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A classic musical in #MeToo era

A stage before opening.

A stage before opening. Credit: iStock

What have Broadway and Shakespeare got to do with #MeToo and safe spaces? The revival of Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate,” based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” has me puzzling over that.

Google “best movies of all time” and you’ll find most of them dominated by strong men. Often women aren’t in the picture at all. When they are, from “The Godfather,” to “Casablanca,” to “Some Like It Hot,” look with today’s consciousness and you may find that some things once accepted as normal, romantic, or funny now make you uneasy.

In 1987, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell starred in “Overboard.” The film is about a pampered, witchy heiress who suffers amnesia and is treated abusively by her kidnapper. Like Shakespeare’s shrew, she is domesticated and learns to obey and love the man. Labeled a cross between screwball romance and populist fable, the movie’s obvious misogyny has been ignored.

Do we banish this fantasy or do we place it in its historical context and, viewing it from today’s perspective, see that there’s something wrong with the film’s message — and that there always was?

I’m all for making people feel safe, but I have a problem with censoring voices that may make us uncomfortable.

So now we come to my latest puzzle, the revival of “Kiss Me, Kate,” in previews and opening March 14. “Kate” is presented with a framing device, in which a touring troupe is performing Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” A tumultuous backstage romance is interwoven with the Shakespeare performance, the stars’ love-hate relationship mirroring the action of the play-within-the-play.

Some scholars say that “Shrew” was written as a satire critical of male behavior. If so, that message is usually lost, and modern audiences generally cringe at the stereotypes of gender roles. But does that mean that productions should try to soften the blatant sexism?

While theaters may rightly offer warnings about potentially traumatic content, the best theater challenges assumptions and explores and comments on problematic themes. We’ve just begun to tackle the stereotypes associated with race, religion, and gender roles and identification.

Most people viewing the current “Kate” revival may be thrilled with a rousing, joyful production with show-stopping songs like “So In Love,” “Too Darn Hot,” and “Always True To You (In My Fashion)” among them.

There’s a satisfying inserted physical tussle between the stars, and audiences won’t have to laugh uncomfortably at Kate being spanked. That’s been removed. Where the shrew is treated abusively in Shakespeare, here the words are spoken but the audience doesn’t see what Kate suffers. And even Shakespeare’s language has been tweaked: Kate is no longer “ashamed that women are so simple.” Instead she sings about people. A small change, but significant.

It’s satisfying that Kate isn’t subdued and that the genders are balanced. Maybe that’s what we want today from a Broadway musical. But perhaps there’s also room for the kind of production in which we might get to see “Kiss Me, Kate” as close to its 1948 original as possible. That might spark a discussion.

Sexism. Misogyny. These are cemented in our past, and they are still with us, despite the dethroning of a few high-profile “bad actors.” Treating women as second-class citizens may have been acceptable in the past. But it was never right.

Leida Snow is a former theater critic.