Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Always Mademoiselle


This week’s Dance Party will either fascinate you or make you shudder, but it’s difficult to look away. It is another clip from the Tony Awards broadcast, and holds a bit of distinction there, more on that in a mo’.

In the late 60s, somebody came up with the questionable idea that the life of French fashion maven Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel would make a good musical. The designer, primarily known as the inventor of the basic black cocktail dress and the perfume used by old ladies, was agreeable, believing it would be a celebration of her long life, from youth to old age. That idea went out the window when Rosalind Russell became attached to the project. Instead, Coco became an examination of Chanel’s big comeback in her middle age, and a nostalgic look at the choices which made her career a success but her private life a solitary one.

Russell bowed out of the project early on, due to advancing arthritis, and a search was conducted to find another high-profile star. In hindsight, the choice of Katherine Hepburn, who had never done a musical film or play, seems a bizarre one. The critics were not enthusiastic, but the audiences were, and our Kate played to full houses throughout her run; when she left the show, the box office sank and the show closed within two months.


To her credit, Hepburn hit the road in the National Tour. Reportedly, she felt an obligation to the producers to help repay the financing; Coco was the most expensive show to ever be produced on Broadway at the time. The regional reviewers were not any kinder to the show, but Hepburn played to packed houses throughout the tour.

Coco has never received a major revival (though Ginger Rogers played it in summer stock once), and regional and community theaters shy away from the project. It requires a considerable costume budget which is simply out of range these days. Cabaret star Andrea Marcovicci has been tinkering with the piece in recent years, appearing in semi-staged versions in San Francisco and New York, and these presentations have brought at least a little appreciation for a show which is remembered as decidedly mediocre. The score, by Alan Jay Lerner and Andre Previn (in his only Broadway work) isn’t a bad one for the time, and if you can get beyond Hepburn’s croaking in this clip, you can actually detect a hummable melody. Coco has a sappy ingenue and an unlikeable leading man, and several characters , including Coco's father and various lovers, appeared only on film. The fact that Hepburn was able to interact with that should also be applauded.

There is one other memorable role in this star vehicle: a swishy designer played by a young Rene Aubergonois. It is occasionally noted that this character is the first sympathetic homosexual to appear on the Broadway stage (I'm not too sure about that claim). The Tony committee took notice of Rene's flamboyant performance in this tiny role and gave him the Supporting Actor award, launching his career.

The show should be remembered for the brave, eccentric work of Katherine Hepburn, whose two-note musical range did not stop her from turning in a charismatic performance. But it should also be remembered for the participation of Michael Bennett as choreographer and de facto co-director. He had, at the time, four flops and one hit (Promises, Promises) on his resume, and he was responsible for pulling this unwieldy musical together. The director of record, Michael Benthall, had directed Hepburn in The Millionairess and As You Like It, and had the star’s full backing, but he had no experience with musicals and was a raging drunk who could not handle the demands of such a large-scale show. When Bennett picked up the reigns and pulled the show together, he was set on the path to becoming one of the most creative and successful directors of musicals.

The clip below holds the distinction of being, in its complete form, the longest piece of anything ever presented at the Tony Awards. It clocked in at a whopping 15 minutes and included a full scene of dialogue before we get to the good stuff (that preceding scene has been cut from the clip below, but you can catch the whole thing on Blue Gobo). This number is the finale of the show, and was pre-recorded. Though it’s done all the time now, this was the first time a clip from a nominated musical was not performed live for the Tony audience; Hepburn’s refusal to attend awards shows (she was not present to pick up any of her four Oscars) required the producers to film the sequence in advance.

This number, though not technically dance, is a good illustration of two of Michael Bennett’s signature trademarks. Even this early in his career, he was experimenting with the "cinematic bleed" he later perfected with Dreamgirls, and Coco’s revolving turntable helped with that effect. Of course, you can’t miss the mirrors here, which were to become a Bennett trademark; he later used mirrors to great effect in Follies and A Chorus Line.

Cecil Beaton won a Tony for his elaborate costume designs, though he can not take credit for the red-shaded gowns used in this number. They are all Chanel originals, culled from a lifetime of her designs. Katherine Hepburn’s birthday was yesterday, so in her honor, here is her only musical theater appearance:

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