Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Obscure Musicals: HIGH SPIRITS (1964)

The success of My Fair Lady in 1956 was one of those theatre events that led every other producer to look for similar material to adapt. (Similarly, Oklahoma! led to dozens of other folksy Americana musicals, both on stage and screen.) For the next eight or nine years, there were huge numbers of musicals with their roots in British stage plays or British literature, often with respected if non-singing British actors in the leads. Since this co-incided with a revival of interest in contemporary British theatre, and with producers like David Merrick who spent a lot of time mounting American productions of British hits, you could be forgiven for thinking that Broadway was a British colony.

With all the Anglophilia going around, it was inevitable that Broadway would show an interest in Noel Coward, especially once he stopped living in England (he was a tax exile). He wrote and directed a show for Broadway, Sail Away, which wasn't a hit; then he was hired by the My Fair Lady producer, Herman Levin, to write the music and lyrics for a show based on the work of yet another British playwright, Terence Rattigan. This was The Girl Who Came To Supper, a blatant My Fair Lady knockoff right down to the casting choices (non-singing serious actor Jose Ferrer paired with soprano Florence Henderson, with music-hall singer Tessie O'Shea in support), with mostly mediocre songs, it was an expensive failure.

So Coward had a poor track record with writing original work for Broadway, and his next project was an unusual choice: in 1964, he signed to direct someone else's musical adaptation of one of his plays. This was High Spirits, a musical version of Coward's hit fantasy-comedy Blithe Spirit.

The writers of the show, who had been trying to get it off the ground for some time, were the veteran songwriter/performer/arranger Hugh Martin and a younger songwriter/performer, Timothy Gray. Martin, who is still alive, ought to be a living legend; among other things he wrote the songs (with Ralph Blane) for Meet Me in St. Louis, and along with Kay Thompson he helped to revolutionize the art of vocal arrangement, writing jazzy, scatty vocal and choral arrangements that were so elaborate that he'd often add all-new music and lyrics to songs by the likes of Richard Rodgers and Jule Styne (and they were fine with that). He could write music and lyrics on his own, but he preferred to work in a sort of Lennon-McCartney arrangement where he and a collaborator would each write songs, and then they'd polish each other's work and take joint credit for the whole score. He usually worked with Ralph Blane, his former singing/arranging partner from the quartet "The Martins," but with Grey he wrote not only the score of High Spirits but also the book -- which stuck closely to Blithe Spirit, just as the book of My Fair Lady did to Pygmalion.

The style they settled on for the songs was actually pretty far removed from Coward's own style, which was probably the only way to go. Martin always had kind of a '30s-'40s pop vibe to his work, though he tried to stay abreast of new developments, his basic style was always about peppy rhythms and jazzy harmonies. He even dusted off a song that he'd written ten years earler, "Faster Than Sound," a song about jet travel, and used it to describe the life of the ghost Elvira (in which context the lyrics really don't make any sense at all). The best song in the score was probably "I Know Your Heart," for Charles Condomine (Edward "Equalizer" Woodward) and the ghost of his first wife Elvira (Tammy Grimes); Elvira is trying to get Charles drunk so she can get him killed and have him all to herself, while Charles knows she's up to something but isn't sure what, and the duet section feels like a really macabre version of "Baby It's Cold Outside."

Coward was very pleased with the songs and the adaptation and agreed to direct the show. It doesn't seem like he had a great time with it, though. He was not particularly happy, it was said, with the casting of Beatrice Lillie as the medium Madame Arcati (played in the original play and movie by Margaret Rutherford). He'd worked with Lillie before, but only in revues where she could do her own thing in sketches and songs; he felt that Lillie couldn't play a character, couldn't remember lines, and would turn her scenes into her own one-woman show. Which is pretty much what happened; she stole the show, and was largely responsible (along with Grimes) for the show running as long as it did, but she was doing An Evening With Beatrice Lillie, not playing the character. It didn't help that most of her songs were among the weaker ones in the score; her love song to her Ouija board, "Talking To You," went over well, but "Go Into Your Trance," where Madame Arcati instructs her young disciples that they don't need drugs to have a groovy trip, is kind of embarrassing. Though it does anticipate "psychedelic" songs before they even existed, and it does end with one of Martin's trademark choral arrangements.

The conflict between Coward and Lillie didn't get better during the tryouts. Coward left the show during the Philadelphia tryout. At the time, the explanation was that he had to leave due to poor health; it was also speculated, and still is, that either he or Lillie had to go, and it couldn't be Lillie because she was the hit of the show. In any case Coward was replaced by Gower Champion, who'd just had the biggest hit on Broadway with Hello, Dolly!. Coward was still credited as the sole director of the show, however.

High Spirits ran 375 performances, which was a better run then than it is now, but not enough to be considered a genuine hit. It had a London Production, with Cecily Courtneidge as Madame Arcati, which did not do well.

One problem that a lot of critics noted about High Spirits was that it was so close to the original play (though like My Fair Lady it used the revised ending of the movie version) that there wasn't much to distinguish it from the original; a lot of theatregoers either knew the play or had seen the movie, and a few songs here and there didn't give them enough that they hadn't seen from this story already. Another problem was that it's really a very small, light and fluffy play, taking place mostly in one place and with only four characters of any importance. The adaptors didn't add any new characters (the four characters plus the chorus are the only ones who sing, except for one number with Timothy Gray's voice on a gramophone record), so there wasn't enough of the variety, the sense of scale, that theatregoers had come to expect from a musical.

And finally, there's the matter of heart. The play has none. It treats the murder of an important character as an inconsequential joke, portrays women as shrewish harpies and love and marriage as fraudulent. It would be offensive if it felt real, but of course it doesn't feel real and isn't supposed to; it's a wacky fantasy which at the time of its writing (1942) gave audiences an escape by treating violence and death as unimportant and unreal (whereas it was all too real at the time). But songs give a story added weight, and when you add the requisite charm songs and love songs, the story suddenly seems real, and therefore unfunny. Charles and his current wife, Ruth, have a rather pretty duet called "If I Gave You," but if we're supposed to take their love duet seriously, then we can't help but feel horrified when Ruth is killed and nobody seems to care much. You almost have to wonder why Martin and Gray spent so much time trying to do this adaptation; this is a play that probably shouldn't have been a musical at all.

If Lillie was the hit of the show, Grimes -- who was asked by Coward to play the part -- was the best thing in the show, with her bizarre voice and line readings ideally suited to playing an otherworldly visitor. She also got nearly all the best songs in the score, including the eleven o'clock number "Home Sweet Heaven," a Cole Porter-ish list song about all the great people you meet in the afterlife.


John said...

Just as an addendum, given the "other worldly" tone "High Spirits" was going for: This is the project Grimes ended up starring in during 1964 on Broadway, instead of working for Danny Arnold in California on "Bewitched", a show Tammy had signed up for the previous year in the role of Samantha, but then backed out of, fearing the show would be a failure. That left Elizabeth Montgomery in the role, while Grimes finally agreed to do a sitcom in 1966 for ABC -- which was a flop.

Jordan said...

Can you PLEASE post more of the songs?

miss lalavox said...

yes, please!