Friday, May 3, 2013

broadway birthday KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN opened on Broadway 20 years ago today on May 3, 1993

Twenty years ago today a musical that was based on a book, that also became a play and an Oscar winning film, opened on Broadway.  That musical Kiss of the Spider Woman had some controversial themes woven into it.  Plays with controversial material have always been welcome on Broadway.  While it isn't something that appears every year, there are also sometimes musicals like Cabaret that also don't shy away from controversial themes present in the context of the show.  So it is interesting to note that the composers of Cabaret, John Kander and Fred Ebb, were also the composers for Spider Woman.

In 1976, Argentine writer Manuel Puig published his novel El beso de la mujer araña that was considered a moderate success and in 1983 Puig himself translated the novel for the stage.  He wrote the play while he was in exile due to his leftist political views and an English translation of the play was produced in London in 1985 and starred Mark Rylance and Simon Callow.  Even though the original novel was initially banned in Buenos Aires, it got the attention of Hollywood and the book was turned into the Oscar winning film starring William Hurt and Raul Julia in 1985 with Hurt winning the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Chita Rivera as the "Spider Woman"
The plot of the novel, play, film and musical all focus on two men who share a cell in a Buenos Aires prison in the mid 1970's.  Molina is an effeminate window dresser for a large department store who has been incarcerated on a trumped up charge for corruption of a minor and Valentin is a political activist associated with a revolutionary group who is trying to overthrow the government.  The two couldn't be more unalike but together they find a common bond against their oppressors and realize that they are more alike then they originally thought.  Molina's love of films and his recollections of them are what help both men forget where they are.  Various other characters include Marta, the woman that Valetin is in love with, Gabriel, the waiter that Molina loves even though he knows Gabriel doesn't love him in the same way and Molina's mother.  

Brent Carver, Michael McCormick
Philip Hernandez and Anthony Crivello
 A character that was expanded for both the movie and the musical was the central role of the actress who starred in the films that Molina speaks about.  In the 1985 film that part of an actress in the dramatic films Molina fantasized about was played by Sonia Braga who also played the role of Marta.  But in the musical this character was a stand alone role, the film actress "Aurora," a star of large, lavish movie musicals.  She was now even more central to the action, especially in the role of "the spider woman" who was perceived as "death" to Molina, and the only character that Aurora played that frightens him.  With themes of homosexuality, political uprising and the torture that happens in prison, Kiss of the Spider Woman would seem very controversial, though those themes are what make the musical and the movie the play was based on into something greater especially when the fantasy film elements that Molina brings to life help counter or comment on the horrible situation the men are in.  
Carver and Rivera
The musical with a score by Kander and Ebb and a book by Terrence McNally started it's life in a "workshop" production in 1990 at the State Theatre of New York in Purchase, NY as the first in a series of new musical workshop productions.  It was directed by Hal Prince and choreographed by Susan Stroman and starred John Rubenstein as Molina, Kevin Gray as Valentin and Lauren Mitchell as Aurora.  It was only meant to be a tryout of the show, but I guess a new Kander and Ebb musical was too hard not to miss and some New York critics reviewed it anyway, and the negative reviews sidelined not just Spider Woman but the series of new musicals as well.

Fortunately Kander, Ebb, McNally and Prince were approached by Canadian producer Garth Drabinsky and a revised version of the musical was back on track and premiered at Drabinsky's Toronto theatre in the Summer of 1992 with Vincent Paterson and Rob Marshall taking over the choreography duties from Stroman.  For Toronto, Brent Carver and Anthony Crivello were Molina and Valentin and Chita Rivera was Aurora.  After Toronto, this production then moved to London, opening in the Fall of 1992 and then moved to Broadway opening twenty years ago today on May 3rd, 1993.  The London production continued on after the Broadway transfer with Bebe Neuwirth taking over from Chita as Aurora.

Kander, Ebb and McNally's use of Aurora to propel the story along and the decision to change her from a dramatic actress into a star of movie musicals only accentuated the decision to musicalize the novel.  And while some elements of the show that veered toward a more comical point, like the "morphine tango" number and the technicolor "happy" ending still didn't detract from the sensitive, dramatic story at the core. The musical went through a considerable amount of change since its unfortunate Purchase debut and almost all of the changes were for the better with the musical now receiving almost all positive reviews. 

the impressive set design by Jerome Sirlin
The musical opened right before the Tony deadline and received 11 Tony nominations and won seven awards including Best Musical, Score (which it tied with Tommy,) Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Book and Costumes (Florence Klotz.)  It also received nominations for Prince's direction, Paterson and Marshall's choreography, Howell Binkley's lighting and Jerome Sirlin for his set design.  The set design was especially impressive as it incorporated a series of jail cell bars that moved fluidly and changed into different set locations.  When combined with the lighting by Binkley and projections by Jerome Sirlin it also perfectly captured the settings of the various movies that Molina would bring to life for Valentin.

There are many great songs in the score including the title song, "Dressing Them Up," "Dear One," "I Do Miracles," "She's a Woman," "Gimme Love," "The Day After That" and my personal favorite, "Where You Are" which was written after the show moved from Toronto to London.   We saw the production in Toronto and on Broadway and also saw the first Broadway replacement cast which included Howard McGillin and Brian Stokes Mitchell as Molina and Valentin and Vanessa Williams as Aurora.  That replacement cast also got the rare chance to record a second Broadway cast recording of the show.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is a challenging musical with challenging and somewhat controversial themes but when done right it is a musical that can move an audience to tears as it did to me when we saw it in Toronto, on Broadway with both Rivera and Williams and also in the non-equity National tour.  I believe the reason the novel was turned into a play, movie and musical, and why the film and musical were so successful, is because the characters are rich portrayals of what could have been caricatures but turn out to be so much more than that.  Molina, at first is a flippant gay man, but you begin to realize that he redefines masculinity and takes many chances for the people he loves in his life.  Valentin is fighting for much more than just the revolution he constantly speaks of and even Aurora who serves in multiple duties in the musical isn't just "death" as Molina perceives here when she plays the "Spider Woman" character but is actually the "life" and willpower that makes Molina and eventually Valetin aspire to greater causes.  Carver, Crivello and Rivera were all exceptional in playing these parts and in helping us see these often caricatured roles in a new light.  

"Where You Are" performed at the 1993 Tony Awards:

Behind the scenes of the musical:

Chita sings the title song:

Vanessa Williams sings the title song:

trailer for the movie:

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