Kiss of the Spider Woman–The Musical

Chicago Theatre

Does musical theater inevitably trivialize matters of great social and political import (to use Janis Joplin’s phrase)? Some people think so. Even as they praise the beauty of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s score for West Side Story, for example, they complain that it turned topics like juvenile crime and racism into frivolous or pretentious song and dance routines.

Mel Brooks took this point of view to a hilarious extreme in his 1968 movie The Producers, whose absurd play-within-a-film–“Springtime for Hitler,” with its goose-stepping chorus boys and Ziegfeld-ian Rhine maidens–lampooned Cabaret, a Broadway hit of the time. If director Harold Prince and songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb could create a show about the rise of Nazism, Brooks mischievously argued, why not go all the way with a show about old Adolf himself?

Brooks wasn’t seriously disparaging Cabaret, of course; but there are those who do, arguing that subjects like fascism, anti-Semitism, and abortion “just don’t work” in musicals. Not that these folks don’t like musicals–Guys and Dolls and La Cage aux Folles are great shows. They just think it should remain an escapist genre.

But some who create musical theater do address serious issues of the day, not only to confront the dark realities of our world but to probe for their poetic, even mythic elements. Just as the ancient bards spun heroic–and popular–art from the bloody facts of war and domestic tragedy, modern artists explore the same themes in media that reach a broad audience, such as movies and musicals.

The men who defied conventional wisdom in Cabaret turned their talents in the early 90s to a more recent example of fascist evil: 1970s Argentina, whose leaders waged a “dirty war” that claimed the lives of between 14,000 and 30,000 civilians (depending on whose tallies you believe, the government’s or those of international human-rights groups). Prince, Kander, and Ebb’s Kiss of the Spider Woman–The Musical is a natural successor to Cabaret that tops the earlier show for harsh realism and flamboyant spectacle. Like Cabaret, which was inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s memoirs of 1930s Berlin, Kiss of the Spider Woman uses material from a novel, a play, and a movie; unlike the original Cabaret, it heightens rather than disguises the homosexual sensibility of its source. Song for song, Cabaret is a better score; but Kiss of the Spider Woman is no slouch in the music department, ranging as it does from pulsing Latin jazz and pounding industrial techno-pop to lilting, longing love songs and a brassy title tune that could have been penned for a 1960s James Bond flick. The lyrics, meanwhile, carry as much narrative and symbolic information as the best opera librettos. Prince’s multimedia staging achieves an astonishing sense of multiple planes of existence, with the help of Jerome Sirlin’s brilliantly integrated set and slide projections, creating the effect of three-dimensional cinema.

Based on the late Argentine writer Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman tells the story of Molina, a homosexual window dresser imprisoned in Buenos Aires for “corrupting a minor” (actually he was entrapped). The warden assigns him to spy on his new cell mate, a heterosexual leftist revolutionary named Valentin. To pass the time and to forge a friendship, the shrill Molina entertains the sullen Valentin with descriptions of the old Hollywood movies that Molina (like Puig) grew up adoring: “I was a cineast in my mother’s womb,” he says. Gradually the macho and the maricon become friends, as the emotionally repressed Valentin learns the value of revealing his feelings while Molina acquires the courage and strength to become a proud gay man, not the pseudo-woman he’s been taught he is.

Admirers of the hypnotic, talky, densely footnoted novel or of the intimate, soft-spoken play Puig himself wrote (very well produced in Chicago by Pegasus Players in 1989) may have trouble envisioning how Kander, Ebb, Prince, and librettist Terrence McNally could turn the work into a musical. Who’s going to perform the dance numbers, one might ask–a chorus of dancing prisoners? The answer is: exactly. And the result, to quote the nonplussed man sitting next to me on opening night, is definitely “weird.” Replacing the actual Hollywood movies that Molina describes in the novel are a series of invented films starring “Aurora,” an Argentine actress who’s sort of a cross between Maria Montez, Marlene Dietrich, and Carmen Miranda. As Molina recalls the glitzy musicals and glamorous melodramas of his beloved Aurora’s canon, the films come to life: we see what Molina sees, and since his vision is influenced by the prison, so are his fantasies. Aurora–who appears as cross-dressing androgyne, sultry seductress, compassionate mother, romantic martyr, and supernatural spider woman in Florence Klotz’s magnificent costumes–is the centerpiece of elaborate production numbers in which Molina’s fellow inmates become rugged, bare-chested chorus boys, whom he alternately lusts after and emulates. In one delirious dream Molina has the hunks all to himself: they’re male nurses leading him through the “Morphine Tango.” And as his self-esteem flourishes under the influence of Valentin, Molina increasingly moves to the center of his own fantasies, until in the show’s climactic apotheosis he partners his goddess, every inch her equal.

Weird, as my neighbor said? You bet. Grim depictions of torture and execution alternate with extravagant conga lines (including one with Aurora plumed as a jungle bird), and the soaring steel bars of the prison dissolve into colorful jungles, starry skies, and intricate spiderwebs into which Aurora, as an angel of death, draws the dead victims of the Argentine despots. (The chief of the Buenos Aires provincial police was reported to have said in the days of the war, “First, we will kill all the subversives, then we will kill their collaborators, then…their sympathizers, then…those who remain indifferent, and finally we will kill the timid”–a statement that perfectly sums up Puig’s plot.) Molina’s campy fantasies are juxtaposed with Valentin’s impassioned dreams of freedom (proclaimed by a chorus of “disappeared” peasants in the stirring anthem “The Day After That”). These represent the visions, the heroic myths, that each man nurtured: Marxist rhetoric for Valentin, movies for Molina.

Not everyone will buy it–there’s no way Kiss of the Spider Woman–The Musical is going to draw the crowds that sugary schlock like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat did. (Though I have to say I’m grateful that the financial success of the Andrew Lloyd Webber hit helped producer Garth Drabinsky to bankroll this production.) And unquestionably Victor/Victoria will pull in a bigger advance sale than Kiss of the Spider Woman: Julie Andrews is a bigger star than Chita Rivera or her scheduled replacement–Carol Lawrence–and certainly a bigger star than Janine LaManna, the impressive, clarion-voiced understudy who took over the role of Aurora on opening night after Rivera injured herself in a preview.

But even with its flaws–most seriously, an underwritten Valentin, whom McNally fails to make Molina’s equal–Kiss of the Spider Woman is fine art couched in the flashy surface style of Broadway and Hollywood. When I saw the show on Broadway Rivera was terrific; but seeing it again without her revealed the work’s artistic density, its courage in broaching tough topics, and the fact that Aurora, though important, is not the key to the work’s power. That key is Molina, portrayed here by commanding Argentina-born actor Juan Chioran (every bit as good as Brent Carver, who created the role in New York). The lanky, wide-eyed Chioran has the remarkable ability to take control of the stage even as he’s convincingly playing a weak man–so that when he sheds his weakness in the second act he’s riveting. Very strong support comes from angel-voiced John Dossett (whose Valentin recalls the strong, sexy, sensitive young Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil), Mark Zimmerman’s chillingly cruel warden, and Rita Gardner in an exquisite cameo as Molina’s mother.

But the real stars of Kiss of the Spider Woman are the people behind the scenes: McNally, who’s cleverly compressed Puig’s story but preserved its essence; Kander and Ebb, who challenged the European composers of pop operas like Les Miserables on their own terms and surpassed them; and above all Prince, whose melding of technical and dramatic artistry makes Kiss of the Spider Woman an extraordinary piece of poetic theater that also happens to be bang-up entertainment.