Andre Previn wanted Claudette Colbert; Alan Lerner wanted Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn won. Quite why a guy who always thought of himself as a dramatic lyricist should have wanted to write songs for a non-singing actress is not entirely clear. Maybe his precious experiences with a pure singer such as Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady and Camelot – where her lack of acting ability irked him – got in the way. Neither man has left too much evidence for what happened in their memoirs – “No Minor Chords” for Previn and “The Street Where I live” for Lerner, although it seems that the latter had a long-standing desire to work with her.
Despite the fact that it was comparatively successful, it really is a lost musical and thus very appropriate for Ian Marshall Fisher’s project. To fill the giant-sized shoes of Katharine Hepburn, he managed to obtain the services of Sara Kestelman. She seemed a little under-rehearsed, under-committed to the production at first, the timing of the witticisms and put-downs was just a little awry but her voice, if not as rasping as Hepburn’s, was equally authoritative. Something happened as the show continued and the performance became real. She showed a touching depth and vulnerability in the character which culminated in a massive star vehicle number “Always Mademoiselle”. The mind boggles as to how Hepburn would have played it – has her performance been captured anywhere?
The score was functional for the most part. Previn has never been a consistently great tunesmith but at times – as in “I Like Myself” from “It’s Always Fair Weather” or “The Pleasure of Your Company” from “Good Companions” – he can write a catchy melody. He always worked with the best collaborators too. At times, the score of “Coco” bloomed. “Let’s Go Home” was a lyrical highpoint but the score reached a peak of grace and charm with a pair of waltzes – “Gabrielle” sung by her father a week before her First Communion, and “Coco”, her signature number, in which Sara Kestelman was richly supported by Chris Walker on the battered Sadler’s Wells upright.
In a lot of the numbers, it felt that Lerner was trying a little too hard to be brittle and witty. At times, the script also felt over-contrived – some epigrams were just puzzling (”every silver lining comes in a cloud”). But it was a surprisingly fluid book, interweaving flashbacks and memories into a story of getting ready for one more fashion show. The device of having a young girl seeming to echo the start of Coco’s own career gave an armature for the reminiscences of her past. It meant that we did not just get an episodic account of her life, year-by-year or escapade by escapade.
The cast was enriched by the presence of another RSC veteran, Edward Petherbridge, in the role of her lawyer-cum man of business. He seemed very aged but his timing and performance were exemplary. Perhaps the interactions with him drew out the performance that Kestelman eventually gave. Myra Sands as her secretary was the only regular cast member of the Lost Musicals in this show.