A few years after the Broadway opening of the master composers’ popular musicals “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote their most spellbinding and provocative work, “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
It swept the 1993 Tony Award musical categories and ran for almost three years on Broadway.
Yet “Kiss of the Spider Woman” fell into obscurity and is seldom produced. It is considered the duo’s “lost jewel.”
Kander and Ebb wrote “one of their finest scores for ‘Spider Woman,’” according to one critic — with songs that are “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 writer 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 titular character is both a ’40s movie queen, named Aurora, and an angel of death. To escape the horrors of being incarcerated in an un-named fascist South American jail for sexual advances toward a juvenile, Louis Molina, a flamboyant gay window dresser, retells the stories of his favorite movies and recalls the Spider Woman, who appears on stage but exists only in his fantasies.
Molina’s cellmate is an unlikely bedfellow, Valentin Arregui, a journalist jailed for his leftist political activities. “Spider Woman” is an exceptional character drama of two men who would have little use for each other if they met on the street but, locked together in a prison cell, their relationship deepens despite their glaring differences.
The story of “Spider Woman” began as a controversial although Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Manuel Puig published in 1976 under the title, “El Beso de la Mujer Araña.” It is an odd novel, written entirely in dialogue, no narration, no quotation marks, appearing to be just a transcript of conversations, while it subtly and brilliantly weaves important character and story elements.
Molina is self-centered, self-denigrating, yet charming as well. And Valentin is an articulate, fiercely dogmatic revolutionary haunted by memories of a woman he left for the cause. Both are gradually transformed by their guarded but growing relationship and by Molina’s obsession with the fantasy and romance of the movies.
According to biographer Suzanne Jill Levine, Puig “was the continent’s first literary pop novelist… He reinvented literature out of the nonliterary, living culture of his times. He understood how movies, soap operas, and popular songs seductively manipulate our hearts and minds, [and] how the language of the melodramas on radio and in films programmed intellectuals and housemaids alike.”
The underlying themes of political revolution, homosexual persecution, friendship, and love combine to create a darker and more nuanced musical than the “kiss” in its title initially suggests.