When Roundabout Theatre announced a 2019 Broadway revival of Cole Porter and Sam and Bella Spewack’s Kiss Me, Kate, there was little doubt as to whether Kelli O'Hara, who starred in the company’s 2016 concert version, would reprise her role as Lilli Vanessi. “Spunky, fierce, and I get to sing high soprano notes? That’s not something you see too often,” says O’Hara, who is returning to Broadway for the first time since her Tony-winning turn in The King and I.
The winner of the first-ever Tony Award for Best Musical in 1949, Kiss Me, Kate finds Porter at his best, featuring well-known songs like “Too Darn Hot” and “So In Love.” And while the plot is alive with onstage romance, backstage passion, and a hilarious dash of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, moments in the show are still—and maybe a little uncomfortably—rooted in the era in which the show was written.
That’s where Tony-nominated composer-lyricist Amanda Green (Hands on a Hardbody) steps in. The daughter of celebrated playwright and lyricist Adolph Green, Roundabout invited Green to work on additional lyrics for the 2015 Broadway revival of her father’s musical On the Twentieth Century. Now, she’s back with the company—and director Scott Ellis and choreographer Warren Carlyle—doing the same with Kate, performing what she calls “the delicate surgery” of making the show more accessible for today’s audiences as previews begin February 14.
“The prism that we look through at relationships between men and women is different than the time it was written,” explains Green. “I’m not re-inventing the wheel with Kiss Me, Kate…but we felt that it was our responsibility to see if there were changes we could make.”
Including the power dynamic between the show’s two leading players, O’Hara’s Lilli and Will Chase’s Fred. Here, Green is making slight tweaks to the material. “You can’t erase it or pretend that 1949 is 2019, but there are things that you can adjust to make her more of an equal,” says Green. “It’s a glorious score and a really fun show. … The whole is bigger than those [moments] that can be adjusted.”
It’s also an opportunity to introduce the musical to a new generation of theatre lovers. “The only way to have them identify and invest in the show is to see something familiar,” says O’Hara. “We have to have these characters feel current.”
For Green, who relishes the challenges of working in this way, the task is akin to “solving a puzzle.” And the rewards are plentiful. “With these tweaks,” she says, “a nine-year-old girl seeing Kiss Me, Kate can be empowered by it.”