"Coco" receiving San Francisco revival

From the San Francisco Chronicle (SFGate.com):

‘Coco’ lives on (without Kate)
Edward Guthmann, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Katharine Hepburn had no delusions about her singing voice. When she starred in “Coco,” her first and only Broadway musical, the actress was characteristically blunt about her performance. “I sound like Donald Duck,” she said when she heard the cast album.

That’s the way Rene Auberjonois, Hepburn’s co-star in the 1969 musical about French fashion designer Coco Chanel, remembers it. “Singing was not her strong suit,” he said in a recent phone interview. “She loved challenges and she trained very hard. But she couldn’t really do it.”

The critics agreed and yet, because of Hepburn’s star power the show became a media event and played to full houses. When Hepburn left the show in summer of 1970, however, and French actress Danielle Darrieux stepped in, “Coco” quickly closed. Apart from a summer stock tour in the early ’70s with Ginger Rogers, “Coco” has never been revived and is remembered, if at all, as miscalculated and overblown.

That didn’t stop Greg MacKellan, co-artistic director of 42nd Street Moon, a San Francisco stage company that specializes in obscure or little-seen musicals. Convinced that the show’s merits had been buried under Hepburn’s force of personality – “She was a great Hepburn, but not the ideal person to play Coco Chanel” – MacKellan set out to exhume “Coco” from its long interment.

MacKellan felt there was “a lovely score” by Andre Previn that had been scaled back to accommodate Hepburn’s musical limitations; in some cases, the melodies were dropped altogether. He also believed that the lyrics and book by Alan Jay Lerner (“My Fair Lady”), which situates Chanel in 1953 and 1954, when at 71 she attempts a comeback, were undervalued.

The 42nd Street Moon production, directed by Mark D. Kaufmann and starring Andrea Marcovicci as Chanel, opens Saturday at the Eureka Theatre for a two-week run. It’s a different species altogether from the unwieldy leviathan that starred Hepburn. Whereas the Broadway company had 40 performers, including a singing chorus separate from a dancing chorus, MacKellan’s “Coco” utilizes 15 cast members. Compared to the Broadway original, which cost $900,000, a Broadway record for its time, this incarnation is an intimate chamber piece. A piano is the only accompaniment, and the performers sing without mikes.

In retrospect, it’s stupefying that anyone envisioned Hepburn in a Broadway musical. Listening to the cast album is painful: In order to be heard above the orchestra, Hepburn bleats and shouts and Donald Ducks her way through the songs, obliterating any nuance or trace of pathos.

But Kate isn’t totally to blame. “Andre Previn was very, very upset about the way it was being recorded and by how much was being left out of the recording,” remembers Auberjonois. “At the time, you could only get a certain amount onto an LP record. In fact, they ended up compressing some of it so that we’re all singing faster than we sang in real life.”

If Hepburn’s musical abilities were deficient – nonexistent, really – her personal style was also a bad fit for her icon-of-glamour character. With her tomboy’s stride and her penchant for baggy gabardine trousers, sandals and high-necked shirts, Hepburn was anything but a fashion plate. “What I dread is dressing up,” she told Newsweek prior to the show’s opening. “I feel like Martha Washington.”

In retrospect, Kate-does-Coco makes as much sense as Courtney Love in a revival of “Hello, Dolly!” “When they told Coco Chanel that Hepburn was going to play her, she was thrilled,” MacKellan says, “because she thought they were talking about Audrey Hepburn. When she learned that it was Kate Hepburn she actually got very upset and refused to do any more for the show.”

It was Lerner who believed Hepburn was a plausible choice for “Coco,” and saw in her a defiance and originality that matched Chanel’s. “He and Hepburn were very friendly,” MacKellan says, “and they’d have parties and he’d convince her to sing a little. He’d say, ‘You should do a musical.’ And Hepburn would say, ‘If you ever get the right part, maybe I’ll consider it.’ “

During the ’50s and ’60s, a lot of non-singing actors and actresses were stretching their theatrical limbs in musicals. Vivien Leigh starred in “Tovarich,” Robert Ryan did Irving Berlin’s “Mr. President” and Anthony Perkins warbled in the short-lived “Greenwillow.” Rex Harrison had an enormous success in “My Fair Lady,” largely because he didn’t sing the role of Henry Higgins, but rather talk-sang it.

“Coco” rehearsals were embattled from the get-go, says Auberjonois. The British director, Michael Benthall, “was a friend of Kate’s but he was past his prime and really way over his head. The show was really directed by Michael Bennett, the choreographer.

Auberjonois played Sebastian Baye, a flamboyant costume designer and Coco’s nemesis. During rehearsals, he says, “Whenever I would do something outlandish or think up a piece of business, (Benthall) would say, ‘No no no, dear boy. You can’t do that.’ And Kate would say, ‘What are you talking about? He’s the only amusing thing in the show!’

“Kate would protect me and I give her full credit for allowing the role to become something that could be nominated for a Tony award.” In fact, Auberjonois won the award as featured actor in a musical, and was launched on a still-active career. He played in the Broadway musicals “Big River” and “City of Angels” and the TV series “Benson,” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Boston Legal.”

Hepburn never bullied her fellow actors, Auberjonois says, “but she was a terrible bully to the producers and to (costume designer) Cecil Beaton. If you read his autobiography, it’s devastating what he says about Hepburn. They had a real hate on for each other.” In his posthumously published diaries, Beaton called Hepburn an “untamed dog,” an “egomaniac” and “the most bossy of schoolteachers.”

Often, Hepburn gave Auberjonois a lift in her chauffeur-driven car, since he lived close to her East 49th Street house. “She would always make me come in and sit downstairs with her in the kitchen while she ate dinner after the show, and I would have ice cream with her. She was terrific. She was very kind to me.

“It was great to work with her. She set up this thing with me that whoever made a mistake or flubbed a line owed the other person $10. She would come stomping up the stairs to my dressing room with her hair rolled up in little pieces of newspaper and say, ‘Rene! Rene!’ She would come into my dressing room and pound the table and put a $10 bill down.

“Of course I needed the money and she didn’t,” Auberjonois says. “So I never made a mistake. It might have been her way of giving me a tip.”


Previews Thursday and Friday. Opens Saturday and runs through May 11. Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St. $22-$38. (415) 255-8207. www.42ndstmoon.org.