Lost Musicals – Coco [Alan Jay Lerner & André Previn]

Musical with score by André Previn and book & lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner [European premiere]

Coco – Sara Kestelman
Louis Greff – Edward Petherbridge
Pignol – Myra Sands
Sebastian Baye – Simon Butteriss
Dr Petitjean – Paul Stewart
Georges – David Habbin
Simone – Ruth Galliers
Solange – Rachel Potts
Colette – Natalie Tulloch
Marie – Claire Doyle
Docaton – Louise Voce
Julian Lesage / Eugene Bernstone – Peter Manchester
Charles / Phil Rosenbery – Martin Allanson
Papa / Dwight Berkwitt – Stephen Povey
Grand Duke Alexandrovitch / Ronny Ginsborn – William Ludwig
Noelle – Robine Landi

Chris Walker – Musical director & piano

Ian Marshall Fisher – Director
Barnaby Thompson – Musical Staging

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 15 May, 2011
Venue: Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, London

Alan Jay Lerner (right) and Fred LoeweAlan Jay Lerner had wanted to write a musical for Katharine Hepburn but apparently it took seven years of discussions, meetings and false starts to get a workable script together on the life of the legendary French fashion-designer Coco Chanel. The project had been initiated by producer Frederick Brisson who wanted the vehicle for his wife, Rosalind Russell. Lerner thought that she would have been miscast, as she was not of the right temperament for the role of Coco, although she was a true star. Russell dropped out anyway when she developed arthritis. Irene Selznick’s suggestion of Hepburn appealed to Lerner who wrote to her telling her he really wanted her as Coco. He was the man who had written for Fred Astaire, Maurice Chevalier, Richard Burton and Julie Andrews, among many other notable performers.

Hepburn initially turned down the idea as she had never done a musical but she considered it providing she could work on her singing voice with MGM’s former vocal coach Roger Edens. She also agreed to meet Chanel herself and was finally persuaded. Paramount Pictures put up some of the $900,000 budget, a record for a show at the time, in the hope of securing the album and film rights. Lerner wanted to work with his old partner Frederick Loewe again, with whom he wrote “The Day Before Spring”, “Brigadoon”, “Paint Your Wagon”, “My Fair Lady”, “Gigi”, “Camelot” and “The Little Prince”. However, Loewe decided to retire to Palm Springs, so Lerner took on former colleague André Previn who had been musical director on the films of “Gigi” and “My Fair Lady” and who had written some new songs with Lerner for the film of “Paint Your Wagon”.

Another eighteen months passed, Lerner occupied with the films of “Paint Your Wagon” and “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”, while Previn was increasingly in demand as an orchestral conductor. Rehearsals began in September 1969 for a December premiere. When “Coco” opened on Broadway there was a cast of nearly sixty performers, many of whom formed a chorus of catwalk models for the House of Chanel. There was a very elaborate set by Cecil Beaton which the performers found difficult to work with, as it was all platforms, runways, mirrors and lights. Michael Bennett (subsequently showered with honours for his work on “Follies” and “A Chorus Line”) was the choreographer and the cast included Ann Reinking and Graciela Daniele who both later became huge dance stars and choreographers. The finale was a big production number on the lines of a Ziegfeld (or a Sondheim) Follies show, with dozens of beautiful girls parading around all in red, supervised by Coco in her signature little black number and black hat.

The book of the show had to be careful not to libel anyone, least of all Chanel. Originally she had hoped the piece would concentrate on her early life, but in fact it dealt with the period in the 1950s when she returned to work after a retirement of some fifteen years, But her new collection was panned by the fashion press and she was left desolate until four of the biggest New York clothing stores wanted to take it. She was back in business, successful professionally but still lacking a satisfactory personal life. The final song, ‘Always Mademoiselle’, says it all. Lerner’s book is a skim over Chanel’s life with very few insights into the woman’s character. In fact much of the show’s story feels invented, just as Coco herself re-wrote her own biography. Nothing much of import happens. We see her at work, a rather acid character bitching to those she cannot like, trust or even tolerate and getting very little out of life beyond her occupation. She was immensely important as a designer in which simplicity always came first. Time magazine named Chanel as among the one-hundred most-important people of the twentieth-century. In the show, she remains an enigma.

André Previn. Photograph: A. P. MutterAs for Previn’s score, there is nothing particularly outstanding or memorable about most of it. It recalls his music for the film “It’s Always Fair Weather”, an ironic title as the film was about the regrets and unfulfilled wishes of three US soldiers who meet ten years after World War Two in the hope that life would be better, but it isn’t: so much for the American Dream. According to Previn, the film would have been better as a straight drama, which is pretty magnanimous coming from the guy who wrote the songs. This makes one think whether “Coco” would have been better as a play rather than a musical. Hepburn knew she couldn’t really sing (she thought she sounded like Donald Duck), which the Tony Awards clip on You Tube bears out, but people would have booked to see Hepburn in anything she chose to do. Although the critics did not warm to the show either in New York or on tour, the show sold out everywhere. When she left the Broadway show after eight months, Danielle Darrieux took over but the piece folded after a couple of months. Hepburn did, however, do the tour which opened in Cleveland the day after the death of Coco Chanel in 1971. It secured seven Tony Awards nominations but the only winners were René Auberjonois as Sebastian Baye and, ironically, Cecil Beaton.

Andrea Marcovicci played the title-role in a couple of short-run concert versions in San Francisco (2008) and New York (2010), but the Lost Musicals presentation is the European premiere of the show. And, even though “Coco” was financially successful, Paramount never did make the film but there was an album issued which is now a collector’s item. “Coco” can really be said to be a lost musical and it’s the sort of show that would probably never be revived now in a fully-staged production. There is still much interest in Coco Chanel herself and there have been some recent films made about her life, at least four with another two on the way. If the musical of “Coco” doesn’t reveal why she was so important, at least it provides a huge part. Sara Kestelman is an iconic actress. A long-time member of both the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, she has also appeared in musicals such as “Fiddler on the Roof”, “The Threepenny Opera” and “Nine”, and in Kander & Ebb’s “Cabaret” for which she won an Olivier Award as Fraulein Schneider. She has also appeared in the Lost Musicals presentations of “I Can Get It For You Wholesale” and “Flower Drum Song”.

In “Coco” Kestelman takes her chances and brings Chanel to brimming life. Chanel may have been a difficult and demanding woman, but Kestelman imbues her with an innate strength of character that commands instant respect. She sings the title number and the finale with extraordinary feeling in a very positive and life-affirming way. As her right-hand man, Louis Greff, Edward Petherbridge exudes a delicious insouciance as one who has seen it all before in Mademoiselle’s life, the happiness and the heartache. He has a contemplative number, ‘When your lover says goodbye’, a world-weary piece that suits him well. But he can be mean, too, such as when he announces “If you can’t kick a man when he’s down, when can you kick him?” Simon Butteriss contributes a nicely bitchy Sebastian Baye, a queenly fashion rival, who gets a delightful number called ‘Fiasco’, delivered when he learns that Coco’s new collection is a flop with the press. Louis’s and Sebastian’s songs plus ‘Orbach’s, Bloomingdales, Best and Saks’, a point-number sung by the four fashion-buyers, and ‘Always Mademoiselle’ are the best numbers, yet they are also the only songs in the very short second act, a taste of what Previn and Lerner really could do at their best.

  • Coco continues at the Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London EC1 on May 22 & June 5 at 4 p.m. and on June 12 at 1.30 & 4.45Tickets 0844 412 4300
  • Lost Musicals

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