an analysis by Scott Miller

 

One has to ask oneself how it is possible to live in this country with people who murdered, people who tortured and still walk among us; with fathers who will grow old without their sons, and sons who will have to grow up without fathers.

– Argentine reporter Alberto Amato

This is the horrific but fascinating backdrop for 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. Argentine novelist Manuel Puig wrote defiantly about these horrors in 1976 in his ground-breaking novel Kiss of the Spider Woman, a book so incendiary, so dangerously political that it was first published in Spain, and was banned in Argentina until 1983. The story was then recreated for the musical stage by composer John Kander, lyricist Fred Ebb (the team responsible for Cabaret, Chicago, and other shows), playwright Terrence McNally (Ragtime, Love! Valour! Compassion!, and other plays and musicals), and director Hal Prince (Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Evita, Phantom of the Opera). In its musical form, Spider Woman is a wrenchingly beautiful show, clearly Kander and Ebb’s masterpiece, so relentlessly emotional that even the big, show-stopper dance numbers have beneath them an inescapable layer of sadness and danger.

Puig’s characters grapple with maintaining humanity in the face of pure evil, with maintaining human connection under the worst of circumstances, and above all, with the power of fantasy. Because so much of the story lives in the abstract terrain of the mind, in fantasy and hallucination, in a kind of magical realism, it was material destined for the musical stage, where the abstract language of music could convey the emotions, fears, and passions of these characters better than spoken words ever could.

The musical based on Puig’s novel went even further than its source. The musical preserved the horror and politics of the novel, the exploration of issues of sexual orientation, and the fascinating questions about the role of storyteller and audience, actor and observer. Like the novels Canterbury Tales, 1001 Arabian Nights, Don Quixote, and the musicals Man of La Mancha, The Robber Bridegroom, Pippin, and others, the characters in Kiss of the Spider Woman constantly shift positions of narrator and audience, taking on both roles, sometimes both at once. But the musical Kiss of the Spider Woman also (perhaps unconsciously) comments on musical theatre as an art form. In 1992, when the show first opened in a workshop production, musical theatre was still changing drastically, transforming from lighthearted escapist fare into a form far more substantial, often dark, and increasingly subtle and emotionally complex. The revolution had begun in the 1960s with shows like Man of La Mancha, Cabaret, and Hair. Songwriter Stephen Sondheim and director Hal Prince continued the art form’s evolution with convention-shattering shows like Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and others. Sondheim kept pushing the envelope with Sunday in the Park with George and Passion with director and playwright James Lapine, and also Assassins with bookwriter John Weidman. And a younger generation now emerged, writing brilliant, complex musicals like Songs for a New World, Parade, The Last Five Years (all by Jason Robert Brown), Floyd Collins, Myths and Hymns, The Light in the Piazza (all by Adam Guettel), and others.

Kiss of the Spider Woman was part of that evolution, and just as many said of Sondheim’s Follies, Spider Woman seemed to be subtextually about the death of musical comedy at the hands of serious musical drama. Spider Woman used both forms, serious musical drama to tell its story, and old-fashioned musical comedy in ironic fantasy sequences that commented on the action and psychology of the characters. The show seemed to "murder" its musical comedy side by the end, just as Follies had done. Today, musical comedy as a form survives only as museum pieces or irony-laden "camp." And that "murder" of musical comedy parallels the emotional arc of Spider Woman’s central character Molina, as he transforms from silly, trivial "cineaste" (i.e., movie fanatic) into a man of character and depth and moral strength.

Birth of the Spider Woman

Kiss of The Spider Woman began life as Manuel Puig's novel published in 1976 under the title, El Beso de la Mujer Arana. It was an odd novel, written entirely in dialogue, no narration, no quotation marks, appearing to be just a transcript of conversations, subtly and brilliantly weaving important character and story elements into the fabric of the great films that the central character Molina remembers from his childhood and recounts over and over, to escape the brutality and banality of life in the Villa Devoto prison in Buenos Aires in the 1970s. From there the story became a film in 1985, premiering at the Cannes film festival and garnering a best actor Academy Award for William Hurt as Molina, as well as allowing Raul Julia as Valentin to successfully redirect his career from stage to screen. In all, the film was nominated for four Oscars, including best picture.

In his book Behind the Scenes, Reagan White House aide Mike Deaver wrote about the film:

The homosexual has nothing in life he desire except to give and receive love with another human being. The radical couldn’t care less for that kind of love; for him life is a cause… In the end, the radical discovers there is grace in giving of yourself… [The Reagans] had a print delivered to Camp David and watched it one weekend. Nancy could not wait to see me that Monday morning. "Mike," she almost gasped, "how could you recommend that film? It was dreadful. We turned it off halfway through the reel." Once you get past the subject, I said, "it was an incredible picture." She shuddered slightly. "How can you get past that?" she asked.

Puig dramatized his novel for the stage in 1985, and it debuted at London's Bush Theatre. 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, how the language of the melodramas on radio and in films programmed intellectuals and housemaids alike."

The award-winning team of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb soon saw the potential for music in the story. John Kander describes the project’s birth this way in the book Colored Lights: "Freddy came up with the idea. He said to me, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and I said ‘Yes!’ immediately. The next person we spoke to was Hal Prince. We said the title and Hal said ‘Yes!’ immediately. Everybody after that thought it was the worst idea they had ever heard." Puig was originally slated to write the script himself, but because English was a second language for him, it just wasn’t working, so playwright Terrence McNally came aboard. Kander said:

Immediately, we saw musical theatrical possibilities in it… It was perfectly obvious to the three of us that not only do you have the exotic locale of a South American prison, but you’re spending half the evening inside of somebody else’s fantasy, and if that isn’t a clear message to do something musical, I don’t know what would be.

Puig never saw his musical; he passed away from a heart attack during gall bladder surgery in 1990.

The show was the first offering by a bold, new organization Prince had begun called New Musicals, a musical theatre lab safely located far away from the harsh lights of Broadway, up at the State University of New York at Purchase, where artists could work without the usual pressures of critics and "industry" people – "pressures that encumber the spirit with which you do your work," Prince said in a New York Times interview. Prince saw that Broadway was no longer the focal point for exciting new musical theatre. "In the future there are going to be shows that have played all over the world and have never played on Broadway," he said at the time. He was right and it was already beginning.

The first season of New Musicals was slated to develop four new musicals, Spider Woman, The Secret Garden, My Favorite Year, and Fanny Hackabout Jones. Unfortunately, only Spider Woman would be produced before New Musicals shuttered. The Secret Garden and My Favorite Year would eventually be produced in New York by other producers.

Prince had asked the New York press not to come to SUNY-Purchase, to allow these new shows to be developed without reviews. But the critics came anyway. British critic Sheridan Morley, who was in New York, was the first to review the show for the International Herald Tribune – he says he didn’t know about the critical embargo – and once his review appeared, other critics descended upon Purchase like locusts, most of them publishing mixed or negative reviews of a musical that was admittedly not ready to be reviewed. The first version of the musical spent most of its time in Molina’s movies and lacked a coherent through-line. Visually, the show kept leaping back and forth from the drab prison cell to 1940s-style technicolored fantasy sequences full of pretty chorus girls. The fantasy sequences undermined and trivialized the realistic scenes, sapping the show’s considerable potential strength. Its split personality didn’t work and neither did much of the material. But the creators never got the time to figure that out. Hal Prince said in a 1992 interview with Theater Week about that first production, "I knew we had done something wrong. I didn’t know for sure, but I suspected it… One of the things we couldn’t figure out was whether all that 1940s Columbia Pictures musical stuff was going to help or hurt. And I think we all suspected it might [hurt], but we didn’t know until we saw it."

Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times, "Spider Woman has the kernel of an exciting idea, and it also has, in Mr. Kander and Mr. Ebb, superb, if often underrated, songwriters who are clearly hungering to rise to a challenge." He went on, "It’s all frustrating because somewhere in Kiss of the Spider Woman is the compelling story its creators want to tell, which is nothing less than an investigation of what it means to be a man, in the highest moral sense, whatever one’s sexual orientation. That story begins with two men in a tiny room, and if the creators of Kiss of the Spider Woman are to retrieve the intimate heart of their show, they may have to rescue it from the voluminous web in which it has so wastefully become ensnared."

Work could no longer be done at SUNY-Purchase the way Prince had hoped, and so the New Musicals project – and the show – ended prematurely. The loss of New Musicals was very disappointing to those who cared about the future of the American musical theatre.

But Spider Woman wasn’t finished. Kander, Ebb, and McNally continued to work on the show, adding seven new songs and cutting eight, completely rethinking the physical look of the show, and completely rethinking the structure of the story, the interplay between the real world and fantasy, and the blending together of the two. The team cut several songs including Aurora’s opening number "I Dance Alone," "Man Overboard," "Every Day," "Come Out, Come Out" "Peter the Pelican," "A Good Clean Fight," "Hold On," and "Never You." Most of the cut songs had been in the discarded movie scenes. They added "Aurora," "Bluebloods," "Dressing Them Up" (a monologue in the first version), "I Draw the Line," "The Interrogation," "Good Times," and "Anything for Him," most of which happened in the "real world." The musical sound of the show became even more Latin, using tangos, rhumbas, sambas, mambos, huapangos, habaneras, beguines, boleros, a fandango, and other Latin forms.

The show was then remounted by theatre impresario Garth Drabinsky and his company Livent, at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre, with an entirely new cast that featured Chita Rivera, Brent Carver and Anthony Crivello. With this production, the fantasy sequences happened entirely within the prison set, effectively and dramatically mixing the real and fantasy worlds, never letting the audience forget the horrors the political prisoners face, and how those horrors intrude on even the most idyllic fantasy world.

That same production then moved to London in October 1992 where it won the London Evening Standard Drama Award for best musical. Drabinksy called the show, "the first musical in years with an American creative constituency to open in Toronto and London ahead of New York, and it will therefore reach Broadway in 1993 as an established hit, rather than as the risky endeavour it appeared when it was first considered there back in 1990." Kiss of the Spider Woman finally opened in New York at the Broadhurst Theatre in May 1993, where it ran for 906 performances. The show won seven Tony Awards, including best musical and best score The show was choreographed by Rob Marshall, who would soon become one of the top choreographers on Broadway and who would helm the amazing film version of Kander & Ebb’s Chicago a decade later.

Newsday called the revised version "the only new show with a wild heart and a fresh eye, the only one that budges the form in a seriously extravagant theatrical direction, the only one with a book that's stylish, the only one with an accessible gotta-dance score that isn't exclusively content to sound like music we've heard before." The New York Daily News called it "compelling, beautiful, funny, and moving," and said that it "transforms what might be cruel melodrama into something provocative, disquieting, and operatically haunting." The New York Daily News called it "compelling, beautiful, funny, and moving, [with] a cinematic fluidity and a poetic charge."

Now that Fred Ebb has died, it’s interesting to look back on the team’s rich catalog of musicals and to note that all Kander and Ebb’s hit shows were adaptations of other works – Cabaret, Zorba, Chicago, Woman of the Year, and Spider Woman. And all their shows not based on other sources were flops – Flora the Red Menace, The Happy Time, 70 Girls 70, The Rink, and Steel Pier.

Down Argentina Way

Kiss of the Spider Woman was significant for putting Latino characters front and center in a Broadway musical and treating them with respect. Zoot Suit had done it first, but Spider Woman did it more commercially. Spider Woman also was one of the few Broadway musicals that even acknowledged the existence of Latin America, much less taking its political problems seriously. Drabinksy said in an interview, "I have to believe that a work will have an importance in terms of the statement it’s making, and without preaching, Spider Woman satisfies that criterion."

When Puig was growing up, Hollywood had been enamored of all things Latin, though their representations were usually condescending and racist. Latino actors and actresses were very big in Hollywood for a while, including Rita Hayworth, Carmen Miranda, Desi Arnaz, Delores Del Rio, and others. As the 1930s were winding down, America’s Good Neighbor Policy inspired the stunt casting of Latinos on Broadway and on film. Carmen Miranda, the second most famous recipient of this fortunate timing, made her first Broadway appearance in June 1939 in a mediocre revue called The Street of Paris, beating Desi Arnaz to the boards by just a few months. She would also just barely beat him to Hollywood, in MGM’s Down Argentina Way in October 1940, where she got to recreate her big number from The Streets of Paris. Of course, the Brazilian Miranda sang in Portuguese, right there in the middle of Argentina. Oops. Who’ll know?, they must’ve thought. But the movie was awkward and offensive enough to Latinos that Buenos Aires audiences protested the film and 20th Century Fox had to reshoot and reedit.

Desi Arnaz’s big break came with Rodgers & Hart’s Too Many Girls on Broadway in October 1939. The flimsy script centered on a rich girl whose father has secretly hired four football players to accompany her to college as bodyguards. (Sound familiar? Try Elvis Presley’s 1965 Girl Happy.) As luck would have it, she falls in love with one of them – not of course, the Latino, played by Desi Arnaz.. Still Arnaz, formerly a band singer, got to shine in several scenes, and the score included the embarrassing, pseudo-Lain numbers, "All Dressed Up / Spic and Spanish" (no kidding), "She Could Shake the Maracas," "Babalú," and the quite painful "Give It Back to the Indians." Arnaz headed straight for Hollywood to recreate his role for the film version in November 1940. One critic, Gustavo Péres Firmat, said of the film, "To be sure, Too Many Girls is a multiculturalist’s nightmare." It was on the set that Arnaz met Lucille Ball – and he decided to stay.

Interestingly, in Kiss of the Spider Woman on Broadway in the 1990s, the role of Latino political activist Valentin would be taken over during the run by Brian Mitchell (later Brian Stokes Mitchell, the future star of Ragtime and other shows), and Vanessa Williams would step in as Aurora, both actors African American. Tickets sales had dropped to about seventy percent of capacity when the producers hired Williams in late June 1994, and by August, the show was back to standing room only. In a rare move, the producers took the show back into the studio to make a second cast album, this one with Williams, Mitchell, and Howard McGillin, the new Molina.

Argentina’s "Dirty War"

The political and social backdrop of Spider Woman is a complicated one. Argentina has been home to political and military unrest for most of its modern history. In 1930, President Yrigoyen was deposed by a military dictatorship. In 1943, Colonel Juan Peron took charge of the Ministry of Labor (as part of the military dictatorship) and when general elections were restored in 1946, Peron won the presidency with 56% of the vote, naming his wife Eva ("Evita") vice-president. In 1955, another military coup removed Peron from office, and he was in exile until 1973, when he returned to Argentina.

The late 60s and early 70s were a time of transformation in Argentina, just as it was in most of the Western world. The Argentina Reader says:

Among the most memorable changes was the development and internationalization of a highly irreverent youth culture, easily distinguished by its repeated violations of traditional norms, such as those concerning dress and speech. Jeans, mini-skirts, long hair, and the use of expletives and certain types of lingo were the most obvious signs of young people’s contempt for bourgeois values and morals. Experimentation centered on the body. Drug consumption and sexual freedom provided alternative ways of experiencing the physical and emotional worlds.

After the death of the controversial Peron in 1974, his second wife, Isabel Martinez de Peron – who was also vice-president – assumed power but proved to be a weak leader. On March 24, 1976, in yet another well-planned coup, the Argentine armed forces overthrew the government and Peron was taken into "protective custody." A three-man military junta, headed by General Jorge Rafael Videla took charge and began a ruthless campaign against the counterculture: liberals, leftists, political activists, union members, journalists, writers, and students, as part of what was soon to be dubbed "The Dirty War."

This counterculture was inspired in large part by Argentine native and legendary leftist guerrilla leader Che Guevara, who argued that only violence would ever bring social equality to Latin America, and young men (like Valentin) even began to dress and grow beards like Guevara. The movement was encouraged by supporters of Peron; and a subgroup of political terrorists called the Montoneros emerged, combining the populist "worker’s rights" slogans of Peron with the Marxist teachings of Karl Marx and the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre and Sigmund Freud. The movement’s ideals are described in Kiss of the Spider Woman most explicitly in the song "The Day After That." The Argentina Reader describes the movement this way:

Driven by the irresistible promise of leftist utopias and the appalling injustice and misery caused by the social recipes of capitalism, many students, political activists, priest, intellectuals, and artists adopted even more radically dissident political stances.

Anyone suspected of favoring these groups or their ideas was subject to arbitrary arrest. All cultural life was now subjected to strict censorship. The government took control of all labor unions. People were kidnapped on the streets and never seen again. The prisons overflowed with political prisoners and torture was common. There were no trials or pretense of legal process. An estimated 11,000 Argentines disappeared between 1976 and 1982, called los desaparecidos or "the disappeared." More than 30,000 people died during this period, many in Argentine concentration camps modeled after the Nazi camps. At the height of the horror, only the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared had the courage to stand up to the government. Every Thursday, they began assembling in the Plaza de Mayo in front of the Presidential Palace, demanding information on their missing children.

Conditions in the prisons were unfathomable. Prisoners were not allowed to lie down on their cots during the day, and the strain of this sometimes caused paralysis or atrophy of the legs. They were allowed no contact with family or friends, and most prisoners were afraid to write to loved ones, for fear they too would be targeted. Almost all letters were seized by the censors. The prisons would play sad songs by Julio Iglesias to deepen prisoners’ depression (no kidding). Prison guards would stage fake escapes and executions with mannequins to scare the prisoners. When a prisoner was moved out of his cell, he had to keep his eyes straight ahead; one glance over his shoulder meant loss of all privileges and possible torture. Newspapers and radios were banned insider the prison. Only books written before the French Revolution were in prison libraries. Prisoners were experimented on with tranquilizer darts, were tortured with cattle prods, had the soles of their feet beaten with batons, had metal buckets placed on their heads and then the buckets hammered, had electrical wires applied to breasts, vaginas, anuses, penises, tongues, and other body parts. In some cases, prisoners’ bellies were slit open and they were dropped in a river as "fish food." Some were thrown out of airplanes fully conscious. The length of sentences was completely arbitrary and had nothing to do with the "crime" committed, and at the end of the prison term, the prisoner or his family had to pay the state back for the cost of his imprisonment or he would not be released.

The flagrant violations of human rights caused the U.S. government under President Jimmy Carter to stop sending military aid to Argentina. Several prominent prisoners were freed and allowed to leave the country, and gradually the security forces decreased their "Dirty War" activities in response to worldwide public opinion.

In 2003, the Miami Herald published proof that America and the Ford administration had approved of this brutal military regime. According to a recently declassified U.S. government document, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the Argentine foreign minister in 1976, at the height of the Dirty War, that America supported the Argentine government. The transcript of the meeting between Kissinger and Argentine Navy Admiral César Augusto Guzzetti in New York is the first documentary evidence that the Ford administration approved of the junta’s harsh tactics. "Look, our basic attitude is that we would like you to succeed," Kissinger reassured Guzzetti in the seven-page transcript, marked SECRET. "I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to be supported. What is not understood in the United States is that you have a civil war. We read about human rights problems but not the context. The quicker you succeed, the better." The Argentine military regime was delighted.

Although the government carried out its war mostly against suspected domestic subversives, it was a foreign enemy that brought the regime to an end. In the early 1980s, it became clear to both the world and the Argentine people that the government was behind the thousands of kidnappings. Facing increasing opposition over its human rights record as well as mounting allegations of corruption, the regime tried to quell domestic criticism by launching a campaign to regain Las Islas Malvinas (the Falkland Islands). Since 1820, the Falklands had been a source of contention between England, which administered them, and Argentina, which claimed them. The Argentine regime thought it could reclaim these islands relatively easily, that England wouldn’t mind their loss, and that the Argentine government would thus regain its popularity and control over its people. But they were wrong. Seventy-two days after the invasion of the Islands, the British military won the war, having captured 9,800 Argentine POWs. This unexpected loss was the final blow for the regime, and in 1982, it restored basic civil liberties and retracted its ban on political parties. The Dirty War ended when Raul Alfonsin’s civilian government took control of the country on December 10, 1983.

Alfonsin immediately announced plans to prosecute the nine military leaders who ruled during the Dirty War. After an eight-month trial in Buenos Aires in 1985, Videla and his Navy commander, Admiral Emilo Massera were found guilty of homicide, illegal detention, and other human rights violations, and were sentenced to life imprisonment. Three codefendants, including General Roberto Eduardo Viola, who succeeded Videla as president, were found guilty of lesser charges and received sentences ranging from four and a half to seventeen years. The remaining four officers were acquitted. In January 1991, Argentina’s President Carlos Saul Menem, seeking to calm discontent in the military (four army uprisings had occurred since 1983), issued pardons to imprisoned military personnel, including Videla, which resulted in massive public protest and outrage.

But as it was with Nazi Germany, the American war in Vietnam, and other difficult historical events, it’s not easy to label people or moments as completely good or completely bad when you’re in the middle of it all. As Cabaret showed us, it’s easy to judge the German people in retrospect for their complicity in the Holocaust, but it wasn’t so black and white in that time and place. Similarly, Kiss of the Spider Woman shows us, with intelligence and candor, the moral complexity and ambiguity of the 1970s in Argentina. Most disturbingly, the show gives us the Warden, both charming and cruel, both "compassionate" (by his own definition) and heartless. But can we call him evil, or is that too simplistic? He is amoral. The idea of right and wrong is irrelevant to him; all that matters is getting his job done, doing his duty to his government. To his mind, Valentin and his cohorts are criminals, enemies of the state, and just as with the Bush administration’s "War on Terror" in this new millennium, the end justifies the means. The Warden’s cruelty is justified (to him) because his prisoners are less than human, because they are The Enemy, they are Other, exactly as Islamic terrorists are Other to many Americans today, exactly as Jews once were to otherwise moral Germans. The Warden believes his methods are acceptable because they are carried out in the name of patriotism, in the name of the common good, and we see his bafflement at any other perspective when he talks to the representative of Amnesty International in the show. The Warden is a utilitarian, not an idealist. And Marta is cousin to Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret. Kiss of the Spider Woman shows us not just the horrors of the time but its complexity as well.

Molina and Valentin

At its core, Kiss of the Spider Woman transcends its historical and political context. It’s about two men who complete each other, one straight and one gay, one masculine and one feminine, one funny and trivial (at least, at first), the other serious and driven, both hiding much of themselves from the world, both scared of revealing themselves or, even worse, being revealed. And both men share one overriding emotion: shame. Molina is ashamed because he’s been arrested for "corruption of minors," and his homosexuality has been revealed to the world and to his mother, at a time when being gay was still an unforgivable transgression.

Valentin is ashamed because he has been arrested as a political prisoner, and now that he’s locked up, he’s worthless to his beloved cause. He has failed his fellow revolutionaries and his carelessness has endangered others. We can see that Valentin had been a supremely confident man, full to the brim with moral surety, but he lost all that when he was imprisoned. Now we see false bravado, over-compensation, self-recrimination ("I’m as pathetic as you!"), self-doubt. He has been robbed of his identity, and it’s no accident. It’s just the first step in the Warden’s campaign to break him. Valentin once saw himself as a mythic hero, fighting the Good Fight, and now he’s a failure, actually endangering that Good Fight. Ironically, Molina will make Valentin a hero again, but Valentin will be so broken he won’t be able to accept that mantle anymore. And perhaps that is the true torture.

As the story begins, Molina has learned to hide his shame behind a flamboyant cheerfulness, but Valentin is disgusted, even angered, by Molina’s shield of triviality. Valentin isn’t disgusted because Molina is gay, as we find out later in the novel; it’s that he’s trivial, without dignity, without self-respect. (In the novel, Valentin discusses at length the legitimacy of homosexuality and the moral equivalency of straight and gay sex.) Valentin will teach Molina to be a real man, a man of substance and dignity, a man who at long last recognizes his own worth. But the teacher cannot learn his own lesson; Valentin has not learned to hide his shame either, and it eats away at him.

The primary action of the story centers on how Valentin gives something of himself to Molina, and Molina gives something of himself to Valentin. Only then does each man become truly whole. In Suzanne Jill Levine’s biography, Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman, she writes:

The novel was Manuel Puig’s most affirmative, most daring, and the only one with heroes: the Marxist, prejudiced by his politics or blind to their contradictions, learns that tolerance for The Other is essential for true political action, while his gay cell mate is liberated by a selfless act.

As the show opens, Luis Molina (clearly based on Puig) is serving the third year of an eight year sentence. His name is actually Molino; in Spanish, a man’s name should end with an o, and a woman’s name with an a, but Molina has consciously adopted the feminine form of his name. He doesn’t just see himself as a woman, but more specifically as a submissive woman. He is willingly and happily trivial, refusing to face the reality of life in Argentina in the 1970s. Valentin Paz has been arrested for giving his visa to one of the founders of the political resistance so he could leave the county. Molina has learned to escape the squalor, the brutality of prison by reliving his favorite movie musicals over and over, the films he saw as a child when his mother worked in a movie theatre. (Puig himself grew up on Hollywood films because his mother actually was an usherette in a movie theatre.) But Molina is also escaping from the oppressive homophobia of Argentine society, even in prison, escaping from the reality of being a man since he would much rather be a woman. He identifies with the brave heroines of his movies.

Valentin thinks of nothing but his cause, about those he left still fighting, and his inability to contribute anymore. Just as Molina hides from real life, from real emotion through his ongoing "performance" as the funny gay sidekick, so too does Valentin hide from real life and real emotion by pushing all that aside in favor of anger and an idealistic political cause. Neither man faces life as it is. They must learn that from each other. In the novel, Valentin explains how he survives the torture:

I put up with all of it because there’s a purpose behind it. Social revolution, that’s what’s important, and gratifying the senses is only secondary. While the struggle goes on, and it’ll probably go on for the rest of my life, it’s not right for me to cultivate any kind of sensual gratification, do you get my point?, because really, that takes second place for me.

It’s a convenient way for Valentin to hide, to never risk real human connection. He sees it as inner strength and nobility, but it’s just another kind of hiding, no different really from Molina. And later on, Valentin will admit he’s in love with the upper-class Marta, in complete opposition to all he believes politically. He is a hypocrite in the name of love, and is already closer to Molina than he would like to admit.

But there’s even more information in the novel: Valentin himself is bourgeois. He describes himself as "a fellow who’s afraid of being taken for an oligarch, a fellow who ironically enough could be kidnapped by the guerrillas in hopes of a ransom." He talks about his mother’s servants, his mother’s Rolls Royce, and his father having "shot an insolent servant" and consequently being targeted by the guerrillas for murder. He describes his love Marta as:

A European woman, a bright woman, a beautiful woman, an educated woman with a knowledge of international politics, a woman with a knowledge of Marxism, a woman with whom it isn’t necessary to explain it all from A to Z, a woman who knows how to stimulate a man’s thinking with an intelligent question, a woman of unbribable integrity, a woman of impeccable taste, a woman of discreet but elegant dress, a woman who’s young and at the same time mature, a woman who knows a good drink, a woman who knows how to order a meal, a woman who knows the right wine, a woman who knows how to entertain at home, a woman who knows how to give orders to her servants, a woman who knows how to organize a reception for a hundred people, a woman of poise and charm, a desirable woman, a woman who understands the problems of a Latin American, a European woman who admires a Latin American revolutionary, a woman more preoccupied nonetheless with Paris automobile traffic than with the problems of some colonized Latin American country…

And these three, Molina, Valentin, and Marta, along with Molina’s mother, who we also meet in the musical, become a microcosm of Argentine society in the 1970s. Molina is the oppressed minority, Valentin is the intellectual political activist (perhaps rebelling as much against his own background as against general injustice), Marta is the comfortable bourgeoisie, and Molina’s mother represents the brave women who stood up to the military regime every Thursday in the Plaza de Mayo.

The Odd Couple

We realize early on in the story that the action will focus on how this mismatched pair will become friends – a darker, more violent, more threatening version of the classic Odd Couple story. What we don’t know until the end is that the question will become deeper, asking not just how they will become friends, but how they will change each other. And they take on roles other than that of friends. Molina takes on the role of mother to Valentin, and also, later, the role of girlfriend. Valentin takes on the role of father to Molina, as well as lover. They each take on the role of teacher to the other at various points.

At first, we think there’s a third main character, Aurora, the Spider Woman, Molina’s favorite film diva, the star of all the films he recounts. But Aurora is merely an alter-ego for Molina, the strong, passionate, self-reliant woman he wishes he could be, someone with whom Valentin might fall in love. And in the end, Molina quite literally becomes Aurora, and in a strange (non-sexual) way, Valentin does fall in love with him. We find that Molina is actually deeper than Valentin – or the audience – first thinks. He has more self-knowledge than is first apparent. At the end of the show, Molina sings, to a jaunty, old-fashioned show tune:

And so, I sprayed a little perfume,

Dabbed a little powder,

And suddenly the muted strings

Began to play a little louder,

And though I knew the difference,

I kept on pretending I was in the movies.

Perfume and powder are meant to disguise, to mask, but they don’t change what’s underneath, and significantly, Molina knows that. Even Molina’s job in the real world tells us something: Molina is a window dresser, someone who creates an image to be seen only from the outside, a perfect but entirely artificial image. It’s a talent, to be sure, but also a necessity for a gay man living in Argentina in the 1970s. Molina takes what’s ugly and makes it beautiful – but only on the surface.

In stark contrast to this, the first things we learn about Valentin is that he reads Karl Marx and he looks like Che Guevara. He hates that, to Molina, the struggle for freedom is only a background plot for romance between unlikely lovers in a romantic film. Valentin is disgusted by Molina because he is trivial (a charge leveled by critics against Puig’s novels). To Valentin, Molina is weak, and far worse, he is womanly. But, as Molina points out in the novel, "But if men acted like women, there wouldn’t be any more torturers." Though there may be some truth to that, we can’t forget that the Spider Woman kills just as surely as the sadistic prison warden, a parallel the musical makes clear.

The cellmates’ friendship begins tentatively as Valentin realizes that Molina has figured out how to survive here and, through Aurora, Molina teaches him that "You’ve got to learn how not to be where you are." As life gets more and more horrific, as the guards and warden press Valentin harder and harder for information, he sees that Molina’s brand of escape may be the only option. Valentin sees that, to his great dismay, they are alike:

I’m not one of your goddamn movies. I will probably die here, and I will have accomplished nothing but my death. Nothing. Don’t insult my life even more. Look at me. I’m shaking. I’m as pathetic as you.

Now they are both trivial. Valentin can’t work for his cause now. He can’t contribute to the struggle. He has been reduced to being just like Molina, and it terrifies him. And though there are many striking similarities between Manuel Puig and Molina, we also find Puig in Valentin. Puig once wrote, "I’m persecuted by the idea of privilege or escapism, the feeling that I’m taking time from reality." We see in Valentin’s song "Marta" that he is a closet romantic. He loves Marta very deeply; what he has not learned yet is that there’s no shame in that. He should not be embarrassed for loving or for being loved. It’s not a sign of weakness. Or is it? Will an acknowledgement, even an embrace, of his emotions prove to be his undoing? We’ll find out late in Act II…

Immediately after "Marta," the warden questions Molina, and for the first time, Molina stands up to the warden. He doesn’t crumble. He will be strong, if only for Valentin. They have already changed each other, and we’re only halfway through Act I. Again, is Molina’s transformation necessarily a positive thing, or will it prove to be his undoing?

After a session of torture, Valentin is brought back to the cell and passes out, and Molina asks Aurora "What makes a man like that so brave?" Aurora answers, "Love, you fool, love." But now Molina loves too, and he realizes it’s making him brave for the first time in his life. He is synthesizing what’s he learned from his movies and their brave heroines, along with what he is now learning from Valentin. Forever after, Molina’s old life, his old world, will never be enough again. He has been awakened to the idea that his life can mean something.

As Act II opens, we see the longest film sequence so far in the show, Flame of St. Petersburg, and in it, Aurora as the Russian Tatyana risks everything for the man she loves, displaying a kind of selfless bravery reserved only for the great movie heroines. Aurora/Tatyana says, "To be in love is the sweetest thing. But to risk everything for love is even sweeter!" We don’t know it yet, but Molina will become Aurora/Tatyana in the end, and he will take those words to heart. When Aurora/Tatyana is killed, Molina tells us, "Joy, not pain, illuminates her features. Courage, not fear is writ large across her face. This is not death. This is ecstasy." Molina has bought into the myth of death as romantic. And of course, as Tatyana dies, she sings a reprise of her anthem, "Good Times," and of course, cannot finish the last line. In a world like this – both the fantasy world and the real world – love is deadly.

Just as Molina has shared his ideal story of love and bravery with Valentin through his retelling of Flame of St. Petersburg, now Valentin shares his ideal with Molina, his "movie," the struggle against tyranny and injustice, an ongoing struggle that continues until all men are free, in the anthem, "The Day After That." These two visions of the world will finally come together at the end of the show, just as Molina and Valentin become more like each other, each taking from the other what he needs to be a whole person, the two becoming one in significant ways, even joining together physically for a brief moment. And in the end, not only have they become more like each other, not only have they each taught the other an important lesson, but they actually trade places, Valentin at last valuing love over politics, willing to betray his cause to save Molina, and Molina at last offering up his life for the cause. But these twin transformations also prove to be the destruction of our two heroes. They have changed each other and, in the process, have destroyed themselves.

The twin personal journeys of Molina and Valentin are echoed all over the story, as Puig and McNally pepper Spider Woman with several sets of opposing pairs, fantasy and reality, freedom and imprisonment (physically, emotionally, socially), idealism and pragmatism, loyalty and betrayal, masculinity and femininity, beauty and ugliness, surface and substance, poison and nourishment, power and powerlessness, comedy and tragedy. Perhaps the most interesting duality is between being in control and being controlled by others. Molina creates worlds in which he is in control, as writer, director, costumer, composer, cinematographer, and more, even though his real life is controlled by others. And as in the novel, this story of surviving reality by living through fantasy actually ends inside a fantasy. In a break from storytelling convention, we never return to reality at the end of the show. And, most significantly, Valentin never finds out about Molina’s betrayal, so he remains in a kind of fantasy world as well, with an idealized view of his cell mate.

Blow, Gabriel, Blow

One of the most interesting of the minor characters in Kiss of the Spider Woman is Gabriel (gah-bree-ELL), a waiter Molina befriended before coming to prison, a straight man with a wife and child, with whom Molina is in love. We only meet him in two brief scenes in the show, although we learn much more about him in the novel. Molina tells us how he essentially badgered Gabriel into friendship, but the show offers up a real puzzle with this character. In the musical scene "Gabriel’s Letter/My First Woman" – a fantasy sequence in which we only see Gabriel through the lens of Molina’s mind – Gabriel is a kind, deeply sympathetic figure, a sweet man who understands Molina’s love for him even if he can’t return that love. In the novel, Molina says about him, "I’m in love with a wonderful guy and all I ask is to live by his side the rest of my life." Of course, Molina will get what he wants, but not in the way he expects. The ways in which he describes Gabriel in the novel actually describe Valentin. At one point in the novel, Molina says:

It was because I’m gay that he didn’t want to let me come near him. Because he’s an absolutely straight guy. But little by little, dropping a few words here, a few there, I made him I see I respected him, and he started telling me things about his life.

That’s exactly what happens with Molina and Valentin. Later, Molina talks about his dream of Gabriel moving in with him, so Molina can take care of him and allow him to go back to school and get his degree, very much like the situation Molina manages to create with Valentin.

But in Act II, we meet Gabriel again, this time in the real world, not in fantasy, and he is more abrupt with Molina. Gabriel asks Molina not to come see him again. It’s an entirely different Gabriel, and once we see this scene, we reexamine the earlier scene and realize that the Gabriel we met in Act I was an idealized version, the "perfect" straight man to be in love with, if there is such a thing – sad, sensitive, emotional, handsome, athletic, intelligent, and of course, misunderstood. But if Molina’s stories about Gabriel aren’t true, what does that tell us? Is it just harmless fantasizing, seeing the world as it should be rather than as it is, like Don Quixote? Or is there an agenda behind the stories? Is this Molina’s way of convincing Valentin that it’s okay for him to befriend a gay man without any threat to his manhood? Are the Gabriel stories a calculated campaign to win Valentin’s love? Is this a seduction?

In Act II of Kiss of the Spider Woman, Valentin gives himself to Molina sexually. In the novel, they sleep together several times, in the show just once. But why does a straight man have sex with a gay man? Well, the first and most obvious answer is that they’re in jail and the rules just aren’t the same. In the novel, Valentin says:

In a sense, we’re perfectly free to behave however we choose with respect to one another, am I making myself clear? It’s as if we were on some desert island. An island on which we may have to remain alone together for years. Because, well, outside of this cell we may have our oppressors, yes, but not inside. Here no one oppresses the other.

After their first night of sex, Valentin says, "No, I don’t have any regrets about anything. The more I think of it the more I’m convinced that sex is innocence itself." This is not the Valentin we met at the beginning of the story.

Valentin has sex with Molina because it’s the one way he knows to give Molina the greatest gift he has to give. After all Molina has done for him, the giving of this gift seems to be only a minor sacrifice. He knows Molina loves him, that all Molina wants is to be with him. But it’s not entirely altruistic. Valentin also knows that Molina will be so grateful he might be willing to pay Valentin back by delivering a message to the revolutionaries when he gets out. But if we allow that the novel is a legitimate source for the backstory and psychology of these characters, then we must conclude that the sex is not only a ploy to get Molina to help him, even though that may be part of it.

Valentin really does come to love Molina ultimately. We see this when Valentin himself is willing to reveal important information to the warden in order to save Molina. Though that love is not sexual for Valentin, it is still a very deep love, a love of respect and kindness and deep human connection. The sex is not primarily a manipulation; it is a loving gift. Valentin describes what it means to be a man:

Not taking any crap is one thing, but that’s not the most important. What really makes a man is a lot more, it has to do with not humiliating someone else with an order, or a tip. Even more, it’s not letting the person next to you feel degraded, feel bad.

Valentin would not have sex with Molina merely as a manipulation. That would not be manly. As Mike Deaver wrote, "In the end, the radical discovers there is grace in giving of yourself."

And it’s important to remember that Molina doesn’t see himself as a gay man; he sees himself as a woman, a classy woman "down on her luck." Molina says in the novel:

But as for my friends and myself, we’re a hundred percent female. We don’t go in for those little games – that’s strictly for homos. We’re normal women; we sleep with men.

And ultimately, Valentin begins to see Molina that way too. Valentin says to Molina, "I mean that if you enjoy being a woman, you shouldn’t feel any the less because of it." So, in a sense, in the mixed-up, upside-down world of prison life, Valentin isn’t really having gay sex; he’s having sex with a "hundred percent female."

His Name Was Molina

Since the entire show is built around Molina’s remembered films, his morphine dreams, and his final hallucination, it’s not a surprise that everything in the show reveals Molina’s inner life. Each of Aurora’s songs teaches us something about Molina’s take on his world. The song "Aurora" is a manifesto about fantasy love, movie musical love, the kind of hyper-romantic love that has nothing to do with the real world, and the only kind Molina is interested in. "Where You Are" is a manifesto that ennobles ignorance and triviality, a blueprint for escape through an intentional disregard for the truth. "I Do Miracles" presents Molina’s idea of what a woman should be, nurturing, caring, healing. Then comes "Let’s Make Love," in which nothing matters but love. But this is chaste, movie love. (In the classic age of movie musicals, "making love" meant flirting, not actual sex.) And finally, the song "Kiss of the Spider Woman" presents love as a dark and deadly force. The Kiss of Death is Molina’s internalization of two things: being gay in an intensely homophobic culture where love can kill, and his obsession with film melodramas in which the most romantic fate possible is dying for the one you love. Molina has changed – he’s fallen in love with Valentin and recognizes the danger in that – and so his fantasies change accordingly.

It’s tempting to wonder if Molina tells his films as they really were or if he embroiders them to make them fit his own needs and desires. In addition to presenting Molina’s philosophy of life and love, each of Aurora’s songs also describes Molina’s life and choices. In her first number, "Aurora," she sings:

Last night, I went to see the gypsy,

And oh, the things she had to say.

She told me I would meet a stranger,

A lean, handsome hero

Who’ll sweep in and sweep me away.

And of course, that’s what happens to Molina as the show begins and Valentin is put in his cell. The gypsy tells her she’ll know when he’s coming because he’ll hear a sharp piercing sound, and in fact, Molina first meets Valentin by hearing him scream in agony from torture. Even as the song ends, Valentin’s scream of pain replaces the final word of the song, "sound."

In her next song, Aurora sings most explicitly about Molina’s life:

You’ve got to learn how not to be

Where you are.

The more you face reality

The more you scar.

So close your eyes and you can be

A movie star.

Why must you stay where you are?

That’s the lesson Molina has learned and it’s the lesson he intends to teach Valentin. Of course, Valentin will resist this retreat from reality, but soon enough he’ll see the value in Molina’s lesson. In this same song, Aurora describes what Molina has done with his life in prison:

So build a palace where you’re the shah,

And we’ll embrace in that Shangri-La,

If you run away,

Some matinee

From where you are.

Molina does this over the course of the show. He builds a life here for Valentin and him, with good food provided by the warden, even wine, and of course, plenty of entertainment from Molina. He is, in a weird way, (mostly) in control of his little world here in their cell.

In the song, "I Do Miracles," Aurora, and this time Marta as well, sing:

There is love in my touch

That is yours to use.

And if you choose,

Just breathe my name,

And I’ll be there

Doing miracles.

Again, Molina does do this. He helps Valentin to survive this horror through fantasy. He takes them both out of their cell and into a technicolored world of romance and music. He cares for Valentin, he loves him, and soon enough Valentin will love him too. The song says, "There are miracles in me," and that’s true of Molina.

In the Act I finale, "Let’s Make Love," the lyric verbalizes Molina’s feelings for Valentin. Nothing matters to him but love. If Valentin would give Molina his love, all would be right with the world. But like Aurora’s first number, this one is not allowed to finish, the world of the prison interrupting the fantasy, because it’s only partially true. Even if Valentin loved Molina, they would still be in jail. They would be tortured. Molina’s philosophy is incomplete. And slowly over the course of the show, he realizes that.

As Act II opens with the retelling of the film Flame of St. Petersburg, and Aurora sings "Good Times," we see Molina’s philosophy here, but we also see that the woman singing it, dies before the end. There won’t be good times here. She dies in the arms of her lover, the revolutionary. She sings a final reprise of "Good Times" as she dies, a gentle and funny criticism of melodramatic movies (as well as shows like Les Misérables), and we hear it differently now, as tragic instead of happy. Is this where Molina’s optimism is heading? Does he see his future in this story? Significantly, it’s the most complete retelling of a movie we get in the whole show, and we’ll see it essentially recreated in the show’s finale.

As Molina and Valentin sing the duet, "Anything for Him," Aurora sings a third part:

Soon, I feel it.

Soon, somehow,

I will have him

Any minute now.

This is one of Aurora’s few musical moments that isn’t inside a film fantasy, but she still speaks for Molina. He knows Valentin has grown fond of him. Does Molina believe that he will soon have Valentin, either emotionally or physically, or both? Aurora then sings the show’s title song, "Kiss of the Spider Woman," and though she doesn’t speak for Molina this time, she does speak about him. Or is she singing about Valentin?

You’re aching to move

But you’re caught in the web

Of the Spider Woman

In her velvet cape.

You can scream,

But you cannot escape.

Molina is trapped. He has made a good life (relatively speaking) for him and Valentin, but only by betraying Valentin. There’s no way this will all end happily. From here, all that will happen is inevitable. Molina is inescapably caught in a web of his own making – since he is the Spider Woman. But we’ll soon see that Valentin is caught in the same web.

Every show, every story, has an "obligatory moment," that instant toward which everything before it leads and from which everything after it follows. In most shows, that happens at the end of Act I, or even later, but in Kiss of the Spider Woman, that moment when Molina and the Warden begin to use each other happens in the first ten minutes of the show, and it’s an out-of-control freight train from that moment to the end.

The other interesting device the show uses is the montage, "Over the Wall 4" right before the finale. Using music, a Greek chorus of prisoners, and the telescoping of time, it quickly and economically shows us Molina’s activities "on the outside." While he’s out of prison, Molina encounters the various sides of himself in others. First he visits his mother, and he confronts the caretaker side of himself, the part of him that needed to care for Valentin, to nurse him, to clean him up, to feed him good food, but who receives nothing in return. Next he visits his former coworker, the effeminate Aurelio, and Molina sees in him the silly, trivial gay man he used to be, gossiping, worrying about little more than meeting men and dressing mannequins, and he feels the same revulsion for Aurelio that Valentin once felt for him. Then he meets Gabriel, the straight man, and confronts there the self-deception he practices on himself; Gabriel was never as fond of Molina as Molina was of Gabriel we now see, and it reminds him of his expressions of affection for Valentin. Molina then returns home to see his mother again, and sees in her how scared he used to be to take risks. But he rejects all these images; he is not these things anymore. He is a real man now, strong, defiant, brave, ready to risk. Finally he calls Marta, Valentin’s girlfriend – this is who he wants to be, but she doesn’t want to get involved in Valentin’s cause. She, too, is scared of taking a stand, of risking something for a righteous cause. She says to him, "I don’t want to get involved," the same message Molina once gave Valentin.

Finally, Molina becomes Aurora; he replaces her. He takes the lead in the final song, "Only in the Movies," a summing up of the central storyline and Molina’s own journey. Molina actually takes control of Kiss of the Spider Woman, pushing the title character aside and taking the spotlight himself, just as the assassins do in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. It is his kiss, he discovers, not Aurora’s that brings death. The show’s title refers to him. If there was any doubt before, now it is crystal clear: the Spider Woman is not the center of this story; Molina is. And it’s a different Molina now, a kind of Zen Molina, fully peaceful, imbued with newfound calm, understanding, wisdom. He can now tell us his story his way, without the Spider Woman or any narrative devices in the way (just as Puig does in the novel). This Zen Molina tell us – the theatre audience and his onstage audience of loved ones – that he’s okay, that he is not to be cried for ("Don’t cry for me, Argentina…"), that he finally has found all he was looking for, that he fulfilled his dream, and that he can die happy now. As with Adam Guettel’s later show Floyd Collins, the ending is weirdly uplifting even though our hero has died.

Just as Aurora appeared in a white tuxedo in "Where You Are," Molina appears in the finale in the same, and Aurora is now silent, never singing a single note in this last song. She is now relegated to the audience, as he once was. Molina is now the star – or more to the point, the leading lady – of his own movie. Finally, he has enough dignity and self-respect to take center-stage, rather than hiding behind a fantasy figure. Finally, he doesn’t need Aurora anymore. He is his own heroine. Just as the show began with him singing, "Her name is Aurora," now Molina’s loved ones end the show singing, "His name was Molina."

And in a last moment of characteristic wit from Molina, he dies yelling "Viva la guerra! Viva la revolucion! Viva… whatever it is!" And this tiny moment packs in it so much meaning. He’s echoing Aurora as Tatyana in Flame of St. Petersburg from the beginning of Act II, even dying in the same position she did, declaring at last that he is the great tragic heroine. He has fully taken over Aurora’s place in his mythology, becoming his own hero – sadly, something Valentin was never able to do. Earlier in Act II, Valentin had complained that Flame of St. Petersburg wasn’t real, but it is now. Molina has dragged the film’s idealism and tragic romance into the real world with him and laid it at Valentin’s feet. And Molina gives us a final laugh, as we realize that he can’t finish the last sentence simply because Tatyana died before finishing it and left him no model. But he also indirectly tells us in those last few words that what’s important is the struggle, the sacrifice, the passion, the humanity of it all, not the politics, not the "cause." At long last, his is not a story of politics or torture or Argentina’s Dirty War. His is a story of human courage and connection.

In this last song, Molina finally rips away the fantasy, the deceptions. He sings to Valentin:

But everything changed when I met you.

You changed my life somehow.

Everything changed when I met you.

I find I walk in technicolor now.

He doesn’t need fantasies anymore to find happiness. He’s found his movie-musical happiness – metaphorical "technicolor" – in the real world. But he also knows that fully happy endings really are "only in the movies." And he’s not in a movie anymore. He accepts, even embraces, real life.

But in real life, there is no escape. Or is there? As the last words of the novel say, "This dream is short, but this dream is happy."

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Copyright 2005. Excerpt from Scott Miller's upcoming, untitled book on musical theatre. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.