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‘Kiss Me Kate’ Choreographer Warren Carlyle on Bringing Gender Equality to the Stage

April 17, 2019 by Nina Stoller-Lindsey
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The ensemble of “Kiss Me Kate” on Broadway. (Photographed by Joan Marcus)

Choreographing a revival of a musical is a particular kind of challenge. It’s an exciting chance to put a new spin on something audiences may think they already know, but it can also mean there’s a lot to live up to.

Such is the case with “Kiss Me, Kate” — Cole Porter’s 1951 retelling of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” — which is currently enjoying its fourth Broadway incarnation at Roundabout Theatre’s Studio 54. In 2001, for example, Kathleen Marshall’s choreography for the show’s biggest, brassiest dance number “Too Darn Hot” brought down the house at the Tony Awards. And then there’s the 1953 film version, choreographed by Hermes Pan, the Hollywood legend who conjured countless steps for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The movie also featured uncredited choreography by a young Bob Fosse who went on to become one of Broadway’s most celebrated dancemakers.

Warren Carlyle

But when choreographer Warren Carlyle started work on Roundabout’s revival, he somehow managed not to think about all that. “I’ve been much more aware of that pressure in other situations. With this I didn’t feel any of those things. ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ is my fourteenth Broadway show, so maybe I’m just more okay with myself,” said Caryle, who earned a 2014 Tony Award for his work on “After Midnight.”

So, instead of dwelling on the past, Carlyle focused on breathing new life into the 68-year-old musical. “I approached it like a brand new show,” he said. “I started on page one. I read every single word. I listened to every single note over and over and over again.”

We talked to Carlyle about gender equality onstage, working with Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase, and his thoughts on choreographing the upcoming Broadway revival of “The Music Man” starring Hugh Jackman.

How does your choreography help move the plot of “Kiss Me Kate” along?

Dance is a bigger part of “Kiss Me Kate”  than I ever anticipated. I don’t think I realized how much dance was in the show until I was in rehearsal. But you’ve got this incredible score by Cole Porter — the marriage of music and lyrics is so brilliant — and that whole score wants to dance. All of those songs move the plot forward and the dances do too. In every single scene, and every single song, and every single dance, there’s a delicious battle of the sexes. There’s a delicious, sexy push and pull, and that was something that I was very keen to pull into the dance. In this day and age it’s really interesting to see a section of dance by a group of men and then watch a group of women do better. I get to do a gentle social comment through the dancing in “Kiss Me Kate,” even though the show isn’t intended to be political.

There’s been a lot of commentary that suggests “Kiss Me Kate” is dated — even misogynist. How does the production address these issues?

By casting Kelli O’Hara. Kelli naturally addresses all of those issues just by walking in the room, by virtue of the great woman that she is. She can play “Taming of the Shrew” but she’s never going to be a victim; she’s never going to be second best to any man. She’s never truly going to bow her head, and if she does bow, she does it with a wink because she knows she’s getting what she wants. I think it’s a very smart take on it.

And how did you approach those issues through dance?

With specific regard to choreography, there’s a number called “Bianca” in Act 2, performed by Corbin Bleu, and there’s a lyrics that goes “Bianca, Bianca, you’d better answer yes or Poppa spanka.” It was such an interesting moment because, when we got there in the staging of the song, I knew I couldn’t do that, but I couldn’t necessarily change the lyric. So, there are two moments of that lyric in the song. In the first moment, we played it as though Corbin was writing the song as he’s going, and he’s trying out lyrics. As he gets to that one, all men in the number are like “Noooo, that’s a terrible lyric.” And then he goes to his piece of paper and he scratches it out. The second time it occurs, I surrounded him with women, and when he finished singing it, the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen spanks him on his ass. So the women turn the tables on him. It’s little things like that, and the whole show is full of 8,000 of those. We’ve really, really looked at every single moment. You can’t necessarily change Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew,” nor would we want to, but we can change the lens through which we look at it, and that’s what’s so brilliant about this particular production. All of us are looking at it through the lens of 2019 and through the lens of me #MeToo. And in our world, or certainly in my choreographic world, there is incredible equality between men and women.

Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase in rehearsal for “Kiss Me Kate.” (Photographed by Jenny Anderson)

Can you tell us about your experience working with beloved Broadway stars like Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase?

I love Kelli. I’ve admired her for many, many, many years. I got to do “Carousel” at the New York Philharmonic with her, and it really was love at first sight. She is so incredibly smart and incredibly funny and incredibly collaborative. I love that she can hit the ball back. She has strong ideas and strong opinions and boy is that great to be in the room with. Will Chase and I did “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” together a number of years ago and we just love each other. He could actually could be my brother. He is so delicious — and he is brilliant in this show. As we explored the role of the woman in “Kiss Me, Kate,” Will was right there for the show and he was right there for Kelli. He’s very special. He’s got incredible “guy energy” and he’s got an incredible amount of testosterone, and he’s got an incredible amount of charm. He’s got an incredible amount of impish 12-year-old boy in him. And then on top of that, he has an astounding voice. I’m not a singer, but if I could sing, that would be the voice that I would choose.

The show’s most notable dance number is “Too Darn Hot” — and it’s a really big one. How did you tackle it?

I was constantly looking to gear change up in “Too Darn Hot.” It’s a slow, long runway, that just builds and builds and builds — we never actually come down, we’re always just climbing. I’m a big fan of live music, and we’re lucky to have a live orchestra of 17 pieces at Roundabout. To put live music onstage is a wonderful reminder for an audience, and it turns me on in a really good way. I had the chance to grab Greg Thymius, our clarinetist, out of the pit and put him on the stage. I was looking for a magical way in, and that clarinet became my magical way into the number. It was about live music, it was about the battle of the sexes, and it was about dancers at rest. How wonderful to be able to do a glimpse at intermission, between the acts, in the alley way of the theater?! I think it’s really lovely, because when does the ensemble ever get rewarded like that? With applause! And those dancers are unbelievably special: They dance for 10 minutes 45 seconds without a break — and it’s all high impact cardio — so boy do they deserve that applause.

The ensemble of “Kiss Me Kate” on Broadway. (Photographed by Joan Marcus)

You’re also choreographing the upcoming Broadway revival of “The Music Man” starring Hugh Jackman, whose one-man international concert you’re currently directing. What is it like to work with Hugh?

Hugh Jackman and Warren Carlyle.

His brain is crazy fast; he learns things incredibly quickly. He’s an extremely athletic dancer and he’s extremely dextrous. He’s great with a prop: You give him an umbrella and he can flip it and catch it, and you give him a cane and he can twirl it. He loves to train and his work ethic is second to none. He’s a chameleon as an actor, but he’s a chameleon as a dancer too. He can go from something very romantic to something very percussive. It’s really fun to create with him. The happiest, most creative times of my life are in his company.  He’s the real deal. And “The Music Man” is a great role for him. And again it’s a great score and again there’s huge opportunity for dance. That’s a really fun show for me. It means that Hugh and I will be together now for the next two years and what a great way to spend the next two years.

Get tickets to “Kiss Me Kate” on Broadway.