The seventh episode of “Katy Keene” is a musical episode, featuring songs from “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
If you’re asking, “What’s that?” you may not be alone.
“It’s the perfect showcase for my drag and Broadway careers,” says Jorge (Jonny Beauchamp), dressed as his onstage alter ego Ginger. “I can channel the artistry as the window dresser Molina and exude the seductive allure of his muse and tormentor the Spider Woman and honor the diva saviors of my youth: Chita, Conchita and Vanessa!”
And that’s pretty much all the information about the musical itself that’s included in the episode, airing Thursday night on the CW.
The episode continues a tradition set by the series’ predecessor, “Riverdale,” which has previously featured show tunes from “Carrie” and “Heathers: The Musical.”
“That’s always the question — how much of the show’s actual plot do you need to know in order to understand the episode?” Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, “Katy Keene” co-showrunner and the episode’s writer, told The Times. “‘Carrie’ and ‘Heathers’ were based on movies that most people at least know of, so we didn’t have to talk about plot on ‘Riverdale’ at all.
“But if you’re a Broadway kid, ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ is a really iconic show — maybe lesser-known today but still incredible,” continued Aguirre-Sacasa, who watched the musical four times during its two-year Broadway run.
“Over the years, I’ve made the ‘Riverdale’ writers room watch it, but it felt too adult and a little too New York. Hopefully this episode sets up the ‘Katy Keene’ tradition of doing a musical each season that’s like this — very theatrical and a little more adult.”
Given the lack of context around the featured songs, younger viewers might be wondering what’s so adult about the musical, what the deal is with this mysterious Spider Woman’s kiss and who the heck Chita Rivera, María Conchita Alonso and Vanessa Williams are. (Forgive us, older viewers and musical theater stans, while we forge ahead and explain.)
For the uninitiated, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” is a musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”) with the book by Terrence McNally (“Ragtime”). It’s based on the Manuel Puig novel “El Beso de la Mujer Araña,” and was first directed by Harold Prince, one of the most prolific theatermakers of the 20th century.
When it debuted in 1993, it was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won seven, including best musical. Rivera originated the role of Aurora on Broadway and won a Tony for her performance; Alonso and Williams played the same role later in the run.
The story centers on two prison cellmates in Argentina: a gay window dresser name Molina, and Valentin, a political revolutionary in declining health. They mentally escape the unbearable conditions of incarceration with elaborate fantasies about Aurora, an actress whose roles include a Spider Woman with a deadly kiss.
On “Katy Keene,” Jorge’s one-person show limits the focus to Molina and the Spider Woman, “which felt like something Jorge would do,” said Aguirre-Sacasa.
It’s a shame, because the musical’s message — which involves the character cut onscreen — is quite profound.
“Whatever else it may do, ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ is the musical that most frankly and seriously addresses the question of why gay men love musical theater,” wrote Times theater critic Laurie Winer in 1995. "[It] centers on the Broadway brand of musical fantasy and its importance to gay culture. … Valentin comes to see that Molina’s fantasies do not trivialize the seriousness of life but instead bravely insist on creating something better.”
Still, the songs from the production fit the characters of “Katy Keene” effortlessly. Daphne Rubin-Vega, who plays Jorge’s mother, sings the supportive ballad “You Could Never Shame Me” to her son as he contemplates showing his drag persona to his strict father. Julia Chan, who plays the publicity extraordinaire Pepper, leads the encouraging number “Where You Are” while planning Jorge’s show.
But the most apt pairing comes when Lucy Hale and Nathan Lee Graham, whose characters work at the fictional department store Lacy’s, perform the whimsical, fashion-focused “Dressing Them Up.”
“We knew we wanted to set a number in the department store, and this song had the perfect story opportunity,” said “Katy Keene” co-showrunner Michael Grassi. “It immediately slotted in, which is always a good sign. With musical episodes, you can just feel when you’re trying to force it.”
Both co-showrunners hope the episode intrigues viewers enough to research the original musical. “I always hoped people would rediscover the original show,” said Aguirre-Sacasa.
“Anecdotally, I’ve heard that many more high schools put on ‘Carrie’ and ‘Heathers’ after our ‘Riverdale’ episodes aired,” he continued. “I’ll be curious to see if there’s a jump in ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ after this.”