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`KISS ME, KATE’ MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

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By the time the much-anticipated New York Shakespeare Festival production of "Kiss Me, Kate" was aborted last week, the sets, by Robin Wagner, had been designed. So had the costumes, by William Ivey Long.

Christopher Durang was at work on a revision of the book by Sam and Bella Spewack, which is, of course, about the backstage marital squabbles of an acting couple starring in "The Taming of the Shrew."Kevin Kline and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio hadn't signed contracts yet, but there was every reason to believe they'd be the stars. And, said the director, Michael Ockrent, "We had names penciled in for almost all the other parts."

The show, originally produced in 1948, was supposed to have been the festival's second offering of the summer at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, with a scheduled opening in early August and a move to Broadway in December, but the commercial producers, Fran and Barry Weissler, had not yet firmly obtained the rights to produce the show.

The Shakespeare Festival was to have produced it under a sublicensing agreement with the Weisslers, which was also being worked out. And though the show was to remain essentially the same on Broadway as it was to be in the park, the productions, from a business standpoint, were different, and the Shakespeare Festival and the Weisslers had to make separate contracts with all the show's contributors.

"All the negotiations were going on at the same time," said one person involved in the process. "That's what was taking so long."

Several sources confirmed, though not for attribution, that the Weisslers had, in fact, come to a verbal agreement for a Broadway production with both the Cole Porter estate and the couple who inherited the rights to the Spewack book, Arthur and Lois Elias. And that the rights holders had agreed to a Shakespeare Festival production in the park as well.

But in the end, some members of the creative team - which was mutually put together by the Weisslers and the festival - felt that unless they were guaranteed what one person termed "protection," they were too uneasy to go on.

Among the things that had not been resolved was Durang's billing. Durang, who had been at work on the revision for four weeks, said "I was told the estate would prefer I not have billing," and the lawyer for the Eliases, Ken Sutak, confirmed this: "There was never any understanding that anybody would get credit for the show other than Cole Porter and the Spewacks," he said.

All parties had agreed that changes in the book were to be made, though not about what they would be. Sutak said they would be necessary simply to accommodate additional Cole Porter music that was to be added to the original.

Durang said that because Kline was an experienced Shakespearean actor, he was toying with the idea of adding more Shakespeare. He also said that he was amplifying the role of the female lead.

"I wanted to make her more of a match for the man," he said.

In any case, no changes were ever submitted for the Eliases' approval. One person close to the discussions said it had been decided that Ockrent would be the arbitrator of any disagreement between the Eliases and Durang, but without a signed contract, there was no guarantee, for example, that the Eliases wouldn't see the first preview and shut the play down.

"We were all unprotected, so nobody could go on," one of the creative people said.

The Weisslers say they and the Eliases still have hope that a Broadway production will be forthcoming, but there are now scheduling problems involving Kline. He had agreed to do the show this summer, then return to it in December for six months, after which he has other obligations.

But with the show not being put on this summer, Kline would have to rehearse for Broadway beginning in December, which means he might not be available for enough performances to make his participation worthwhile. And that would mean the Weisslers would be without a bankable star.

"It was a hard moment on Monday when we decided to drop it," Ockrent said. "None of us were interested in just doing a revival. Now we have the ability, technically, to switch easily from backstage to onstage, and that was the whole conceptual idea. For the opening we were going to have nothing onstage, and have trucks drive up and deliver the set. We had ideas for Venetian canals and gondolas. It would have been a pretty amazing theatrical experience."