Sunday, June 14, 2009

Tonight: High Spirits at Musicals in Mufti at the York

Tonight, Noah and I are seeing a staged reading of High Spirits! It's one of my favorite original cast albums. And guess what? It's the musical version of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit!

High Spirits originally opened on April 7, 1964 and ran for 375 performances at the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon). The music, lyrics and book are by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray. The Musical Director was Fred Werner and music was orchestrated by Harry Zimmerman. Noël Coward himself directed. Additional direction (uncredited) was by Gower Champion.

Noël Coward wrote Blithe Spirit over three weeks in 1940. Twenty years later, in the early 1960s, he was working on the musicals Sail Away and The Girl Who Came to Supper, both of which he wrote all of the music, lyrics and book, and then High Spirits. He wrote about the process of making the musical version and the launch in his diaries, . "The Noël Coward Diaries" were edited by Graham Payn and Sheridan Morley and published in 1982.

Here are excerpts about High Spirits:

Monday 4 February 1963 A great surprise happened. Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray came on Thursday morning to play the score of Blithe Spirit. I was all set to turn it down because it really has been going on far too long and I was sick of all the frigging about. Coley and I sat with our mouths open. It is quite brilliant. The music is melodic and delightful, the lyrics really witty, and they have done a complete book outline keeping to my original play and yet making it effective as a musical. I really am not only relieved but delighted. I've told them to go ahead, discussed the contract, and everything is on the way. I would like it to be played by Gwen Verdon, Celeste Holm, Keith Mitchell and Kay Thompson, and directed and choreographed by Robert Fosse. However, ideal castings seldom come true. The business set-up for this is fairly simple - a three-way cut throughout.

Sunday 17 March 1963 The record of Faster than Sound [working title for the Blithe Spirit musical] arrived. Hugh and Timothy have done it brilliantly. A thoroughly professional job. There really isn't a moderate number in it - they are all first-rate and about three obvious hits. Now all that remains to be done is to see to it that it is perfectly cast and directed and choreographed. Not so easy. The boys have done an admirable job on the script. They've kept to my dialogue throughout and yet contrived to open it up into a 'musical' shape. The few lines they have had to interpolate are completely in key. In fact, taken all round it is one of the best potential musicals I have ever seen. Let's pray that nothing goes wrong between now and production. So much depends on playing and direction. I intend to keep a firm eye on it from the word go. It is planned, on my suggestion, to play it for three months in Los Angeles and San Francisco first.

Monday 15 April 1963 Then I have had conferences about the Blithe Spirit musical and have agreed to direct it, starting rehearsals on 2 January.

Today we heard Edward Woodward (Rattle of a Simple Man) sing, and he was fine. It's a lovely voice and we know he is a good actor. Bea Lillie is mad about playing Arcati. She will bring to it star quality, moments of genius and little or no acting talent, but I'll settle. There's a strong possibility of Eileen Herlie for Ruth, and Gwen Verdon has been so idiotic over Elvira that, although she'd be a big draw, I've decided to let her stay at home. No coaxing. It's a waste of time. The next choice is Zizi Jeanmaire, who might be wonderful.

Sunday 21 July 1963 There have also been great carryings-on about Blithe Spirit. I took Beattie [Beatrice Lillie] to lunch. She looked wonderful and was very funny and sweet, but also she couldn't evenremember the beginnings of the sentences she'd started. As she was never good on words, this augurs ill for the future. I intend to give her a good talking to when I get back from Jamaica, where I go on Tuesday for three weeks. There is still more music to be done and there's really no point in hanging about in the hot city. I gave up the idea of going to England and Switzerland because it would be too exhausting. The present cast for Blithe Spirit (High Spirits) is Beatrice Lillie, Edward Woodward (fixed), and Celeste Holm and Tammy Grimes being negotiated. I want Tammy because she is a strong personality and will be good competition for Beattie. She wants to do it. We have definitely go the Alvin Theatre and will open there on 31 March after a week in New Haven, three weeks in Boston and three weeks in Philadelphia.

Sunday 25 August, 1963 Celeste Holm has dillied and dallied and finally refused Ruth, so we shall have to think again. Hugh and Tim have written a new opening number and an extra one for Ruth and Charles.

Sunday 8 September, 1963 We still haven't got a Ruth for High Spirits. Hugh and Tim are fussing a bit about finishing off the extra numbers, but I have been firm and made angry noises and they are now concentrating like crazy.

Sunday 22 September, 1963 High Spirits is now cast completely. We had an interesting audition and finally engaged Louise Troy for Ruth. She read it very well, twice, and sings adequately. Her looks are splendid.

Sunday 5 October, 1963 Bea Lillie has announced through her agent that she will appear in High Spirits unless she has two more numbers and this and that. I have talked to her firmly. Personally I wish to God she wouldn't do it. She's bound to be a bloody nuisance apart from not being able to act and not knowing a word. Really,these female stars!

Tuesday 22 October, 1963 On Thursday the tenth, flew back to New York. Had High Spirits meeting. Lunched with Bea, who wasn't tiresome at all, but very sweet.

Wednesday 11 December, 1963 [The Girl Who Came to Supper has just opened and there's a great account of that here] I have had tremendous conferences over High Spirits and it is all shaping up beautifully. I wish it could be postponed for a month to give me more time to rest, but it can't be so that's that. It feels to me that it will be a hit. The book, we know is solid. The score is excellent and the lyrics funny. We also have two authentic stars. I shall make the most of these three weeks and march with stately dignity into my sixty-fifth year!

Monday 16 December, 1963 It is only rarely, as in the case of Oklahoma! and West Side Story, that a big show can succeed without a star name. Fortunately, in High Spirits I shall have two, Beattie and Tammy. Also the book is solid.

Monday 13 January, 1964 High Spirits is progressing very well indeed. Tammy Grimes is going to be brilliant, Teddy Woodward excellent, Louise Troy ditto and Bea Lillie - well - it is impossible to decide. She has worked really hard for months, cannot retain more than a few sentences at a time, cannot act at all, has no idea of moving from one side of the stage to the other and yet contributes a curious quality of genius. She is driving me shrieking mad at every rehearsal and yet I know she is aching to please me. Today, after a week of indescribable hell, she got through the first act comparatively fluently One can only hope, grit one's teeth and pray for patience. Graham is being really invaluable as my assistant director. He is shrewd and authoritative and has got the company on this side. If Beattie really delivers, which I believe she will, we shall probably have a real smash hit.

Friday 24 January, 1964 This is a day off for the whole company including the wretched director, so I am springing to these pages to put on record that I am patient, kind, forbearing, sensible, gentle, decisive and brilliant. If I were not all of these things I should now be nestling cosily in a strait-jacket in some loony-bin. I have been rehearsing intensively and day after day I have sat quietly with my nails dug into the palms of my hands while Miss Lillie stumbles, flounders, forgets, remembers, drives the company mad and is as much like Madame Arcati as I am like Queen Victoria.

Sunday 9 February, 1964 On Monday night we opened [in New Haven]. Beattie fucked up the whole business in so far as the book was concerned, but managed to make a great success at the expense of the play, the cast and my nerves. However, the whole thing got rave notices and on Tuesday night she was more relaxed and actually got through the first scene without drying up more than twice. She went off into Turkish later on, but we mustn't ask too much. Her name and her personality and charm are enormous assets to the show. Her complete lack of concentration and inability to remember line4s is catastrophic, but to replace her with anyone else would be more damaging than allowing her to play it. Her pet swain, John Philip, is being a crashing bore and a bloody nuisance but he has been squelched for the time being. At one moment Beattie turned on me and was perfectly idiotic; however, she apologized within the hour and so I rose above it. Tammy is brilliant, Louise good. The show patchy and in need of a couple of new numbers. We are, however, completely sold out for the road tour - three weeks here [Boston] and three weeks in Philadelphia. I have remained calmly at the helm although there have been one or two moments when I would have liked to let fly.

Tuesday 10 March, 1964 Happily, however, the show is much better. Beattie has improved beyond belief and we are a sell-out here.

Monday 23 March, 1964 The news from the High Spirits front is curious. Tammy spent the last Philadelphia week in hospital suffering from self-induced hysteria and Beattie's notices. Lester [Osterman - producer] and Dick [Richard Horner, producer] came to me and asked if I minded them calling Gower Champion to pull the show together. I said I would be only too delighted. In due course he arrived and, at the first conference, listed everything that I have been saying for eight weeks. In addition to this he has some constructive ideas. I immediately, spurred on by his enthusiasm, wrote a new ending to the play as the present finale is hopeless. This went in on Friday night and was fine. Meanwhile, we have postponed the opening until 7 April.

I am sick to death of of High Spirits and everyone connected with it. I think, galvanized by Gower, it may be a success. At any rate, I have done all I can do.

Friday 10 April, 1964 High Spirits opened on Tuesday night and was an immediate success. Beattie came on with a star mixture of assurance and humility, took the audience by the scruff of its neck and shook it into a state of adoring frenzy. Tammy was brilliant and gave a fine performance but, owing to Gower Champion's over-direction, was considerably less good than she had been in Boston and Philadelphia. Teddy Woodward was very good, which is all be ever can be in this part. He sang well and acted well, but he is essentially a character actor and he will never really dominate in a straight part. Incidentally, he is one of the nicest, most co-operative actors I have ever worked with. In all hurly-burly, indecisiveness and inefficient chaos of this production he is the only one who has given me no trouble at all. Louise Troy came up a fair treat and made a great success. In fact, the performance was very good. The sets and dresses remain muddled, uninspired and tatty.

The calling in of Gower Champion in Philadelphia turned out on the whole to be a very good thing indeed. He has achieved some minor miracles and the whole show moves with more smoothness, speed and ease than it did before. He is a remarkable man of the theatre, and as at the moment of his intrusion I was ill and exhausted and really incapable of fighting any more minor battles, I am extremely grateful to him. I think he has contributed a great deal to the show's success. His own error, and it was an important one, was that he fiddled about too much with my direction of the dialogue scenes, which were always good anyhow. Like all choreographers, he hasn't enough faith in words and repose. His worst error has been to try to 'bring Tammy up'. What he has succeeded in doing is making her restless and fidgety.

Beattie, with all her fluffy-mindedness and lack of any acting technique whatever, is unquestionably a great star and has that indestructible capacity for making the audience love her. Her beguiling smile and her, at moments, incredible funniness are magical and, so far as the public is concerned it doesn't matter how many lines she forgets and how many mistakes she makes. She is adored. The public are amused by Tammy and they admire her, but she is not loved. At any rate, the show is a hit and I can only hope and pray that it doesn't droop and die in a few months.

High Spirits was nominated for eight Tony Awards but did not win any. It was up the same year as Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly!. Hello, Dolly! practically swept that year. A West End production of High Spirits opened at the Savoy Theatre in November, 1964, also directed by Noël Coward. It only ran for 93 performances. The cast included Denis Quilley as Charles, Marti Stevens as Elvira, Jan Waters as Ruth, and Cicely Courtneidge as Madame Arcati.

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