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.

Musicals in Mufti Announces its Spring Season

Well it’s not the crew at the Shubert Theatre, but we’ll be treated to High Spirits in NYC this spring after all. Here’s the lineup for Musicals in Mufti:

The Grand Tour (May 29-31),
Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman
Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble
(Based on the play Jacobowski and the Colonel by Franz Werfel)
Directed by Michael Montel; music direction by James Bassi
“A bittersweet comic tale featuring love triangles, mistaken identity and a wedding at sea. At the onset of the Nazi invasion, two strangers with nothing in common travel from France to England and unexpectedly become the best of friends.”

High Spirits (June 12-14)
Book, music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray
(Based on the play Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward)
Directed by Marc Bruni; music direction by Vadim Feichtner
“A happily re-married widower gets a surprise visit from his first wife when a kooky medium mistakenly awakens her spirit from the dead.”

Knickerbocker Holiday (June 26-28)
Book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson
Music by Kurt Weill
Directed by Michael Unger; music direction by John Bell
“On the eve of the American Revolution, the arrival of a new Governor in New York City (then called New Amsterdam) causes a great deal of chaos amongst his new constituents in this madcap ‘romantic-political-musical-comedy.'”

The York Theatre Company plays the Theatre at Saint Peter’s, which is located at 54th Street, east of Lexington Avenue. For more information or to purchase tickets, priced $37.50, call (212) 935-5820 or visit