By Blair Howell
Two men are brutally thrust into a jail cell together during a fascist dictatorship of a South American country and are immediately at odds with each other. They have vastly different demeanors and ideologies. They are the strangest of bedfellows.
“These main characters are Molina and Valentin,” says Utah Repertory Theater Company’s founder and artistic director Johnny Hebda, who directs the Broadway musical Kiss of the Spider Woman. “Molina refers to himself as ‘the resident queen,’ and Valentin is a young, masculine revolutionary. This makes for an interesting dynamic in the claustrophobic cell which the two men are forced to share.”
But through the story of Spider Woman, audiences startlingly discover that the “underlying themes — of political revolution, homosexual persecution, friendship, and love — that combine to create a darker and more nuanced musical than the ‘kiss’ in its title initially suggests,” according to one writer.
“The titular Spider Woman is a character from one of Molina’s favorite films that is played by Aurora, the actress that he idolizes,” Hebda explains. Spider Woman appears on stage but exists only in his fantasies. “She is the one character that Molina is terrified of because anytime she kisses individuals in the movie, they die. This metaphor plays out throughout the show as we see the Spider Woman before a prisoner dies, and she is foreshadowing events taking place in the present.”
To alleviate the jailyard’s day-to-day drudgery and seemingly continuous violence, Molina entertains Valentin by retelling the fantastical stories of his favorite movies that starred Aurora.
“There is no question that Molina, the gay male protagonist, is definitely the hero. This is rarely seen in most any other story,” Hebda says. “The story breaks down walls and stereotypes in showing homosexuals in a positive and noble light.”
Both men are gradually transformed by their guarded but growing relationship and by Molina’s obsession with the fantasy and romance of the movies, which Valentin begins to appreciate.
The master composers John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote the Spider Woman musical a few years after the duo’s most acclaimed popular Cabaret and Chicago, which were first Broadway musicals before becoming widely entertaining movie adaptations. Spider Woman is considered the team’s most spellbinding and provocative work, yet perhaps as a direct consequence of the controversies of the time, it fell into obscurity and is seldom produced. It is, however, considered the duo’s “lost jewel.”
“Audiences will be captivated by the story, the music, the dancing, the live orchestra, and the intimacy created by the black box space-style theater,” the director believes. “Audiences will be sucked into the world of the show and relate to the themes presented. The story is captivating and easily accessible by a wide variety of audiences and backgrounds. It’s very dark in nature, but the mix of show-stopping glitter and glam, and well-placed comedy, coupled with a resounding theme of love, acceptance and survival, audiences will come away moved and satisfied.”
The initial story of the Spider Woman appeared in the controversial Spanish-language novel, El Beso de la Mujer Araña, written by Argentine Manuel Puig and published in 1976, and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. The novel’s adaptation was the first independent film to be nominated in all the top Oscars categories including Best Picture. And, playing Molina, William Hurt was the first actor to win a Best Actor Academy Award for playing a homosexual.
“The abstract storytelling in the Broadway version has led to a lot of creative choices,” Hebda says. “I have enjoyed blending the fantasy world and the literal world together through using a variety of conventions. Additionally, having an all-male ensemble playing fellow prisoners and other characters was also very unique and presented interesting choreography and styles.”
Observers believe Spider Woman won the Best Musical Tony for its vast strength, even though it was 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.
“Audiences will be captivated by the story, the music, the dancing, the live orchestra, and the intimacy created by the black-box theater space,” Hebda continues. “Audiences will be sucked into the world of the show and relate to the themes presented. The story is captivating and easily accessible by a wide variety of audiences and backgrounds. It’s very dark in nature, but with the mix of show-stopping glitter and glam, and well-placed comedy — coupled with a resounding theme of love, acceptance and survival — audiences will come away deeply moved and satisfied.”
Spider Woman flung open the door for a renaissance of serious musical-theater storytelling, while the messages remain as timely today as when it was first produced.
Hailed as “one of the most compelling, most emotional musicals ever written for the stage, a show about the healing power of storytelling amidst profound suffering, about the power of people to change each other’s lives,” The Kiss of the Spider Woman will be produced by Utah Repertory Theater Company April 21–May 7 at the Sorenson Unity Center’s Black Box Theater, 1383 S. 900 West, Salt Lake City. Tickets can be purchased at utahrep.org/tickets.