10:53 am Sep. 9, 2010
When it opened in 1969, Coco was the most expensive show in Broadway history. Costing $900,000—a jaw-dropping figure at the time—this musical based on the life of Coco Chanel was the talk of the town for its extravagant sets and lavish finale featuring spinning mirrors, flashing lights, and a fashion show of dozens of Cecil Beaton’s versions of Chanel’s iconic designs. Most of the buzz was about the show’s high-wattage star, Katharine Hepburn.
Not that the talk was all positive. Insiders gossiped that the mechanical sets frequently malfunctioned, the finale was garish and excessive, and the star peppered her portrayal of the famously demure designer with ad-libbed profanities. The show limped along until Hepburn’s departure, when it closed before recouping any of its initial investment. It’s one of Broadway’s legendary misfires.
Except for theater queens who mimicked Hepburn’s croaking delivery of the title song, few people have ever talked about the score by Alan Jay Lerner and André Previn. But James Morgan, artistic director of the York Theatre Company, thinks the show includes a few great songs that were obscured by the original production.
“There are some wonderful things in the score,” Morgan said in an interview with Capital. “As with many of the shows from this period, divesting them of big, overblown production can make a major, major difference.”
The York is home to Musicals in Mufti, a series dedicated to reviving forgotten musicals in bare-bones productions. Every season the series revives shows that, for one reason or another, have fallen into obscurity. Besides Coco, which opens September 10 for a three-day run, this season’s lineup includes the dimly remembered I Remember Mama (by Richard Rogers without Hammerstein or Hart), I Love My Wife (by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart), and The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd (by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley).
Musicals in Mufti debuted in 1994, the same year the Encores! series was unveiled at City Center. The two are often mentioned in the same breath, since they both specialize in dusting off old musicals. But while Encores! seems to have its eye on shows that might warrant full-scale productions (recent revivals of Chicago, Gypsy, and Finian’s Rainbow started here), Mufti often picks shows whose flaws are evident, but are certainly worth a second look.
That’s not to say that Mufti readings never lead to bigger productions. Enter Laughing, first staged here in 2007, led to a successful off-Broadway production. This year it was announced that it’s headed for Broadway.
Sometimes the reason a show has never been revived is immediately clear. With Coco, casting a star who had no singing experience did the original production no favors.
“With all due respect to Miss Hepburn, having someone who can really sing them makes a major difference,” said Morgan. “Is it my favorite score of all time? Probably not. But there is a lot that should be recognized that wasn’t recognized at the time.”
The role will be played this time around by singer Andrea Marcovicci, who made a splash two years ago in a small San Francisco production of Coco. In addition to Marcovicci, the York hired that production’s director and musical director. This was essential, Morgan said, because the entire rehearsal period is five days.
“A show this large would be a daunting thing to do in five days,” said Morgan, “but they already know how to do it.”
The term mufti, which means “in street clothes,” hints at the type of production you should expect. There are not a lot of sets and costumes, and no huge orchestra. The cast is pared down to the bare essentials.
“We don’t have 25 models to parade across the stage in Cecil Beaton versions of Chanel,” Morgan said. “We will artfully suggest that, and you will get a feel for it. The musical staging will be much less involved, and could be a wonderful thing.”
What you get here, Morgan said, is the show written by Lerner and Previn before the designers, directors, and choreographers got their hands on it.
“Alan Jay Lerner was an incredible writer, and even when not at his best he’s better than most of the writers out there,” Morgan said, pointing out that Mufti has previously presented Lerner’s earlier show with Frederick Lowe, The Day Before Spring. “And we had a great success with André Previn’s only other musical, The Good Companions. We wanted to explore something else by him, and see how it played.”
Morgan said he’s interested in how audiences react to the pared-down Coco.“Many of the shows we do have perhaps a questionable reputation,” Morgan said. “You mention that you’re doing them and people say ‘Really?’ Coco could be one of those. But the point is to get rid of everything that isn’t necessary and try to let the piece stand on its own.”
Coco, part of the Musicals in Mufti series, plays September 10, 11, and 12 at the York Theatre Company, 619 Lexington Avenue, at 54th Street. For tickets, call 212-935-5820 or visit the theater's website here.
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