by Harry Haun
The last person to revive Kiss Me, Kate on Broadway—Australian director Michael Blakemore in 2000—made a little Tony history doing it. Not only did he score a Best Director win for Cole Porter’s backstage clambake, he also picked up the Best Director of a Play prize for steering three actors through the dense, intellectual puzzlement of Michael Frayne’s Copenhagen.
Scott Ellis, who helms the current (very current, as it turns out) resurrection of Kate, harbors no such hopes of bettering Blakemore. For starters—or non-starters—he didn’t make the Best Director cut for KMK, but he did for Tootsie, a new musical contender. Consequently with each of these up for different Best Musical awards—Original and Revival—he now has a clear shot at cornering the market on directing this season’s Tony-winning musicals.
Seventy-one years separate the creations of both, and still they required varying degrees of revising and rewriting to go down well in modern times.
Ellis spent most of his year of living dangerously shifting gears constantly, trying to keep the proper sexual politics in place and maintain a balance for both audiences. Understandably, Kate’s iconic image–being paddled in public by Petruchio (this is, after all, The Taming of the Shrew)—wouldn’t sit well with the #MeToo crowd, so much thought and sweat went into avoiding that unfortunate spectacle. Even Tootsie, from Dustin Hoffman’s 1982 film, needed some contemporary brushing-up and updating.
Kate came first–back in December of 2016. That’s when Ellis staged Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase in a benefit gala reading of Kiss Me, Kate. As Todd Haimes’ Assistant Artistic Director of Roundabout Theater Company for 20-plus years, it would fall to him to put together such events. It also allowed him a chance to test the waters and see if shows were still see-worthy. “That’s how the last revival of She Loves Me happened,” he footnotes, not mentioning that he helmed both those revivals. “With Kate, I felt the book was a bit creaky and thought, ‘If we do this, we’d have to really relook at it.”
How much scrutiny was needed remained to be seen at the time since only the existing script was used for the reading. Once it got green-lighted, Ellis approached the Porter estate about changes and insisted on Amanda Green for his adapting accomplice “to juice it up a little. She was my first and only choice. We’d worked on a revival of her dad’s On the Twentieth Century.”
Ellis made out a list of what wouldn’t “play” and what they could get away with. A definite no-no: Petruchio cracking a whip at Katherine. Certainly no way to treat a feminist! Then, the whip was passed to Kate to use as she sees fit. As unbridled battle-of-the-sexes go, this one is pretty bridled, boiling down to lots of butt-kicking that democratically produced bruises on both backsides.
This mutual black-and-blue subterfuge helped Ellis disguise how Kate’s heretofore-celebrated spanking scene vanished, “The scene was always eliminated in this version. Before, the excuse was that she couldn’t ride the donkey because he had spanked her. Now, basically, it’s that they both can’t ride the donkey because they both have been kicking each other’s ass.”
The director is particularly proud of the performances Chase and O’Hara are turning in as battling stage stars and about to-be-exes Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi—a.k.a., the 1948 versions of Petruchio and Katherine. “When I approached them about the gala three years ago, I don’t think they thought they’d ever do it on Broadway. I think they just thought it’ll be a nice night.” And here O’Hara is now, getting the Tony once-over. “I’m so glad she got nominated. It’s not something people would automatically think of Kelli for.” Of course, the character’s goalposts have been rounded off a tad for O’Hara. “We didn’t want her to be just this screaming shrew. We didn’t approach the role that way. There had to be a truth behind her actions.”
The screaming in Ellis’ other Tony contender, Tootsie, is centrally located in another actor (this one, for the most part, male): Michael Dorsey, a difficult-to-the-point-of-being-undirectable guy who accesses his inner female, gussies himself up accordingly and lands a job, in drag, as an actress.
Tootsie Tony nominees fill in all four of the acting categories. In the title role, juggling genders, sliding back and forth from tenor to falsetto all night, Santino Fontana looms like a slam dunk for Best Actor. Lending him their unconditional, Tony-contending support are Sarah Stiles as his cast-off girlfriend, Lilli Cooper as his cast-on girlfriend and Andy Groetelueschen as his best friend (a vast improvement over what Bill Murray played in the film). Michael McGrath as his exasperated agent and John Behlmann as his buff and brazen on-set suitor likewise add to the merriment and confusions.
Ellis’ strength as a director lies in casting precisely the right actor for the right undertaking. More often than not, this translates into a clown car of character actors anxious to do his biding. Yes, he has a favorite case-in-point: “If someone pushes me in a corner and asks, ‘What’s your favorite show?’ I’ll always say the one I’m working on. But I must say, You Can’t Take It With You was pretty special. Every single one of those people nailed it.”
He even recruited a couple from that show for Tootsie. Reg Rogers, a fearlessly over-the-top Russkie before, turns up here an overbearing lech of a director. His bright and brittle producer is the chronically hilarious Julie Halston, whose bit of an alcoholic actress gamely attempting a staircase stagger extended that show’s running time five memorable minutes.
All of the above are given very funny things to do and say by Robert Horn, who maintains a fidelity to the original film and still musters a freshness.
Ellis counts himself “an actor’s director,” because he was one. “I think, once you’re an actor, you never forget what that’s like. You always want to help them. Maybe it’s because I love actors. I love working with actors, and, if you work with people that you like, you tend to want to do it again.”
Right out of college, he roller-skated his way on to Broadway in The Rink, a John Kander-Fred Ebb musical with Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera–and almost instantly took a sharp right turn into directing. He talked the songwriters into letting him direct their first collaboration, Flora the Red Menace, Off-Broadway with Veanne Cox. It went well, and the rest is history.
Basically, Ellis learned directing on Kander-and-Ebb trainer-wheels (from Off-Broadway’s Flora and And the World Goes ‘Round to Broadway’s Steel Pier and Curtains). His direction of And the World Goes ‘Round got a Drama Desk Award and he was on his way. Now he says there’s talk of redoing that show with newer or cut Kander and Ebb.
His first new musical without the assistance of Kander and Ebb is, somewhat shockingly, David Yazbek’s Tootsie, but more may be coming. This week he and Amanda Green head to L.A. for a reading of her book musical and plan to resume work on it in early August in Williamstown.
Five of his nine Tony nominations have been for revivals: She Loves Me-x-two, 1776 (the first Broadway show he ever saw), The Mystery of Edwin Drood and You Can’t Take It With You. Come spring (April 23), he’ll return with a revival for 2ST’s Hayes Theater: Take Me Out, Richard Greenberg’s baseball play about a gay center-fielder (Jesse Williams of Grey’s Anatomy). An Emmy nominee, Ellis plans to get in his TV licks between his theatrical commitments. “Edie Falco has a new series shooting in New York, so I’m going to shoot that. And then there’s a new show called All Rise in L.A. . . .”
Paternity keeps him busy as well. He and his husband of three years, actor Scott Drummond, have adopted nine-year-old twins, Parker and Charlotte, and, since Ellis himself is a twin (brother Mark runs the International Bar Association in London), the coincidence invites some speculation, but his doctor advised him to let people draw their own incorrect conclusions.
Mark and Scott Ellis lost their mother this year. “She died on Kiss Me, Kate’s first preview, so there was something special about knowing ‘She’s up there, watching,’” says her showbiz son. “She gave me my love of theater.”
Kiss Me, Kate Rehearsal Photos: Jenny Anderson