Hepburn in ‘Coco’

Coco is one of the more interesting musicals to have played Broadway. Not that’s very good, but it’s still a show with an interesting gestation. Turning the life of Chanel into a tuner was the brainchild of Alan Jay Lerner and Andre Previn and proved one of the hottest tickets of 1970. The reason? Hepburn. Not Audrey, as Chanel reportedly assumed when she signed away the rights, but Katharine, known for her many talents – save musicality. Frederick Brisson was the producer and was preparing the vehicle for his wife Rosalind Russell, but the star was developing health problems from which she would never recover. The resulting show was an oddity: high class musical staging by Michael Bennett (who also stepped in for director Michael Benthall, now past his prime) with several eye-popping fashion parades of Chanel (as interpreted by Cecil Beaton) and a virtually DOA libretto.

The show opened at the Mark Hellinger after 40 previews to atrocious reviews. Hepburn escaped virtually unscathed, but according to Steven Suskin’s More Opening Nights on Broadway, the show received an overwhelming 5 pans out of 6. The book, the lyrics, the score – the critics weren’t having it. There is very little plot and the show is an excuse for Hepburn to give a star turn (and because of her age, its about Chanel coming out of retirement rather than her rise in the industry).

The 1969-70 season was rather weak overall, and the tightest Tony race was that between nonsingers Hepburn and Lauren Bacall for Best Actress in a Musical. The negligible Applause was better received than it should have been and was the big winner that evening; Bacall was triumphant. (Coco won for Beaton’s costumes and a featured actor Tony for a shameless performance by Rene Auberjonois as an over-the-top gay fashion designer hell bent on destroying Chanel).

However, audiences came out in droves to see the great (then) three-time Oscar winner onstage in her first musical. The result wasn’t pretty (Upon the release of the poorly recorded cast album, Hepburn quipped “I sound like Donald Duck.”) and there is very little to connect Hepburn’s performance with Coco Chanel, but Hepburn was a star and she gave the requisite turn that packed in audiences. No one particularly seems to have cared for the show, but the demand was such that Hepburn extended her limited contract, ultimately spending nine months in the show in NY. Her replacement (Danielle Darrieux) was received as an improvement on Hepburn, because she was appropriately Gallic, demure and more Chanel-like. However, she was not Hepburn and box office interest plummeted. Two months after Hepburn left, Coco shuttered. In spite of being critically reviled, the musical managed to run for 329 performances. Hepburn returned to the role on tour, and the show turned a profit. Plans for a London run and a Paramount film never came to fruition.

Interestingly enough, for all of the show’s critical shortcomings, it maintains the distinction of being the longest performance piece in Tony Award history. The television broadcast devoted fifteen uninterrupted minutes to the musical, showcasing the star Hepburn, but featuring several members of the supporting cast – George Rose, Gale Dixon and David Holliday in some scenes. Hepburn delivers, in an amusing sprechstimme, the eleven o’clock number “Always Mademoiselle” and then steps aside for the ladies of the chorus in a Michael Bennett fashion parade. We’re unlikely to see one show receive this sort of treatment again.