer," McNally says, "but the part was conceived for a star. And Chita is a star."
So Chita Rivera became the Spider Woman. Now 60 years old, she had made her Broadway debut at age 17 in the chorus of Call Me Madam and had gone on to thrill audiences in musical after musical, among them West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, Chicago and The Rink. In April 1986, her leg had been smashed in an auto accident. Some people had questioned whether she would ever perform again. But to her, there was never any question. "I don't know if ignorance is bliss," she says, "but I never doubted it." She was back onstage 11 months later, and now she eagerly accepted the opportunity to be reunited with Kander and Ebb.
"But then we went to Toronto," Drabinsky recalls, "and in walks Brent Carver."
Carver, now 41, is a native of British Columbia and had been performing for 20 years in Canada. He was in Toronto playing Molière's Tartuffe in the theatre next door to the auditions. "My agent told me they were having final callbacks for Kiss of the Spider Woman with Harold Prince next door," Carver recalls, "so I prepared a song and a couple of scenes, went in and auditioned. And they seemed to react favorably."
Which, Drabinsky says, is a total understatement: "He stopped everybody with his reading." And when Richard Thomas dropped out for personal reasons, Carver got the part.
The show opened in Toronto. A hit. And then in London. A hit. And now in New York. A very palpable hit.
Rivera, reflecting on her latest Broadway achievement, says she finds the audience's reaction "overwhelming" in its sweetness and considers her role challenging in its complexity. "The hardest part is to weave all the fragments into one strong character, who is the conscience of the entire musical, the personification of the inevitable. It's like taking a needle and thread and sewing it all carefully together. It's like lace; it's like chiffon."
For Carver the joy comes in portraying a character who, despite being physically confined, "refuses to allow himself to be imprisoned in his own head. It seems to me this show is about liberation—liberation through music, liberation through the imagination." Anthony Crivello says he revels in the "symbiotic relationship" that has developed between the two cellmates onstage, a relationship, he says, that allows for "nuance and spontaneity."
For Harold Prince the most important thing about the odyssey of Kiss of the Spider Woman is what it says about perseverance. "I'm really proud that we stuck with it," he says. "I wouldn't have ten years ago. I was just too impatient. But the pride I feel because we stuck with it this time is enormous."
And for Ebb, with whom it all began, there is a moral to the tale. "I tell new writers not to give up," he says. "If you have a passion, see it through. Just keep at it. And it just might happen."
This article originally appeared in the July 1993 issue of Playbill.