A history of 'Kiss Me, Kate' in the West End

The Cole Porter musical, a witty adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, plays at the Barbican this summer starring Stephanie J Block and Adrian Dunbar.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Another opening, another show! Cole Porter’s beloved musical comedy take on Shakespeare, Kiss Me, Kate, is back in London, with Stephanie J Block and Adrian Dunbar leading a new production at the Barbican this summer.

The Tony Award-winning Broadway leading lady Block (The Cher Show, Wicked, Into the Woods) and Line of Duty star Dunbar play a divorced couple, Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham, who reunite for a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew – but the real drama happens backstage, as this tempestuous duo lock horns.

Subplots involve the budding romance between sexy ingenue Lois and gambler Bill, plus the arrival of two gun-toting gangsters, while the catchy score features songs like “Why Can’t You Behave?,” “Tom, Dick and Harry,” “So in Love,” “I Hate Men,” “Always True to You in My Fashion,” “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” and “Too Darn Hot.”

Acclaimed director Bartlett Sher, who has already brought his productions of The King and I, My Fair Lady, and To Kill a Mockingbird to the West End, helms this London revival of Kiss Me, Kate, which plays from 4 June to 14 September.

But Londoners have long adored Porter’s witty, clever, and hugely entertaining musical. Here’s our guide to the history of Kiss Me, Kate in the West End.

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The origins of Kiss Me, Kate

Inspired by the real-life sparring of a husband-and-wife acting team, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, during a production of The Taming of the Shrew in 1935, Broadway producer Arnold Saint-Subber came up with the initial idea for Kiss Me, Kate.

Continuing the metatheatrical trend, in 1947 he asked another beleaguered married pair, Samuel and Bella Spewack, to develop the script together. Somehow, this argumentative partnership produced a brilliantly funny book. Porter subsequently came on board to write the music and lyrics.

The show had its first tryout at the Shubert Theatre in Philadelphia in December 1948, then, later that month, moved to Broadway’s New Century Theatre. Directed by John C Wilson, it was an instant hit, running for 19 months and 1,077 performances.

The original cast featured Alfred Drake, Patricia Morison, Lisa Kirk, Harold Lang, Charles Wood, and Harry Clark.

Coliseum Theatre, 1951

Kiss Me, Kate had its West End premiere in March 1951 at the Coliseum Theatre – the venue now known as the London Coliseum. Directed by Sam Spewack, it had a mix of new and returning performers; the former group included Bill Johnson, Adelaide Hall, and Julie Wilson.

British audiences took to it immediately, and this first West End run lasted for 400 performances.

London Coliseum, 1970

However, it wasn’t until two decades later that Kiss Me, Kate returned to the West End – and to the venue where it first appeared, the Coliseum.

This first London revival was staged by the Sadler’s Wells Opera (now the English National Opera), directed by Peter Coe, and the cast was led by Emile Belcourt, Ann Howard, Judith Bruce, Eric Shilling, Francis Egerton, and Robert Lloyd.

Coe revised some elements of the script, so that it was more comprehensible for British audiences, and also introduced some traditional jokes from English music hall.

Savoy Theatre, 1988

It was perhaps inevitable that the Royal Shakespeare Company would eventually put its own stamp on this musical tribute to the Bard. That came in 1987 with a revival at their Stratford-upon-Avon theatre, directed by Adrian Noble and starring Nichola McAuliffe, Paul Jones, Tim Flavin, and Fiona Hendley.

This hit version then successfully toured the UK, including a stint at the Old Vic in London, and was rewarded at the Olivier Awards. McAuliffe won for Outstanding Performance of the Year by an Actress in a Musical, while Emil Wolk and John Barden, who played the bumbling gangsters, shared the equivalent award for Actor.

The production then moved into the West End in 1988, taking up residence at the Savoy Theatre.

Victoria Palace Theatre, 2001

The next West End revival of Kiss Me, Kate came from Broadway. Michael Blakemore’s hugely successful 1999 production at the Martin Beck Theatre ran for 881 performances, buoyed by fantastic choreography by Kathleen Marshall and Rob Ashford.

The company featured Marin Mazzie, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Amy Spanger, Michael Berresse, Ron Holgate, Lee Wilkof, and Michael Mulheren. It won five Tony Awards, including for Best Revival of a Musical, Blakemore’s direction, and for Mitchell’s Best Actor performance.

The production transferred to London’s Victoria Palace Theatre in 2001, with Mazzie reprising her performance opposite Brent Barrett. Nancy Anderson, Teddy Kempner and Jack Chissick co-starred, and Berresse also travelled over with the show. It won the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical, and was nominated for nine Olivier Awards.

Chichester Festival Theatre, 2012

Although the Chichester revival didn’t quite make it into the West End, it came close with a transfer to the Old Vic in 2012. Plus it’s worth a mention for its lead cast: Hannah Waddingham, Alex Bourne, and Adam Garcia – all Olivier nominated.

They were directed by Trevor Nunn, with Stephen Mear providing the choreography.

Kiss Me Kate

London Coliseum, 2018

You just can’t keep Kiss Me, Kate away from the Coliseum. The show made another visit to the majestic venue as part of Opera North’s triumphant tour, which began in Leeds in 2015 and travelled the UK – with a stop at the Coliseum in June 2018, just ahead of its encore run in Leeds.

Jo Davies directed this production (pictured above), with Will Tuckett providing the choreography, and the Coliseum cast was led by Quirijn de Lang, Stephanie Corley, Zoe Rainey, Alan Burkitt, Joseph Shovelton, John Savournin, Aiesha Pease, and Stephane Anelli.

Barbican, 2024

There has since been another Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate, starring Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase, but it’s been a while since London audiences had the pleasure of revisiting Porter’s gorgeous show.

So, it’s a thrill to have Bartlett Sher’s revival playing at the Barbican this summer, and with an intriguing lead pair. Stephanie J Block is an exciting Broadway talent, who won a Tony for The Cher Show, and is also renowned for her Elphaba in Wicked, and for playing The Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods.

Perhaps a more surprising choice is Adrian Dunbar, who audiences know best for his BAFTA-nominated performance as Superintendent Ted Hastings in TV drama Line of Duty – as well as for other screen projects like Ridley, Blood, and Ashes to Ashes.

However, Dunbar actually trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, so this is a fascinating opportunity to see him return to his roots and make his professional musical theatre debut in a great role.

As well as Sher, the creative team features choreographer Anthony Van Laast (Mamma Mia!), costume designer Catherine Zuber (Moulin Rouge! The Musical), and set designer Michael Yeargan (South Pacific).

Add in a huge company, including a full-scale orchestra, and this promises to be a Golden Age spectacle of a musical – the perfect summer treat.

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Photo credit: artwork for Kiss Me, Kate. (Photo by Tristram Kenton)

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