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.