Welcome to another Musical Theatre Monday and the continuation of our last original weekly series, in which I’m highlighting some of the final scores that I feel must be featured here before the year concludes. Today…
II. Bitter Sweet (07/18/29 – 05/09/31)
This is the first time a Noël Coward musical is being highlighted on this blog — and I’m very glad our introduction to him is Bitter Sweet, for which Coward not only contributed the music and lyrics, but the book as well. The premise concerns a Marchioness who aids a young woman torn between two men (love vs. security) by recounting the story of her own youth, when she rejected wealth in favor of romance with a young songwriter — a relationship that ended in tragedy. Considered an operetta, Coward’s score was too ambitious and demanding for Gertrude Lawrence, whom Coward had originally envisioned in the leading role. His next choice was musical comedy star Evelyn Laye, but she turned down the part due to disdain for producer Charles B. Cochran, who had just produced the show (This Year Of Grace) in which Laye’s husband Sonny Hale had a very public dalliance with co-star Jessie Matthews, leading to a wave of bad press. Coward eventually settled on Peggy Wood as the future Marchioness and George Metaxa as her young songwriting beau. Alan Napier played the Marquis and Ivy. St. Helier was the songwriter’s ex-girlfriend. (Read a typescript of the libretto here, courtesy of the NYPL.)
Bitter Sweet was a huge success and Cochran hastily decided to mount a Broadway production. Realizing that she’d passed up a good project (and knowing that the public scandal would be virtually unknown in America), Laye agreed to take the lead in the new production, which ran concurrently with the London presentation but ended up closing after a few months. Laye returned back to England and succeeded Wood in the original production, which closed in 1931. Bitter Sweet was revived on Broadway in 1934 and adapted to film twice, once in 1933 and again in 1940. Neither featured the score in full, but the latter altered the story considerably, leaving a sour taste in Coward’s mouth regarding future film adaptations of his work. But given the strength of the material, revivals of Bitter Sweet have been consistent, and a 1988 London revival recording does offer listeners the chance to hear the score in full. As mentioned above, you’ll find that it’s an ambitious piece, as Coward reconciles the ghosts of operetta with the modern jazzier sounds of the new 21st century. As with another masterwork, Show Boat (1927), the evolution of popular music is a subliminal part of the narrative. No tune best illustrates this than the Marchioness’ opening wowzer, set in the present, entitled “The Call Of Life,” heard above by Original Broadway cast member Evelyn Laye.
But this particular score features several Coward standards: songs that I would categorize as seminal in both a survey of his work and a survey of musical theatre in this era. Some of the most recognizable include “I’ll See You Again,” performed above by Laye, and “Dear Little Cafe,” a duet performed below by Original London cast members Wood and Metaxa.
Like Porter, Coward was also known for his wit — nowhere more evident than in songs like “Zigeuner,” sung by the composer himself!
But I think no song in Bitter Sweet has the simple potency of “If Love Were All,” a number for the songwriter’s chanteuse ex-girlfriend. It was a regular staple of Judy Garland’s act (and many of her renditions are not to be missed), and a great anthem for performers, in general. Here’s the recording by the original interpreter, Ivy St. Helier.
And I want to close today’s post with a treat — the opportunity to see over 49 minutes of silent footage from the original 1929 London production here.
*All of the shows in this series are Musical Theatre Monday Essentials. Here’s the updated list!
Come back next Monday for another forgotten musical! Tune in tomorrow for my picks of the best episodes from the first season of Married… With Children!