Coco Chanel: The Musical!


So…it’s been about fifty years, far too many gin and tonics and a couple of frayed hems later but now it’s time for a retrospective review of a true rhinestone in the rough! CoCo the Musical!

It is almost impossible to comprehend how a moment in theatrical history that billed the all-hallowed names of Hepburn, Beaton and Chanel, written by Alan Jay Lerner and Andre Previn (the masterminds behind My Fair Lady both on stage and film) is a relative unknown amongst the more celebrated of musicals of today? How on earth; I hear you cry, can a musical carrying the names of some of the most celebrated, adored, written about and referenced people of the 20th Century have been almost forgotten! It certainly is a mystery; so let’s take a few moments to bask in the Bouclé clad delight that was CoCo!

CoCo, was the short-lived, but immortally fabulous, musical biography of Coco Chanel. Starring Katherine Hepburn in the title role- dressed, bedecked and framed with Chanel inspired costumes and sets by Cecil Beaton. Now existing only as a wonderful anomaly, hovering in indexes of biographies and dusty PlayBill archives; CoCo is a gilded, glittering curiosity lost in show biz antiquity, residing in demi obscurity!

Now there’s no delicate way of putting it- but Katherine Hepburn could not sing a crows note and she knew it, reputably laughing at the idea of appearing in a musical

It may or may not come as much of a surprise, dependant on where you sit politically, that Katherine Hepburn was not the original choice to play Coco, neither would you necessarily place her (Hepburn) in the challenge of playing (and let’s not forget) singing the life of Coco Chanel. A woman whose personal repertoire of precise and particular voice, turns of phrase, mannerism, and visual style might seem altogether as hard to replicate as that very exact shade of red that is Rouge Noir! It seems that producer Frederick Brisson also had other casting ideas having originally offered the role to his wife Rosalind Russell; (but as our dashing editor said over an Aperol Spritz “Wasn’t every role offered to Rosalind first!”). Sadly, Russell was unable to take up this role of a lifetime due to her failing health.

So it fell to Hepburn to heroically take on this musical Everest! Now there’s no delicate way of putting it- but Katherine Hepburn could not sing a crows note and she knew it, reputably laughing at the idea of appearing in a musical. But after some tentative initial voice training with a former MGM vocal coach and an audience with Mademoiselle Chanel herself, she was persuaded to take the role! And thank heavens she did! Because in spite of the immense challenges that CoCo presented her, Hepburn’s performance is animated, captivating and brave! This brightly burning portrayal is built on a raspy, heavily pronounced intonation and a staunch physicality. Creating an interpretation of Chanel that is really rather breath-taking and affecting. Considering that Chanel smoked rather more than ‘one a day’ the slightly shaky almost spoken vocals add to the believability of the Hepburn’s portrayal of the ageing Chanel, almost as if Coco was irritably singing to herself whilst pinning one of her signature silver chains into the hem of a little black jacket, Gauloise precariously dangling from her mouth. Perhaps more controversial than Hepburn’s lack of actual singing, is the fact she played Chanel with a drawly drawn out English accent, which again, on paper, sounds rather surprisingly unexpected but by the magic that is musical theatre seems exactly as it should be.

Finding a definitive synopsis of CoCo is a challenge as versions, both officially released and otherwise, seem to vary, although all share a delightfully gossipy tone, rather adding to the mystic of the piece. However, what is certain is that the plot, for the most part, was `shall we say highly fictionalised, in the way that possibly only the life of Chanel can be. With of course Chanel herself being the greatest peddler of this mythical life; it’s perhaps not surprising she had a strong Vedura encrusted hand in the initial development of the musical. But perhaps less surprising is that she was apparently horrified when original plans for the script, that was to cover her early career, were amended to focus on her years of retirement and subsequent rocky return to fashion. This was in order to make the role more age appropriate for the 62 year old Katherine Hepburn. One can only imagine the rage that this change would have conjured in Chanel, being someone as fiercely controlling of her own historical fable as she was, certainly within her lifetime anyway!

Although much of the musical’s narrative was not based on fact, including, a central relationship with a young protégée who Coco has come to think of as a surrogate daughter, as well as other imagined nuances. The narrative does draw upon Chanel’s real life Norma Desmond-like ‘return’ to the fashion industry as the musical’s central motif. Within this there are smatterings of wider themes we may associate with the life of this couture sorceress; especially, the abandonment she felt at the hand of the men in her life starting with her father, her escape from the shackles of male dominated society through her entrepreneurial prowess, her ferocious independence, and belief in her creative vision of what a modern woman wanted to wear.

Quite understandably, some may argue essentially, considering its subject matter, star and designer – CoCo was the most expensive musical ever at the time of its creation. With rotating sets, travelator- like runways, and of course an endless parade of costumes, somewhere in excess of 250! Beaton’s limitless vision does not disappoint! From stills and the little footage that exists today, it’s clear that CoCo was truly a thing of grandeur and beauty, fitting of its name sake and its star. Beaton’s illustrations which can be found lining the sleeve of the cast recording as well as the wonderfully brief yet evocative signature logo for the musical itself are also equally stunning.

Billed as a musical comedy, not necessarily the format one would use to tell the Chanel story, the songs of CoCo are nonetheless witty and irreverent. One particular favourite is The World Belongs To The Young, in which Coco discusses coming out of retirement and taking on the youth-obsessed world as an older woman, wonderfully relevant don’t you think?. Another, The Money Rings Out Like Freedom is a well-aimed comment on female emancipation “every franc in the bank is freedom” it also imagines how some of Chanel’s design signatures may have come about including the adoption of men’s trousers and the little black dress; all this to the sound of a military like drum.

The standout song, however, has to be the truly spectacular Always mademoiselle! This show stopper is brilliant and layered, seeming to perfectly embody and underline the whole magic of the show, seeming to be its unofficial signature. Despite so much of CoCo’s narrative elements relying on fantasy and make-believe wishful thinking this song seems to hauntingly echo the very real truths of Chanel’s life. A life of undeniable success and wealth, but often underpinned with sacrifice and loneliness.

Always Mademoiselle features in the only known surviving footage of the original production a performance at the 1970 Tony awards. This 15minute clip offers a most treasured opportunity to see the larger than life set and star in all their glory. The scene opens in the salon on the Rue Cambon, with of course glittering mirrored staircase appearing stage left. The salon is a hive of activity, all bouffant hair and gold chains, Chanel having regained success after her initially rocky return from retirement. As the scene unfolds we understand that Coco has formed an attachment to a young model who she has begun to think of as younger version of herself. But alas this young protégée has other ideas on what she wants her life to be and a tiff over whether or not the young girl should marry triggers Hepburn’s magnificent performance of Always of Mademoiselle.

As monumental as this rendition is, it is really rather difficult to accurately describe as so much comes from Hepburn’s animated facial expressions and delivery. She states, in anger, that she is happy she has never had children and thanks the lord that “the only thing I have been pregnant with is dresses” and is therefore always been “safe from all the dangers of devotion” by remaining “always Mademoiselle”. Hepburn’s expressive intonation and vigour are in full swing, bursting with emotion and a petulant ferocity! But then, the lights dim and we see Coco retreat it’s just her and a spotlight, the salon disappearing into shadow – the tone changes. Now her anger turns melancholic and introverted. Condemning the choices she has made to serve her career; through the third person she sarcastically bemoans “Clever mademoiselle, brilliant mademoiselle, everything that mattered she scattered away”. And then Hepburn delivers what you think to be the last resounding line with “Wondering why in hell she stayed always Mademoiselle”. Coco hangs her head and one feels as if the audience may be the last to witness the defiant grandness of it all.

It is at this point when you think “Oh my goodness, could this be it!?” But no… out of the darkness in a true genre defining moment appears a model, and then another and then another! All wearing Beaton’s Chanel archive-inspired visions; and with this, all appears to be saved! Coco’s expression begins to change and as more models appear we see her undergo a sort of epiphany, seeing all of her life’s work flash before her. We are then witness to Beaton’s creative vision reaching its zenith, as the models make use of the marvellous rotating walk way, the mirrored staircase expanding bearing more models, as if descending from sartorial heaven. Coco walks, circles and weaves around the models as if surveying her creative past, she appears revived by the knowledge that she has created beauty, if not through a family, then through her creativity. “One is as one does, and by God it was, life was as it had to be, it was not that bad to be always Mademioselle, right or wrong I’m glad to be Gabrielle Chanel!” Hepburn almost bellows this last line with such a real feeling of loyalty and devotion, it’s hard not to be enraptured at this moment by her glittering portrait of Chanel.

CoCo officially opened on Broadway 18 December, 1969 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre and ran for 329 performances to tepid reviews, despite it playing to packed out audiences every night. This was followed by a nationwide tour which was also headed up by Hepburn. Chanel actually died the day before the tour began, which must have been really rather difficult and unnerving for Hepburn and the cast.

What adds to the wider spanning intrigue of the piece is that it captures a cultural moment that is often omitted from the glossy coffee table books on movie stars of the early to middling-20th century

The success of CoCo, in terms of sales anyway, it seems was to a large degree down to the enduring star of Katherine Hepburn, as when her contract ended the musical soon followed. But as Max O. Preeo states on this subject in his notes on CoCo, “A Star is a Star…”. It seems now almost – unimaginable considering the late 20th century icon that Chanel became and her role as a forerunner to the globalised celebrity designers of today. That at the time of the musical Chanel’s star seems to have been far out shone by Hepburn’s!

One would imagine that today a “Life of Chanel” musical concept alone would be enough to sustain the success of the piece. Can you just imagine? With perhaps a Lagerfeld collab, a Leibovitz photographed editorial and Vogue cover story for an ex Chanel muse who was looking to add a musical string to her model/actress bow! It would run for a least a decade!

What adds to the wider spanning intrigue of the piece is that it captures a cultural moment that is often omitted from the glossy coffee table books on movie stars of the early to middling-20th century. A moment when the studio system had ceased to exist as it had previously done and the stars that it had created were unsure of what their role was as “Movie Star”: the definition of having greatly changed by this time. Perhaps this is why Katherine Hepburn took the marvellous and yet slightly confused risk of doing CoCo which was her one and only musical. Comparisons may be drawn with the concert tours of other studios starlets at a similar time such Marlene Dietrich; or even Elizabeth Taylor appearing in The Little Foxes a decade later – the fit was always a little off and was always more about the star than the performance; but my goodness what performances they were!

In spite of having only sparkling remnants of the production in the form of stills, the soundtrack and filmed fragments what remains is sufficiently and enticingly evocative. It is perhaps this and CoCo’s short lived moment in the spotlight that makes it that much more intriguing! The idea of this immensely influential creative team putting together this grand spectacular and for it then to almost disappear in a cloud of Chanel No5; gives it a truly delicious mythical quality, not unlike that of Chanel’s life story, both fictional and factual. And despite two small revivals this mythical musical theatre gem has been relatively untouched, a theatrical Princess Aurora awaiting her production budget Prince Charming! Is a full scale revival even possible without Beaton, Hepburn and the rest of this 20th Century Glamour Gang? I can’t say it wouldn’t be a challenge but then wasn’t the original? What is for sure is that this glittering delight will remain always dazzling, always fascinating, Always mademoiselle CoCo!

By Louis Romanus, completed at the Villa Charlotte Cannes.

All images are taken from the program of the Broadway production

Originally published on Lujon Issue 2