Songs for the Struggling Artist

I’m Mad About Kiss Me, Kate

Look, I know they made Kiss Me, Kate over 70 years ago but I am mad about it today. I’m sorry. Sometimes my rage is not on time.

Did you know that a woman wrote the book for this musical? I did not. I work in theatre, fanatically listened to the Broadway cast album in my youth, have seen at least two productions, I care about women’s achievements in this field and I did not know that a woman wrote Kiss Me, Kate. How did I miss that?

Turns out that even though she wrote it, the production team persuaded her to let them bill her with her husband, so it is credited to Bella and Samuel Spewack instead of just Bella Spewack. Even though they were in the middle of a divorce and Sam Spewack’s only contribution was that he punched up a few of the Tough Guys’ lines, he still got the credit as a full writer on the show. And in a pair like this, it is, of course the man’s name that is important. Apparently even for a feminist musical theatre lover like myself. Her name might as well not have even been there. Gets me all worked up!

And I can totally see how this happened. I think it could probably even happen today. The producers think a show about a married theatre couple will sell better if it’s written by a married theatre couple and so, because the writer wants the show to sell, she is persuaded to add her husband’s credit to her own. But the fact is, if Sam Spewack had been the sole writer of a show, they would never have asked him to share the credit with his wife, and if they had, he’d very likely have said no, especially during the time they were going through a divorce. And that would have been the end of it. Surely Bella Spewack also said no at first. And at a certain point, she had to yield. And decades later, I discover that a woman wrote a foundational Broadway musical. And while I understand why she felt like she had to yield to this request to share her credit, I feel like I’m the reason why she shouldn’t have let it go. Not me specifically of course – but all the theatre women who came after her, desperate for a role model.

Listen, I know that the Book Writer is the least sexy writer on a musical. No one chooses to go to a musical because of the person who wrote the text. I know that. But STILL. I think if I’d realized that there was a woman behind one of the great foundational works of American Musical Theatre, in any capacity, I think I’d have gotten a little more spring in my step. I’d have known that, even in the 1940s, a woman accomplished a really extraordinary thing.

And I’m sorry – but a husband-wife team just doesn’t do the same thing. It was Bella Spewack, on her own, who collaborated with Cole Porter to create this piece. It was Bella Spewack, alone, who made the decisions about how to create these characters, how to engage with the Shakespearean source material. It was Bella Spewack, by herself, who negotiated with the producer about the gig. All while her husband was wooing the ballerina he’d left her for. And sure – they did eventually get back together again and wrote more things as a team so maybe for them, it didn’t matter at all. Maybe it was nice for Bella Spewack to think of the work she’d done on her own as part of a continuum with her creative work with her husband. But it’s not nice at all for the women who came after her. I should have KNOWN Bella Spewack’s name. I should have heard of her work, even outside of Kiss Me, Kate. She was a successful writer BEFORE she was asked to write this show. Her male contemporaries names are canonized. I did not know her name before reading about this in James Shapiro’s book Shakespeare in a Divided America.

I know I’m late to the party on this. I wish I’d been celebrating Bella Spewack all along, along with the only other foundational Broadway Musical woman I can think of, Betty Comden.

The American theatre has an incredibly short memory. We have a few white guys we remember and the rest disappear into history – or into their husband’s credits. I’m so furious that her team convinced Bella Spewack that her credit wasn’t important, when surely none of them would have shared credit with their wives. It was another time, sure – but we needed Bella Spewack’s actual credit for history. For us now.

And I know somebody out there is saying, “How could you not know Bella Spewack? That’s ridiculous! I know all about Bella Spewack!” To which I say, “Good! I’m glad you know her. That’s good. But the problem is that I did not.” And I absolutely should have. If I know Oscar Hammerstein’s name or Alan Lerner or Adolph Green or Noel Coward’s name, I should ALSO know Bella Spewack’s. And I did not. It was not even familiar. Cole Porter, I know. I even recognize the names of some of the 1940s theatre actors. But not Bella Spewack. And I should have. Now I do. And so do you, in case you missed it, like me.

Bella Spewack. By herself.

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