Theatre yesterday and today



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Curiously, when the Connecticut Yankee, Katharine Hepburn, chose to portray the fabled French fashion designer Coco Chanel, it didn’t turn as many heads as it did ask the basic question on everyone’s minds: can she even sing? Well, ever since Rex Harrison was cast as Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, there have been many famous names who decided that if they didn’t sound exactly like a nightingale in Berkeley Square, then maybe they could get away with talk-singing and warbling more like a New York City pigeon? But if Hepburn was known for anything throughout her career (which began on Broadway in 1928) it was her fearlessness. Always throwing herself into the deep end of the pool (a swimmer who loved nothing more than ice cold water), it was her ferocious commitment to whatever she did 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 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, 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 librettist and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady, Camelot) 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 (working with the jittery Lerner was no picnic). Though Lerner managed some quality writing in his lyrics (he almost always did), he contrived a secondary love story which was pallid. He also 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). I’m not the only Broadway aficionado with a soft spot for some of this score. It helps that Hepburn was bolstered by such fine talent as the always reliable light comic actor 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 fashion rival — winner at the age of twenty-nine of that season’s Tony Award for Featured Actor in a Musical. The show’s other award went to Cecil Beaton for his extraordinary parade of costumes, the likes of which were probably not seen again until last season’s The Cher Show, which brought the amazing Bob Mackie his first Tony.