Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The guilty pleasures of 1970

Katharine Hepburn in Coco. It's not an exceptional score, but it works well enough (Andre Previn & Alan Jay Lerner did the honors). Hepburn is, well, I don't have to tell you how unqualified she was to headline a musical... but there is something about her star quality and the fun in Previn's score that just makes for an entertaining listen. The book by Lerner is rather irritating, with all the filmed sequences that presented a flashback into Coco's youth. Then again, when one thinks of Chanel, one would hardly think of Kate. Legendary is the Tony performance which, tasteless laugh track aside, presents a 15 minute sequence from the show's finale, including one of the legendary fashion promenades staged by Michael Bennett. It remains the longest performance piece in Tony history. Unfortunately, the recording quality of the cast album is as incredibly poor; even in a CD transfer it doesn't sound like a 1970 stereo effort, but closer to the primitive 40s mono recordings. Perhaps it could use a remaster, but then again, only the curios and the true fans of those involved would be interested. (Rex Harrison sounds like Venetian glass, to establish a comparison. Hepburn sounds like she swallowed some...) But I can't not listen, not enjoy the personality and presence of such a star taking on such a daunting and rather reckless task. Critical misgivings not withstanding, audiences came out in droves and the show shuttered two months after she left, though the more character appropriate Danielle Darrieux had taken over in the title role. David Holliday is in fine voice (check out the OLC of Sail Away for more of that glorious tenor); Gale Dixon is a pallid ingenue whose presence, voice and acting ability are so lacking you wonder why she was cast in the first place and secondly, you wonder why Coco would become so invested in her life. Rene Auberjonois won a Tony as the campy rival (with the over-the-top exercise in schadenfreude, "Fiasco" as well as stereotypical scenery-chomping) and George Rose and Jon Cypher also offered support. Kate was fearless and one of a kind, regardless of the medium. I find it endlessly amusing how the Tony race was between her and her non-singing friend Lauren Bacall who was croaking her way (with maybe a slightly better idea of pitch) through the campier mediocrity Applause. (Third nominee Dilys Watling from the four performance debacle that was Georgy stood absolutely no chance).

Which brings me to my next guilty pleasure: the TV telecast of Applause with Lauren Bacall. The musical, an adaptation of the film All About Eve (and the original story "The Wisdom of Eve" by Mary Orr) opened in NY in 1970, ran for 895 performances and won a slew of Tony's in a considerably weak year. The show shortly thereafter made its way to London with Bacall and original NY Eve Penny Fuller, with Larry Hagman (who is pretty good) in the role originated by Len Cariou. It was this production that was filmed (on a soundstage) in an abridged form for telecast in 1973. Now the score to Applause has two kinds of numbers the brilliantly awful and the awfully brilliant, more of the former than latter, truth be told - "One Halloween," the pastiche "Who's That Girl?" and the title song are the winners (Strouse and Adams have done worse... Bring Back Birdie anyone?) Anyway, from an opening voice over, Bacall gives her all in one of the campiest reproductions of a musical theatre role for television or film. The audience is immediately subjected to the revolutionary scene (at the time) where Margo Channing skips the opening night party to go to a gay bar. Seguing into her first character song, it quickly becomes one of the unintentionally funny moments ever created for a musical. First of all, the caricatures abound from wall to wall. Then to make matters worse, Bacall cannot dance to save her life and it shows. She gets tossed in the air by a large group of screaming queens extolling "Margo!" repeatedly with all their heart. Her performance stays at that high level and is a marvel for sheer presence, if little else. (I would have loved to have seen how Broadway replacement, Anne Baxter, fared in the role.) Penny Fuller; however, delivers a nuanced and compelling portrait of the conniving Eve Harrington. Her musical selections are few and far between, but when she sings, you pay attention. Most notably, the ferocious explosion that is "One Hallowe'en" late in the second act. Applause may be the worst score of a Best Musical Tony winner, but that doesn't stop it from being fun (if not always for the right reasons). There are clips on youtube and I believe the tape is in archives somewhere, should your curiosity bring you to want to see it. You'll laugh a lot, I promise. And marvel at Ms. Penny Fuller. However, for the real thing, I refer you to the brilliant and highly rewatchable original film, whose dialogue is as sharp and compelling as ever, especially with its terse deliveries by Bette Davis, Baxter, Celeste Holm and George Sanders, not to mention the always-reliable Thelma Ritter. One of the largest problems of the stage musical is the loss of the latter two characters; the sardonic columnist Addison de Witt was replaced by the less interesting Howard Benedict, a producer with sights on Eve. Also in a ploy to modernize the story, the dresser Birdie became the dresser Duane, who memorably mentioned having a date as an excuse for not clubbing with Margo. Bacall shocked the blue-hairs in the audience with the deathless "Bring him along!"

So I enjoy them both in spite of myself. Sue me.

Side note: Did standby Joan Copeland ever get to go on for the illustrious Hepburn?

2 comments:

SarahB said...

Worst best musical score? NO! It's Avenue Q.

Theatre Aficionado at Large said...

I don't consider the Avenue Q score to be particularly strong, but I think it works on its pastiche level. Certainly better than anything that uses the term "Truman Capote's balls."