I have been getting a strong response to the columns I've posted all week about certain Broadway shows that I saw during my teenage theatregoing years in the early 1970s, some of which are included in my memoir, Up in the Cheap Seats. Delving a bit deeper, I thought I should write about something I didn't cover in the book: when Katharine Hepburn portrayed Coco Chanel, the fabled French fashion designer in her first musical, aptly titled Coco. Taking on a brand new challenge at age sixty-two was par for the course when you consider her long and remarkable career. She always threw herself fearlessly into everything she did with a ferocious commitment that defined her as an actress.
Katharine Hepburn as Coco Chanel in Coco (1969).
Hepburn's performance as Coco was an example of star power superseding the show that surrounded her (which was not very good). No one cared. Everyone wanted to see Hepburn in a musical, and even after mediocre reviews, Coco was still a sell-out. And as a twelve-year-old, I saw it from the last row of the glorious Mark Hellinger Theatre * on December 31, 1969: the afternoon of a New Year's Eve I will never forget.
Of Katharine Hepburn, I wrote in my review: "Her performance in this musical which for all intents and purposes is a bummer, is the most amazing acting performance I've seen ... the way she can hold the stage in the palm of her hand, singing in her raspy voice (which I find beautiful) will have you in tears when she sings the title song."
I think I meant "she can hold the audience in the palm of her hand," but you get the idea. According to my "Play Evaluation Sheet!" (exclamation point all my own), this was my 43rd Broadway show and I sat in G 111, the 4th to last row of the balcony. I paid $4.00.
Of course, the Yankee Hepburn made not even the slightest effort to portray herself as French. No, what you saw was what you got: a brilliantly charismatic woman (which is what Coco was supposed to have been like anyway), so it worked.
Cecil Beaton's charming poster design for Coco.
Unfortunately, the show didn't. It was a project that Alan Jay Lener bounced around off of such potential collaborators as his once-solid partner Frederick Loewe and Richard Rodgers. He couldn't interest either of them, so it fell to André Previn to write the score, the only one this wonderful composer ever wrote for the Broadway stage. Lerner took on the writing of book and lyrics and managed to get off a few good jokes. But he also contrived a boring secondary love story and confined the actors who portrayed all the men in Coco's life to only be seen in pre-recorded movies emanating from larger than life picture frames. It was weird.
Previn composed some beautiful melodies for the score, lushly orchestrated by Hershy Kay (with uncredited assists from Robert Bennett and Luther Henderson). Hepburn surrounded herself with fine talent such as the always reliable George Rose; a strong singer in David Holliday (who I had seen play Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha earlier that year); and René Auberjonois, camping it up as a gay rival, who won the Tony for Featured Actor in a Musical (it also won for Cecil Beaton's fashion parade of costuming).
The cover of the souvenir book for Coco.
I never bought these as a kid because they cost an entire dollar!
In case you're wondering, Hepburn lost the Best Actress Tony to her longtime friend Lauren Bacall, who also happened to make her debut in a musical that same season in Applause, a much better received show than Coco.
Coco's acting, singing and dancing ensemble was enormous. It was choreographed by the still new, though hardly untested, Michael Bennett. In fact, the British director who Hepburn insisted on hiring for Coco, Michael Benthall, proved ineffectual at best. He was a classicist who didn't know his way around a musical at all. So it fell to the twenty-six-year old Bennett to really direct the show, the first time he had that opportunity. Five years later, he would create A Chorus Line. Hiring some of the best dancing talent in the field, Bennett oversaw a company that totaled fifty-seven. Among them were such future stars as Ann Reinking (making her Broadway debut); Bob Avian (who was always his right-hand guy and would later co-choreograph A Chorus Line with him); Dan Siretta, who became a fine director and choreographer; and Graciella Daniele, who has been nominated for ten Tony Awards in her long and distinguished career.
And what of Hepburn's singing? What singing? If Lerner got Rex Harrison to talk-sing for My Fair Lady, he went one step further with Hepburn who barely sings a note. But she does more than get by, and Previn provided music that allowed her to skate the surface.
There were two unforgettable stories involving Hepburn and Coco. One was an on stage bit, cheap—but highly effective—that went over like gangbusters. It took place after the disastrous Paris show that ended Act One, when the Act Two curtain rose to reveal an empty salon, debris strewn all about it. Hepburn made her entrance and surveyed the scene in silence. Then she stopped, paused, and with perfect timing looked up and said, "Shit."
That's it. Just "shit." And in 1969 that was enough to bring down the house. But you know what? If Maggie Smith came to Broadway tomorrow and said "Shit" at the top of Act Two, I think the laugh would probably be even bigger.
The second story is an offstage one. Construction of a new building was going on during Coco's run (it would eventually house the Gershwin Theatre), and the sound of the drilling and hammering during the Wednesday matinee hours was driving Hepburn crazy. So she donned a hard hat and went up to visit the workers. She charmed them into doing quieter work between 2:00 and 4:30 every Wednesday from that day forward till she left the show. And if you don't think the story's true, then I will direct you to the great actor-director Jerry Adler, who stage managed Coco. He’s the one who told it to me … and he spent ten months side by side with Hepburn.
Little known fact: Coco has the distinction of being the first show to charge a top price of $15 for all all evening performances. Shocking. I'll leave the final word on this musical to Brendan Gill, the longtime critic for the New Yorker, who in his review had one of the all-time great lines: “Coco is a terrible show and well worth going to see.”
* The Mark Helllinger Theatre was sold when Broadway was experiencing a downturn in its fortunes, and hasn't had a show in it since the disastrous Peter Allen musical Legs Diamond in 1989. Now owned by the Times Square Church, it is at least being beautifully maintained and I am not alone in the hopes that one day the house where My Fair Lady once played will be a theatre again.
If you enjoy these columns, I encourage you to purchase Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.