By Jonathan Padget
Love stories are lovely (and plentiful), aren’t they? But a great love-hate story—that’s something else entirely, and that’s what makes the heart of Kiss Me, Kate beat with passion, intensity and joy.
Like the original Broadway production starring Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison, or the film adaptation with Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson, or the Broadway revival that paired Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Kiss Me, Kate relies on the chemistry between the central couple: the actors portraying Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi.
So, too, does it rely on another well-matched couple: the director and choreographer. Let’s see how they were all getting along with each other in the process of bringing Kiss Me, Kate to vibrant life.
DOUGLAS SILLS AND CHRISTINE SHERRILL
Fred and Lilli are one of theatre’s greatest examples of a couple who can’t live either with or without each other. What does it take for actors to make that kind of passion and complexity both entertaining and believable?
SHERRILL: The stereotype of the shrew can be challenging, but the humor in this is the reality of love. It’s funny. And it’s a torment. And tumultuous. There’s humor in that. There can be humor in any reality.
SILLS: I was having some trouble with this, and then I watched Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio debate each other. I feel like I got so much from their love and hate for each other. [Laughs.] You want to start at the truth, what’s honest here, what you’re trying to achieve. And you just have to make sure the stakes stay high. You have to need and want the other person very, very much. When you’re playing a couple known for a heated relationship, you have to avoid focusing on just playing the fight. When you’re dealing with “I hate you, I’m mad at you, how dare you”—all the negatives—you have to treat them as obstacles, not the objective. The more you need someone, the more intense the difficulties are.
Are Fred and Lilli any harder, or any easier, to bring to life than other characters you’ve portrayed?
SHERRILL: Anytime you get to play a character in love, that’s pretty easy. Who hasn’t had that experience to draw on? And it doesn’t hurt when you have Cole Porter songs to convey your feelings with. That’s icing on the cake.
SILLS: The demands are intense. The fundamentals are the same: What do you want? What are you afraid of? Where are you in your life? The hard part is the fight, the lyrics—Cole Porter is a list writer. He’s always showing you how clever he is, and at this point in his career, he’s very clever. And you have to navigate the different periods in the show, and then there’s Shakespeare, but it’s modified. It’s quite a challenge.
Since this is your first time working together, have you done anything special, either in or out of rehearsal, to get to know each other better?
SHERRILL: When I arrived here, Mr. Sills had sent lilies to my apartment. Isn’t that lovely?
SILLS: They were orchids.
SHERRILL: You didn’t send lilies to Lilli? What were you thinking?
SILLS: She’ll also tell me after rehearsal how exhausted she is, and how she wants to grab a cab. But I’ll be like, “No, let’s walk.” And she’ll see a sweet treat in a store window, and I’ll say, “No! We’re not having that!” It’s like I’m starving her.
SHERRILL: He treats me just like the shrew!
What do love about your character?
SHERRILL: Everything! I love that her biggest weapon is her wit, and I love her command of the language, and how she can use that as a weapon. But I equally love her graceful moments, when you can see that the two of them together is better than either of them apart.
SILLS: I love that Fred is the lead. [Laughs.]
What do you love about your co-star?
SILLS: Wait a minute before you answer. [Covers his ears.]
SHERRILL: I don’t know what to say.
SILLS: Well, figure it out!
SHERRILL: He’s a gentleman, he believes in chivalry, which is an art form. He is invested in this play, and very passionate about it. He’s strong. Oh my gosh, Doug, do you want to get married?
SILLS: I love that fact that she’s statuesque and beautiful. She cares about her work. She’s a mother. And she’s funny.
What do you hate about your co-star?
SHERRILL: He has moments when he’s like a teenage boy. Do you know that about yourself, Doug?
SILLS: She doesn’t understand the gloriousness that is Fred, and Douglas. No, really, I haven’t found anything yet!
What happens to Fred and Lilli after the curtain falls? What are they up to 20 years later?
SHERRILL: They’re definitely together.
SILLS: They’re touring, and it’s called the Eight Grahams. It’s a Shakespearean troupe, and they also sing. We’ve been on The Ed Sullivan Show, and we live in Beverly Hills. We’ve done well. She took some of our money and invested it in oil, because Lord knows our career didn’t get us there.
ALAN PAUL AND MICHELE LYNCH
Why is the chemistry between the director and choreographer in this production just as important as the chemistry between Fred and Lilli?
Lynch: Because we’re almost like the parents to the cast when we run the show. If they feel a disassociation with us, it’s going to weaken their confidence in the show. We set the tone of the rehearsals and where the show is going. Our attitude, collaboration and unity strengthen them.
Paul: Ideally you shouldn’t know the exact moment my work ends and Michele’s starts. We’re trying to create a physical world that can allow for dance that comes out of natural movement when we’re backstage, especially in “Too Darn Hot.” We both have to do the same show, but our work usually happens in separate rooms. Once the rehearsal clock starts running, there’s not a lot of time for us to sit and talk about everything. So we had to make sure we were completely on the same page when we started.
Lynch: It’s like raising a kid. You have to make sure you’re raising her the same way.
Paul: We’re raising a Broadway baby.
Since this is your first time working together, how did you know each other was “The One” when it came to working on Kiss Me, Kate?
Paul: There are very few people who have the sensibility for a classic musical in an old-fashioned kind of style. I saw Show Boat at the Kennedy Center a few years ago, and it was obvious that no one but Michele could have done that. This was a perfect fit.
Lynch: In my world, the director already has the job, and I’m always the interviewee. It is like dating in a way, because I can know instantly if this is someone I want to spend hours and hours with. I loved Alan’s energy when I first started talking to him. It was so fresh, enthusiastic, exciting, passionate, smart, grounded and real.
Paul: And then she got to know me. [Laughs.]
Are there legendary directors and choreographers whose working relationships inspire you?
Paul: Jack O’Brien and Jerry Mitchell.
Lynch: They were my role models. I spent 10 years with them. I was Jerry’s assistant and associate on The Full Monty and Hairspray, and Jack was the director. We worked on remounts around the world, and they were like my parents.
Paul: Jack is one of my mentors I check in with, and I really look up to him.
Lynch: That was a happy discovery for me—learning that we have the same role models.
What do love about each other?
Lynch: He comes at the room with a sense of authority and vulnerability that allows you to strip away your mask, and be vulnerable and open, and bring your best creative self. That’s a rare gift.
Paul: I love Michele’s enthusiasm, and her sense of telling a story. Some choreographers don’t work that way, and I’ve learned not to take it for granted. Besides having incredible choreography and steps, it’s all in support of a common idea we have, or a common thing we want to have happen in a scene. That’s especially important in the backstage part of the musical, because we want to capture a slice of what life in the back alley is like. Then there’s also the brilliant showmanship of the play within a play, which has incredible style and is going to be different than anything people have seen before, in some of these dances.
What do you hate about each other?
Both: Nothing! [Laughs.]
Paul: We don’t have a love-hate relationship. It’s just love-love.
Lynch: Unless there are underlying things you want to get out now.
Paul: We’ll talk.
If you could pick any show or project to work on together next, what would it be?
Paul: Victor/Victoria, with new dance arrangements by Michael Dansicker.
Lynch: Starring Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Paul: So if she’s reading Asides, I hope she’ll email me.
Jonathan Padget, STC’s associate director of communications and public relations, serves as the managing editor of Asides.