They wrote musicals based on the most unlikely material but John Kander and Fred Ebb enjoyed ultimate success with Cabaret and Chicago. Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin about pre-war Nazi Berlin became Cabaret. Maurine Dallas Watkins wrote a play Chicago, about a woman (not Roxy Hart) who, like Roxy, got away with murder; along the way it was a silent movie. Both musicals have been long- term successes, particularly in their movie versions, but were not initially welcomed, perhaps because they were before their time, whatever that means. They are hard-edged, cynical in tone, quite without likeable characters. Then in 1990, Kander and Ebb turned to a 1976 Portuguese novel by Manuel Puig: Kiss of the Spider Woman. After award-winning successes in the West End in 1992 and on Broadway in 1993, it is now being produced by the Melbourne Theatre Company (18/11-28/12 at Southbank).
It is set in a dark South American prison cell shared by two very different men. Molina, a gay window dresser, is serving an eight-year sentence for corrupting a minor. He lives in a fantasy world of movies, particularly around a vampy diva, Aurora, one of whose roles was of the spider woman. Valentine, a Marxist revolutionary, also put in the cell, is in a bad way after being tortured. They don’t immediately bond. Aurora becomes a presence in the cell; in Melbourne, Caroline O’Connor takes the role created by Chita Rivera. Maybe this is not for the family Christmas outing.
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