6 June 2021

"Coco": I cannot see anyone but you in the part

In 1969, after an absence of seventeen years, Katharine Hepburn returned to Broadway to perform in Coco, her only musical in a long and impressive career. The musical was written by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and André Previn (music) and was based on the life of French fashion designer Coco Chanel, focusing on the 1950s when Chanel came out of retirement after fifteen years. Initially Hepburn, who couldn't really sing, wasn't eager to play the role, but after weeks of vocal lessons with MGM vocal coach Roger Edens and after meeting Chanel she decided to accept. (When she heard herself later on the cast album, she famously quipped: "I sound like Donald Duck".)

Coco
opened on 18 December 1969 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre where it ran for 329 performances. After eight months Hepburn's contract ended and she was replaced by Danielle Darrieux. With no major star to attract audiences and the show garnering poor reviews, Coco with Darrieux closed after only two months. The original Broadway production was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning in two categories, i.e. for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (René Auberjonois) and Best Costume Design (Cecil Beaton). Hepburn was also nominated but lost to Lauren Bacall in Applause.

Following her Broadway run, Hepburn went on a national tour with Coco from January through June 1971 and, despite mediocre reviews, the show was sold out everywhere. Although Coco was a big success financially, Paramount Pictures, who had put up the money for the original Broadway production (a then record amount of $900,000), decided not to turn it into a film. 

At age 62, Katharine Hepburn in Coco (above and below). When Chanel learned that Miss Hepburn was going to play her she was very pleased, assuming it was Audrey and not Katharine. She thought that the musical was going to focus on her younger years, as initially agreed upon, but Alan Lerner later decided to tell the story of Chanel as an older woman.

The man behind the Coco project was producer Frederick Brisson. Brisson had bought the rights to Chanel's life story in the early 1960's and originally intended the musical as a vehicle for his wife Rosalind Russell. Russell —previously successful on Broadway with the musical Wonderful Town (1953-1954) for which she won a Tony Award, and Auntie Mame (1956-1958) for which she was nominated— was quite eager to return to Broadway and desperately wanted the role. But while Lerner and Previn had started to write their material with Russell in mind, they gradually became convinced she was all wrong for it. They told Brisson how they felt, who naturally told his wife. Trying to hold on to the role that was meant for her, Russell next gave an interview to the press saying she had already been cast as Coco. When the announcement appeared in the New York Times on 27 September 1967, Lerner was outraged — blaming Brisson rather than Russell— and urged Roz to announce her withdrawal from the project, "for a reason to be mutually agreed upon"*. 

*Several sources claim that Roz withdrew from Coco because she had developed acute arthritis. According to her autobiography Life is a Banquet (1977), however, it wasn't until 1969 that she started to develop arthritic symptoms. So the reason for her withdrawal that was communicated to the press in late 1967 must have been a different one, although I couldn't find what it was. 

Rosalind Russell and husband Frederick Brisson who were married from 1941 until Roz's death in 1976 (above) and Katharine Hepburn flanked by Brisson and Alan Jay Lerner (below). Lerner is probably best remembered for his collaboration with composer Frederick Loewe on such musicals as Brigadoon, My Fair Lady and Gigi.

Seen below are two letters written by Alan Jay Lerner regarding the casting of Coco. In the first letter to Frederick Brisson, dated 13 September 1967, Lerner said that while he initially had doubts about Roz Russell playing Chanel, he was now "unalterably opposed" to it (as was Previn) and also explained why. Convinced that Katharine Hepburn would be the perfect Coco, Lerner wrote Hepburn an impassioned letter four days later, trying to persuade her to accept the part ("... never in my entire professional life have I ever wanted anyone to play any role in anything I have ever written as much as I want you to play Coco."). Probably that same month Hepburn agreed to consider the role.

 

September 13, 1967

Dear Freddy, 

Contrary to previous information as you can see I am still in London. I had a marvelous ten days work with André and all the melodies are now completed, including the verses. We may have to add one small interlude but that remains to be seen. In any case, it would only be a short afternoon's work for André.

Not only that, but at long last the book is finished to my satisfaction and you should have a copy in your hands by the time you receive this letter. It is still long in the beginning and I don't mean to imply that I have finished work on it, but for the first time there is a beginning, a middle and an end, and the play at least has an architecture. I hope you will agree.

If you do agree then I think you will also feel as André and I do that —as I have been fearing for many months— this is definitely not for Roz and Roz is definitely not for it. I am totally, irrefutably convinced that each would do the other a great injustice. Her special warmth and ingenuousness that shine through her talent and make it unique would, if called upon as it is now written, give the play a softness which would destroy the whole fabric of it. To ask her to bury it completely would be like hiring Merman and asking her not to sing. What the part requires is a certain emotional brittleness; it is a quality someone either has or has not. It cannot be assumed. That particular kind of cracking along on top of the feelings if it isn't natural emotionally and stylistically comes out at best, hard and at worst, heartless. It is the kind of role that is very much in the vernacular of two or three of the leading British actresses and Katharine Hepburn. As for the musical portion, the gay, uninhibited, irresistible zest that Roz uses instead of a voice would be so out of character that she and the songs would be fighting each other all the way with each winding up the loser, not to mention the play. I know we have discussed this before. I know you have been aware of my doubts. Those doubts no longer exist. I now find myself unalterably opposed.

I wish with all my heart I could explain this to Roz myself because aside from my own personal feelings for her, I have very deep respect for her as an artist, and I would be bereft if she in any way misunderstood. I frankly believe she is too intelligent an actress, as well as person, not to see this herself upon reading the play. I am more than certain she would turn it down anyhow. If, by any chance, she sees the role differently than it is, I will do anything to make my position clear to her. (I have been saying "I" when I should have been saying "we" because André is equally as definite as I about her not playing the role. Actually, after reading this draft he called me up and the first thing he said was: "I love it, but this is certainly nothing for Roz.")

It is such a relief to get the thing off my back that I am going to stay over until next week and relax a bit. I will stay here until Friday and then go to Paris until about Wednesday, then home. I will be at the Plaza. I have not been in touch with anybody here because I think we must first cast the part. Obviously, the star will have a say and I don't want to go off half-cocked again. I will call you the instant I am in New York and if you would like me to go see Roz, wherever she is, I will of course do so.

I hope you are happy with the script. I look forward to seeing you as soon as possible. Be sure not to give any love to Jack Warner and Arthur Jacobs but keep it all for the Brisson family.


Always, 
Alan
__________


September 17, 1967

Dear Miss Hepburn: 

I have been trying to leave you alone until I get back this week but today is Sunday and I have no "hommes d'affaires" to see and I never visit the French in the country because the men wear neckties and everybody stays indoors and so I've been working on the lyric for "Always Mademoiselle." (André did the music while I was in London. I think you'll like it. It's in the "My Man" genre but the melody is stronger and no self-pity. There will be none of the latter in the lyric either.) And so because I have been working on something that I fervently hope will be for you, writing you has become irresistible. 

First of all, I must tell you that our paths have been crossing all week. Monday, I saw Anatole Litvak in Claridge's and we had a bite together. He told me that he had been working on a script for Peter O'Toole called "The Ski-Bum" and that it was not developing well and that it would probably be abandoned. The next day I heard that "Lion in Winter" may be moved forward because Peter O'Toole had suddenly become free. Friday evening I arrived in Paris and as I walked into the hotel, the very first person I saw was Terrence [sic] Young. Short chat and, unsolicited, he informed me he suddenly had two pictures at the same time: "Mayerling" and "Lion in Winter" because "Lion" was going sooner than expected. Period. The night before I left London, I ran into Sam Spiegel who fixed his misty blue eyes on me and said "Did you get her?" "Get whom?" said I. He answered with an all-knowing wink, murmured something in classic Estonian in which your name was prominently placed, and disappeared into the night.

Needless to say, any sort of unexpected prompting was hardly necessary to bring you to mind. For the past few weeks my thoughts have not been elsewhere. And since last Monday night I have been elated into orbit. I couldn't possible have made you know on the phone the length, breadth and height of my enthusiasm. Probably, not even face to face either. Unfortunately, enthusiasm in our profession has been so squandered by pitchmen and barkers that by now it rings with the hollow sound of insincerity. However, to me it's still precious stuff and I have never used it either to hoodwink others or myself. So I feel I am entitled to ask you to take mine seriously; and to believe me when I tell you that never in my entire professional life have I ever wanted anyone to play any role in anything I have ever written as much as I want you to play Coco. If you allow me, I will prove it to you by doing anything and everything within the bounds of artistic, legal, economic and social reason to make it possible for you to do it conveniently, happily and comfortably.

Because I cannot see anyone but you in the part, I feel I ought to acquaint you with a few of the facts concerning the origin and history of the play to date. The idea was brought to me seven years ago by Freddie Brisson, who is, as you know, producing it. (Actually, we are co-producers but I don't wish to be so-billed.) André and I began working on it roughly a year ago May. It began as a possible venture for Roz. Sometime around late March or early April it became patently clear to André and me that it was not developing into a Roz Russell vehicle. I had a meeting with Freddie and told him. He was most understanding, but suggested withholding the final decision till the play was finished. By June André's and my feeling had hardened into a firm conviction that it never would be or could be a part for Roz and at a meeting with Freddie suggested we begin looking elsewhere. I returned to Long Island to continue work and André and I made a date to meet in London in September, where he would be conducting, to complete the score.

I did not tell Freddie or anyone outside of your intimate circle that I was sending you the script nor shall I until after I have seen you on the coast. I'm sorry that has been delayed a few days. (I have a house here I'm trying to sell that is all entangled in French black tape — red is out this season.) I will be back in New York on Friday and I will call you the instant I set foot in the New World. If you can see me, I'll come right to the coast or anywhere you are.

Please give my love to Gar[son Kanin], Ruth [Gordon] and George [Cukor] and I hope and pray I will soon know you well enough to send you the same and not have to remain

Only sincerely yours,

Alan 

(from left to right) Kate Hepburn in Coco, the real Coco, and Roz Russell in the 1956 Broadway production of Auntie Mame.

__________

Coco wouldn't go into rehearsal until October 1969. After Hepburn had been cast —the announcement to the press was made in mid-December 1967— the next two years she would often clash with Lerner about the show. Eventually, however, the two became good friends and as a personal favour to Lerner Hepburn, quite reluctantly, allowed a segment of Coco to be recorded for broadcast on television at the 1970 Tony Awards. This 15-minute segment is the only known surviving footage of the original Coco production and shows the exhilarating finale where Hepburn performs the song Always Mademoiselle (an emotional and very memorable performance, even though Hepburn speaks rather than sings the lyrics). Here it is:


Concluding this post, I will leave you with a sweet note from Alan Jay Lerner to Katharine Hepburn, written after recording the above segment for television (broadcast on Sunday 19 April 1970). 

Dearest Kate:

You were absolutely marvelous today.
I thought so, the director thought so, the producer, everyone.
I know you hated doing it, but Sunday night will present the first good reason they invented the goddamn medium at all.
Thank you for doing it. I've had intestinal spasms ever since I asked you. 
But you were simply wonderful.
Always, 
Alan

 

Source of all correspondence: Alan Jay Lerner: A Lyricist's Letters (2014), edited by Dominic McHugh.

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