Saturday Shenanigans: “Coco” at Mufti, Beekman Place & Turtle Bay

While heading to the York Theatre Company for their revival of Coco, I unexpectedly found myself at the corner of 49th and 2nd Avenue, which also happens to be “Katharine Hepburn Place”. The great Hepburn lived in a townhouse down the street, which I had never seen before, but since I was meeting up with SarahB and Chris Caggiano I continued on my way. I looked it as a good omen for the day and for sure, the day was a delight from start to finish.

This was my first time seeing one of  the Musicals in Mufti (roughly translated: street clothes) and it’s quite fun. Not as high profile as Encores! (street clothes, piano accompaniment, chairs and boxes), but certainly an excellent resource for connecting with lost or forgotten musicals. Scripts are in hand, staging is simple and the cast is game; a baptism by fire experience. When it comes to Coco, my feelings on the show are pretty well known – in spite of its failings (its lack of drama or conflict, and some poorly drawn supporting characters) I enjoy it very much, particularly the score. The cast album is one of the worst recordings in musical theatre history. The sound quality is terrible and it sounds like it was recorded in a hangar or tunnel. Apparently the album was released and was found to be so horrible that the producers went back and had it fixed immediately, so there are actually two versions of the cast LP (and I understand the poorer of the two has more dance music).

Alan Jay Lerner’s book is incredibly static, but contains some excellent one liners for Chanel. Andre Previn’s music is better than original critics would have you believe and in some places is quite beautiful. The lyrics are for the most part good, but there are many occasions where Lerner’s effort shows. (My favorite number in the show is “The Money Rings Out Like Freedom,” Michael Bennett’s showstopping tribute to the basic black dress). Also, the character of Georges is more of a cipher of Lerner’s misogyny than an actual human being onstage. In fact Lerner’s misogyny tends to permeate the entire show. Chanel espouses independence, but the writer implies that her life was unfulfilled from not marrying and having children. This production reinstated “Someone on Your Side” for the ingenue which should have stayed cut. There was also deadly musical patter for the models in “The World Belongs to the Young” that was not in the original production.

The show hinges on its star. In a live tape of the original, Hepburn, in spite of her considerable vocal limitations, dominates, giving a true star turn that is funny, fascinating and energetic. She also never missed a performance (her standby was the estimable Joan Copeland). Headlining this production was the elegant Andrea Marcovicci, who also starred in a San Francisco revival of the show two years ago. After so many years of listening to Hepburn, it was a bit jarring to hear the role sung and by a soprano. But Marcovicci was a lot of fun and especially memorable in the second act. Her performance of the title song was quite insightful and moving.

The cast also included the wonderful Charles Kimbrough and Lewis Cleale. David Turner was amusing as Sebastian Baye and a model of restraint when compared to shameless Tony-winning originator Rene Auberjonois. Droll support was added by Susan Bloemmart as Chanel’s assistant Pignol. One of the things I realized was that this show relies very heavily on its visuals for effect. Cecil Beaton won a Tony for his eye-popping designs seen in various Bennett fashion parades. But that doesn’t detract from my appreciation at the opportunity to see the show on its feet, its first NY revival since the original closed forty years ago. (There was a workshop last year that eliminated the utterly boring ingenue and juvenile characters, but that didn’t seem to go over very well).

There was a fascinating lobby display with press photos, articles and various programs of the show – including a playbill with Hepburn’s replacement Danielle Darrieux. Given that the show ran a mere two months with Darrieux, that’s a real curio. There is also an article announcing the show as a vehicle for Rosalind Russell (who was married to the show’s producer Frederick Brisson, whose health prevented her from taking on the show) and other curios. There was a talkback, but we decided to spend some time with Chris, who was leaving town in a couple hours. Two rows behind us, much to our surprise, was Andy Rooney who looks even surlier in person. He and wife didn’t return after intermission. We also had the opportunity to meet musical theatre writer and expert Seth Christenfeld, another cyber friend from the twitter/facebook world.

Afterward Sarah and I set out on a pilgrimage to Beekman Place. We figured since we were on the East Side, which is a rather rare occurrence for this Broadwayite, we might as well go have a look. Beekman Place is, of course, the location of Mame Dennis Burnside’s penthouse apartment. The fictional Mame lived at 3 Beekman Place, but apparently the real-life inspiration was housed next door at 1 Beekman Place (we had a quick but memorable view of its staggering lobby). The street is a tiny two block strip East of 1st Avenue and just north of the United Nations, and many of the buildings house UN missions. Some of the houses also contain plaques; Sarah and I were very surprised to learn Katharine Cornell and Guthrie McClintic once lived there. Other famous residents included Irving Berlin, Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontanne and Ethel Barrymore. The riverside apartments have a rather impressive view of the FDR, East River and outlying boroughs. We took the opportunity to snap some photos and SarahB herself ended up the subject of an impromptu but requisite Beekman Place photo shoot.

After scoping out future real estate options, we made our way to the Turtle Bay Gardens on East 49th Street (the aforementioned Katharine Hepburn Place). Hepburn lived at 244 from 1931 until the mid 90s when her failing health took her to Fenwick, where the star died in 2003. Her famous neighbors have included Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon and Stephen Sondheim. My first observation of Hepburn’s address was “the house looks empty.” As soon as I said that,  I googled the residence to discover it was recently made available for rent. You can live at Hepburn’s legendary 4 story townhouse for a cool $27,500 a month. (Donations will be gladly and grateful accepted).

From there we walked back to 1st Avenue and strolled down by the United Nations, which I had never seen before and was impressed by its layout, but really think they need to rethink that hideous tower of offices. We also got a glimpse at the brand new United States UN mission. We also glanced south while stopped at a light and saw the impressive beams of light memorializing the attacks of Sept. 11. Then we headed back to our familiar turf for a nightcap at Angus and our usual antics, where we observed some rather unusual patrons. Sarah tried to get me to second act POTO, but I balked. We also thought the St. James was piping American Idiot music through the marquee as we walked by. To our surprise it was actually the performance and we felt the theatre doors of the St. James vibrating. No show needs to be that loud. Overall it was an exhausting and full day, but truly a Saturday to remember.

Reconsidering “Coco”

It’s hard to describe why I like Coco. It’s not an especially good musical due mostly to a lackluster book by Alan Jay Lerner. But the music by Andre Previn is quite effective and memorable. Unfortunately for Coco, its cast album was poorly recorded (were they in an airport hangar?) and it lives on as a curio. (When I go browsing through record stores, I always find unopened copies of the LP). But word that the show will be revived in NY as part of Musicals in Mufti this fall brings me back to the score, which is admittedly one of my guilty pleasures.

The musical, about the life of Coco Chanel, opened at the Mark Hellinger in December 1969 and is an important footnote as Katharine Hepburn‘s one and only musical. The show was so physically large that it couldn’t go out of town, opting for 40 previews in Manhattan, with director Michael Benthall’s worked eventually assumed by choreographer Michael Bennett, who was fresh from Promises, Promises and about to open Company. There were reports of clashes between the star and members of the creative team (set and costume designer Cecil Beaton especially hated her), as well as the anecdote where she provided tea for construction workers building the Paramount Plaza across the street to keep things quiet during matinees.

The critics were merciless. The musical received six pans out of six from the major critics. But Hepburn did not. Reviews like those received by Coco would be enough to shutter smaller shows that very night. But the presence of Hepburn – then a three-time Oscar-winning star – in a Broadway musical brought in audience members in droves. Ms. Hepburn, who had signed on for a limited six months extended her stay, ultimately leaving on August 1, 1970. The show continued with Danielle Darrieux to dwindling receipts closing two months later, a total of 329 performances. The musical recouped when Ms. Hepburn returned to take the show on its national tour.

Upon hearing the cast album for the first time, Hepburn reportedly commented “I sound like Donald Duck.” Hepburn’s singing style is not dissimilar to that of Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, only it features a great deal of her New England timbre and vocal idiosyncrisies. But what she lacks in pitch she sure makes up in star power. Hepburn owned the stage from start to finish. She was very vocal about her insecurities (mostly after the fact) but she powered through. According to the books, the race for best actress in a musical was  legitimate nail-biter between Hepburn and her good friend (and eventual winner) Lauren Bacall, who was headlining in Applause that same season.

At Hepburn’s final performance, Coco played like a smash. On her entrance at the top of the show, Ms. Hepburn received an extended standing ovation, to cries of “Bravo!” from the audience. From the beginning, Hepburn sinks her teeth into the show and runs with it until the finish. There isn’t much in the way of plot. An aged Coco Chanel wants to come out of retirement while taking an impressionable girl as her protege (while clashing with the girl’s chauvinistic boyfriend). Not much else happens, except Hepburn dropping comic bon mots, recalling her history and carrying musical numbers with her no nonsense vigor and unceasing energy.

One of the most impressive moments of the show came in the first act where Coco recounts her entire history to the ingenue. A musical scene lasting fifteen minutes and two songs – “Mademoiselle Cliche de Paris” into “The Money Rings Out Like Freedom,” the latter of which turns into a tribute to the basic black dress. The musical hinges on Hepburn’s patter in this musical scene and at this final performance the scene received 90 second standing ovation.

Suffice it to say, the show isn’t very interesting when Hepburn is offstage. She has a friend and confidante in her accountant Louis (the always reliable George Rose) and Sebastian Baye, an arch nemesis in what I think may be the gayest character ever written for musical theatre. (When asked if Baye is homosexual, Rose’s response: “Oh, I’m afraid he’s way beyond that.”) Rene Auberjonois played him with so over the top, that I imagine his performance was offensive even to the sensibilities of 1970.  The character fulfills every stereotype and then some, but the main problem I have is that the character has absolutely no motivation or arc. He wants Chanel to fail – and to help her fail – but for no discernible reason.

Gale Dixon and David Holliday play the young couple and they barely register a pulse. Dixon is about as bland as it gets, and it seems impossible that Chanel would look at her twice. Holliday sports a spectacular tenor, but while his voice soars his line readings crash with a thud. There is very little to care about these two. She’s naive and relatively new to Paris; he’s a reporter and total boor. I am amused by his act one number “A Woman is How She Loves” for its exceptional melody, but that’s about it.

Coco doesn’t receive many revivals; its reputation precedes it and I will admit that Hepburn’s warbling is an acquired taste. Andrea Marcovicci did a run in San Francisco two years ago, and a revision of the show with a new book was workshopped starring Isabel Keating last year in Manhattan (which was a hot ticket and from all accounts worse than the original). Now those fans and cast album connoisseurs will have the chance to see the show this fall at the York Theatre.

When Hepburn made her final bow in Coco, the orchestra segued into a spirited rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” (which was once a great tradition of closing nights). Ms. Hepburn took several bows while the adoring audience cheered for several minutes. When the music ended, Hepburn stepped forward bringing a hush to the appreciative crowd at the Hellinger. Subdued and gracious, Hepburn made the following speech:

“It’s a…obviously an enormously confusing experience to stop in the middle of something that means as much to me as this play di..ha…does and the things that it has represented to me in what people can do for each other. Alan Lerner had the confidence to trust me to do it. I had two good friends: Roger Edens, who is dead, and Sue Seaton, who teaches me every day, who had the force to convince me that I would be able to do this.

Then I started rehearsal and I was very, very frightened. And all these people whom you see in back of me really gave me the faith to go on. Then there was the terror of the opening night and for some wonderful reason for me, you people (audience) gave me a feeling that you believed that I could do it. I… lived a very fortunate life because I had a father and mother who believed in me. I had brothers and sister who believed in me and a few friends who have believed in me. And I cannot begin to thank you enough and I hope that you learn the lesson that I have learned – and that is, I love you and you love me. Thank you.”

Now that’s a star.

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.


Katharine Hepburn’s Unique Star Bio

The musical Coco received rather negative reviews for all of the parties involved when it opened in December 1969, with the exception of Michael Bennett and his choreography. However, the negative notices didn’t keep the show from becoming a major theatrical event, spurred on by the presence of Katharine Hepburn in what would be her only appearance in a musical. Hiding her insecurities behind her Yankee resolve, Miss Hepburn gave the audience a mega-watt star turn that defied her limitations as a singer and dancer. While not many folks are fans of the show or its score, I think there is a lot to enjoy on the original cast album (admittedly a poorly produced record). When Hepburn left the show, an actress (Danielle Darrieux, who was French, could sing and dance, and was similar to Chanel) more suitable to the role replaced her and the show folded within weeks. The audience was there to see Hepburn, who kept the Mark Hellinger Theatre filled.

Hepburn took the show out on national tour, with original Broadway cast members Gale Dixon, Jeanne Arnold and George Rose recreating their roles. Joining the cast was Don Chastain as the ingenue’s lover and Daniel Davis as Sebastian Baye, the effete designer who has it out for Coco (Rene Auberjonois won the Tony for his scenery-chewing performance in NY). The tour also had a souvenir program. Featured are publicity shots and stills of the production, but also one of the most unusual star bios I’ve ever seen with Hepburn providing a running commentary about every role she had played professionally from 1928-1969. Only a no-nonsense star like Hepburn would be so frank in looking at her career.

The following is a chronological list of Miss Hepburn’s plays and films and her capsule comments on each. [A couple of the dates regarding her films are inaccurate, and I considered changing them. However, I figured it was better to just present what the star had included, imperfections and all.]

1928: (Plays) Edwin Knopf Stock Company, Baltimore
1928: (Play) The Big Pond – “Lead…fired after first night”
1929: (Play) These Days – “Small part…Arthur Hopkins (producer)…Good reviews”
1929: (Play) Holiday – “Understudy”
1929: (Plays) Stockbridge Stock Company
1930: (Play) Art and Mrs. Bottle – “Ingenue…Good reviews…Fired and rehired”
1931: (Plays) Ivoryton Stock Company
1931: (Play) Death Takes a Holiday – “Fired out of town…mixed reviews”
1931: (Play) A Month in the Country – “Maid and understudy”
1931: (Play) The Warrior’s Husband – “Fired and rehired…Good reviews”


1932: A Bill of Divorcement – “Raves”
1932: Christopher Strong – “Mixed”
1933: Morning Glory – “Academy Award”
1933: Little Women – “Raves”
1933: Spitfire
1933-34: (Play) The Lake – “Roasted by all…Bottom of the heap in two and a half hours”


1934: The Little Minister – “Mixed”
1935: Alice Adams – “Raves…Nominated”
1935: Sylvia Scarlett – “Total Disaster”
1935: Break of Hearts – “Bore”
1935: Mary of Scotland – “Roasted”
1935: A Woman Rebels – “Poor”
1935: Quality Street – “Poor”
1936: (Play) Jane Eyre – “Closed…On tour good… Roasted out of town by Brooks Atkinson in Chicago, who came to Chicago only for this”
1937: Stage Door – “Raves”
1938: Bringing Up Baby – “Mediocre”
1938: Holiday – “Mediocre…Box office poison…Couldn’t get job.”
1939: (Play) The Philadelphia Story – “Raves… On tour, raves”
1940: The Philadelphia Story – “Raves…nominated”
1941: Woman of the Year – “Spencer Tracy…Good, Nominated”
1941: (Play) Without Love – “Mixed”
1943: Keeper of the Flame – “Spencer Tracy…Good”
1944: Dragon Seed – “Fair”
1945: Without Love – “Spencer Tracy…Good”
1946: Undercurrent – “Fair”
1946: Song of Love – “Fair”
1947: Sea of Grass – “Spencer Tracy…Good”
1948: State of the Union – “Spencer Tracy…Good”
1949: Adam’s Rib – “Spencer Tracy…Raves”
1949: (Play) As You Like It – “NY mixed…On tour, raves”
1951: The African Queen – “Nominated”
1952: Pat and Mike – “Spencer Tracy… Good”
1952: (Play) The Millionairess – “London, raves…New York, roasted”
1953: Summertime – “Raves…Nominated”
1955: (Play) The Taming of the Shrew – “Australian tour, raves”
1955: (Play) The Merchant of Venice – “Fair”
1955: (Play) Measure for Measure – “Mediocre”
1955: The Iron Petticoat – “Poor”
1956: The Rainmaker – “Good…Nominated”
1957: Desk Set – “Fair”
1957: (Play) The Merchant of Venice – “Stratford (Conn.)…Good”
1957: (Play) Much Ado About Nothing – “Raves”
1958: Suddenly Last Summer – “Raves…Nominated”
1960: (Play) Antony and Cleopatra – “Excellent”
1960: (Play) Twelfth Night – “Roasted”
1961: Long Day’s Journey Into Night – “Good…Nominated”
1967: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – “Spencer Tracy…Raves…Academy Award”
1968: The Lion in Winter – “Raves…Academy Award”
1969: The Madwoman of Chaillot – “Mixed”

Katharine Hepburn: Stage to Screen

The New York Public Library is currently offering an exhibition of all Katharine Hepburn’s papers from her extensive theatrical career. “Katharine Hepburn: In Her Own Files” compiles letters, notebooks, sketches, scrapbooks, telegrams, etc. (All of her film related documents have been donated by her estate to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Hedrick Library in Los Angeles). The exhibit is on display at the Performing Arts Library, situated in Lincoln Center until October 10, 2009 at the Vincent Astor Gallery.

Throughout her career, Hepburn found herself making the film versions of various plays (the Academy responded: out of 12 nominations, 8 were for play adaptations; 3 of her 4 wins were stage-to-screen translations). Two films (The Philadelphia Story & Without Love) found Hepburn recreating roles she originated on Broadway. In honor of the festivities surrounding her display, there will be free screenings of some of these classics every Saturday at 2:30PM the Bruno Walter Auditorium.

For more information on the exhibit and screenings, visit their website. Here’s the summer film line-up:

July 11
The Philadelphia Story – b&w, 112 minutes
Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn (Oscar nom), James Stewart (Oscar win)
Directed by George Cukor, 1940. Based on a play by Philip Barry.

July 18
Morning Glory – b&w, 75 minutes
Katharine Hepburn (Oscar win), Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Adolphe Menjou
Directed by Lowell Sherman, 1933. Based on a play by Zoë Akins.

July 25
Holiday – b&w, 96 minutes
Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Doris Nolan, Lew Ayres
Directed by George Cukor, 1938. Based on a play by Philip Barry.

Aug. 1
State of the Union – color, 122 minutes
Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Van Johnson, Angela Lansbury
Directed by Frank Capra, 1948. Based on a play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.

Aug. 8
Summertime – color, 98 minutes
Katharine Hepburn (Oscar nom), Rossano Brazzi, Isa Miranda, Darren McGavin
Directed by David Lean, 1955. Based on a play by Arthur Laurents.

Aug. 15
Suddenly, Last Summer – b&w, 115 minutes
Elizabeth Taylor (Oscar nom), Katharine Hepburn (Oscar nom), Montgomery Clift
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959. Based on a play by Tennessee Williams.

Aug. 22
The Trojan Women – color, 105 minutes
Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Genevieve Bujold, Irene Papas
Directed by Michael Cacoyannis, 1971. Based on a play by Euripides.

Aug. 29
A Delicate Balance – color, 132 minutes
Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, Lee Remick, Kate Reid, Joseph Cotten
Directed by Michael Tony Richardson, 1973. Based on a play by Edward Albee.

Katharine Hepburn on "The Dick Cavett Show" – Part One

Katharine Hepburn gave her first-ever television interview to Dick Cavett on his show on September 11, 1973. One of the most private people in Hollywood, she decided to do it to help promote the American Film Theatre, an experimental project that was a subscription based series of films based on plays. Hepburn herself appeared in one of the films: Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. The studio taping actually started as a test run to see if the interview is something she would like to do, hence the informality of the event. At a certain point when they were talking, she said they should just go ahead and tape the show right then and there. (It was one of the rare Cavett show’s to not have a live audience, only various people who filtered in throughout). For the first few minutes, Hepburn wasn’t aware that cameras were rolling and it captured the legend in a candid moment where she criticizes the set decoration, gives common sense advice to the technical crew and then settles into the interview. Favorite quote from that moment: “Don’t tell me what’s wrong, just fix it.” Hepburn was asked and gave total permission for the show to air this footage.

The interview was so lengthy it actually covered two episodes and was one of the most popular episodes of Dick Cavett’s show. It is basically what we would have had if Hepburn had ever appeared on “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” she delves into her career, the technique of acting, her opinions on the industry… well everything you can think of. The interview is long, there’s no getting past that, running almost three hours in length and is divided here into fifteen sections on youtube. However, it is completely fascinating. I’ve watched the entire thing twice myself, so if you want to settle in, be sure you have time!

PS – This is the interview where she gave the famed quote: “Cold sober, I find myself absolutely fascinating.”

Katharine Hepburn did it first…

When Katharine Hepburn died in 2003, the executors of her estate donated her personal papers regarding theatre to the NY Library for the Performing Arts and her film related materials to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Among the theatre-related notes is this, which strikes a familiar chord with recent theatregoers (text courtesy of USA Today):

A letter of apology from a woman named Paula Phillips, who had photographed Hepburn during West Side Waltz in Boston. Hepburn stopped midperformance to yell at Phillips to “get out of the theater!” Wrote the chastened shutterbug: “This was the first time I have brought a camera into a theatre. I learned a bitter and very unpleasant lesson.”