Broadway Musical Time Machine: Looking Back at Kiss of the Spider Woman

Broadway Musical Time Machine: Looking Back at Kiss of the Spider Woman

 Chita Rivera

Chita Rivera

Quite possibly the darkest of all musicals to grace the Broadway stage, but also a musical that is overflowing with hope and courage, Kiss of the Spider Woman opened on Broadway in 1993 and went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical. The amazing part of this show's journey is rewinding a few years and examining its genesis and uphill climb to reach Broadway. If ever there was a "Little Engine That Could", Kiss of the Spider Woman overcame many odds to reach the Great White Way.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is, of course, based on the Manuel Puig story that had already been the basis for a play, a novel and an Oscar-winning film. It’s journey to the musical stage was never going to be a picnic (considering its subject matter), and it certainly had its challenges along the way. In 1990, a program to support and workshop new musicals was getting ready to take flight at SUNY Purchase. Kiss of the Spider Woman was meant to be the first musical to take advantage of this loving space to work out the kinks and snarls that come with writing and producing a musical. Unfortunately, some of the NYC critics decided to review the show (even though it was in its experimental stages) and decided to bash it before it ever reached a Broadway house. It appeared that Kiss of the Spider Woman (and the other two slated musicals, The Secret Garden and My Favorite Year) were doomed before they ever got off the ground. 

Enter Garth Drabinsky and Livent Entertainment. Drabinsky, a Canadian producer, resurrected Kiss of the Spider Woman and gave it a new production that played successfully in Toronto where the show continued to be shaped and finessed. Many changes were implemented after the lessons learned at Purchase and it seemed that the production had solved many of its problems. After playing successfully in the West End, the sights were set for The Big Apple and Broadway. Could they make the comeback that they deserved?

 Chita Rivera

Chita Rivera

The musical, as directed by the brilliant Harold Prince, pulsed with an impending doom that came in waves, interrupted only by acts of hope and courage (not to mention sublime musical numbers of frantic escapism). From lights up (what little there seemed to be in that dark and dreary prison) we were aware that the show’s catalyst was hurtling toward the darkness, and just as you felt as though he was reaching that horrible abyss, Prince pulled back and reminded the audience of humanity with a gentle moment that played as something truly profound. He found the light and love at the edge of despair and darkness. 

Canadian actor Brent Carver was secured to play Molina, the gay window dresser who is imprisoned for corrupting a minor, surviving his internment in a South American jail by escaping into his memories of classic movie musicals. As the movie star of his fantasy world, and the hovering angel of death who haunts Molina like a spectral insect slinking its way through the web-like maze of the prison bars, Broadway legend Chita Rivera gave the most astonishing performance of her career. Anthony Crivello would bring machismo and conviction to his role as Valentin, Molina's cell mate who is involved in a revolution to overthrow the government. Merle Louise infused Molina's doting mother with a sweet subtlety and a dreamlike maternal perfection. Herndon Lackey was a relentlessly manipulative prison warden, playing master puppeteer to the machinations that lead to Molina's untimely death.

 Jeff Hyslop, Chita Rivera and Anthony Crivello in  Kiss of the Spider Woman .

Jeff Hyslop, Chita Rivera and Anthony Crivello in Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Kander and Ebb provided one of their finest scores for Kiss of the Spider Woman, an exotic concoction of Latin rhythms spun together with joyous optimism and melody, and then glaringly juxtaposed against the gentle economy and aching brutality of Terrence McNally's expertly balanced book. Among the songs, “Dressing Them Up”, “Where You Are”, “Dear One”, “Anything for Him”, “Only at the Movies” and the title song are particularly effective. The musical’s final number, an impassioned tango between Molina and the Spider Woman, was a hypnotic sequence that ended with the ill-fated kiss. In this audience member’s mind, it still remains one of the most haunting and visceral moments ever presented on the stage.  

Kiss of the Spider Woman came to Broadway in a time where plays and musicals about gay and lesbian issues were de rigueur, but hardly what most theater going tourists were lining up to see. We were coming out of a decade where spectacle and razzle dazzle won the day. It is all the more amazing, then, that Kiss of the Spider Woman won Best Musical up against more commercially viable fare as the rock infused The Who's Tommy, the Bernadette Peters/Martin Short headlined musical comedy The Goodbye Girl, and the eagerly anticipated British import Blood Brothers. Kiss of the Spider Woman flung open the door for a renaissance of serious musical theatre storytelling.  

Some interesting facts about Kiss of the Spider Woman:

  • The SUNY Purchase production starred Lauren Mitchell, John Rubinstein and Kevin Gray.
  • Kiss of the Spider Woman opened at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre on May 3, 1993 and it ran for 904 performances.
  • Chita Rivera won her second Tony Award for playing the starlet Aurora/Spider Woman. She won her first for starring in another Kander and Ebb musical The Rink (1984)
  • Kiss of the Spider Woman won a slew of Tony Awards including Best Musical. In a rare Tony moment, Kander and Ebb’s score tied with The Who’s Tommy.
  • Vanessa Williams, Carol Lawrence and Maria Conchita Alonso all played the Spider Woman during the musical’s run.   
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