The spanking scene in KMK must be the most famous in the world, its only possible rival being McLintock, which is slowly sinking into history. KMK, though, is refreshed by many new productions each year.
How, despite the hatred of Liberal Progressive Opinion (LPO), does it maintain its position as one of the 6 greatest musicals ever written?
First and foremost is Cole Porter’s wonderful music and witty, sardonic lyrics. The book by Sam and Bella Spewack is intelligent and amusing, offers several juicy leading roles, and good opportunities for a large or small chorus. This makes it very suitable for school and amateur productions.
The storyline, briefly (VERY briefly!) interweaves a touring production of ‘The Taming Of The Shrew’ with the private warfare between its two principal characters:
- egotistical, conceited Frederick Graham, the Producer/Director, who plays Petruchio,
- his estranged, temperamental ex wife, the Hollywood actress Lilli Vanessi, who plays Kate.
The idea for the story is said to be the lives of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne and their legendary offstage marital bickering. The spanking, though, was the Spewacks’ own idea, and was a stroke of genius.
Fred wants to start an affair with Lois, who plays Kate’s flirty younger sister Bianca. On opening night, just before the curtain rises, Fred sends her a message and a bouquet, which are mistakenly delivered to Lilli. She treats them as a gesture of reconciliation from Fred, and is happy to reciprocate. On learning of the mistake, Fred vainly tries to recover the message, but Lilli has tucked it into the bosom of her gown. Desperate to get his temperamental leading lady on stage, and hoping he will think of something – anything! – to retrieve the situation later, he pretends the message really was meant for her.
We move now to the famous ‘ taming’ scene in ‘Shrew’, involving a physical confrontation between Kate and Petruchio. I am not going in to bat for W. Shakespeare, but let’s not forget that, despite LPO hostility, this is by far his most popular comedy. Under a good director, Kate has an extensive repertoire of kicks, punches, slaps, bites, and scratches at her disposal, and Lilli, having by now read Fred’s message, employs them all with maximum venom.
Fred tries to stem the tide by reminding her ‘We’re on stage now, Lilli’, and later threatening her that:
Carry on as you are doing, Miss Vanessi, and I’ll give you the paddling of your life, right here on stage.
Finally, when the date of their wedding is announced, and Petruchio invites her to ‘Kiss Me, Kate’, Lilli cracks him yet another slap across the face. That does it. He announces:
All right, Miss Vanessi, you’ve asked for this, and now you’re going to get it!
Dragging her across the stage, he manages to place her in a suitable position for chastisement, and duly applies it.
The bewildered on-stage cast mill around in confusion, until some spoilsport brings down the curtain. I shall return to this in more detail, but let’s move on.
We move backstage, to Lilli’s furious recriminations. She informs Fred that she is walking out on the production, and storms off to her dressing-room. There, she phones her fiancé – wealthy, pompous Harrison Howell, and tells him:
Send a car for me, Harrison – better still – send an ambulance.You don’t know what that brute’s done to me. He beat me! I’m black and blue!! I can’t sit down!!!
Fred, once again at his wits’ end, gets a couple of pistol waving gangsters to persuade – really, to coerce – Lilli into staying with the Show, and Act 1 ends with a recalcitrant Kate – still shadowed by the gangsters – being triumphantly carried off stage after her wedding to Petruchio. [Don’t ask what gangsters are doing there – it’s too complicated!]
Act 2 is of relatively little interest to spankos, apart from one incident where Petruchio whips a badly needed cushion away as Kate is about to sit down but all ends well, with Kate happily ‘tamed’, and Fred and Lilli reconciled.
You can imagine how all this goes down with LPO; shrew-taming and a forced wedding are bad enough, but throw in a spanking as well…
There is something about a spanking that makes them froth at the mouth. I really believe they would be less affronted if Fred had punched Lilli in the eye, kicked her in the stomach, or thrown her off the stage. Their knee jerk reaction is to demonise poor old Fred, denouncing him as the archetypal male chauvinist pig, brutally assaulting a feisty but blameless young woman. In fact, as anyone with an ounce of objectivity can see, the Spewacks took trouble to make them a ‘Matched Pair’.
- Fred is conceited and egotistical; Lilli is willful and temperamental
- Fred wants an affair with Lois; Lilli is engaged to Harrison
- Fred has given Lilli a public spanking, but only after sustained and violent provocation
- Fred has used Gangsters to coerce Lilli into staying, but Lilli is willing to leave the rest of the cast in the lurch, relying on Harrison’s money to enable her to escape any consequences.
- Fred deceived Lilli over the Message, but only as a desperate expedient in a situation not of his making.
It is, unfortunately, easy to sabotage the spanking, but let’s look instead at how a sympathetic director can enhance our enjoyment.
- The essential requirement is that the audience can see the spanking, and that it is worth seeing. So – stick it prominently up front, provide an unimpeded view, and allow a decent time before the curtain is brought down.
- Fred should spank as though he means business, and Lilli should kick, squirm, and protest with similar vigour. A limp and lifeless Lilli is not only unsatisfying, but completely out of character.
- Raising Lilli’s skirt is becoming more acceptable, and this is fine provided it doesn’t inhibit the spanker.
- Lilli’s backstage recriminations should come with much rubbing and wincing, which can be continued in her dressing-room.
Before unleashing the gangsters, Fred threatens to report her to Equity. Lilli responds:
I’ll be glad to appear before Equity; I’ll show them photographs of what you’ve done to me – in Technicolour!
This exchange is improved by her pointing to the area to be photographed.
In the course of persuading Lilli to stay, the gangsters should push her hard down into a chair, with the inevitable reaction. The 1953 film had a nice touch – one of the gangsters accidentally brushes against Lilli’s sensitive rear end, and she admonishes him: “Be Careful!”
Copyright: The Author 2011