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Reviving (at least) Memories of a Forgotten Musical: The Girl Who Came to Supper

by John Aquino on 05/04/19

I posted an article on this blog some time back about Irving Berlin's last musical Mr. President, which had debuted at the National Theatre in Washington D.C. in 1962 with President and Mrs. Kennedy in attendance but ultimately failed on Broadway. The Washington Post rejected the article saying the event was too long ago, even though the article was submitted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the D.C. premiere. It was also a chapter of a planned book on unsuccessful musicals by Broadway greats. Another chapter of this unfinished project is on Noel Coward's The Girl Who Came to Supper, which premiered on Broadway on December 9, 1963. I thought of it when I found that someone had placed the entire original cast album on youtube at . I thought I'd share some of the article with you, especially since you can sample the score yourself.

It was a troubled show. There were cast problems, and then when the show was in Philadelphia soon before its Broadway opening President Kennedy was assassinated. The show was set in 1911 London during the coronation of George V, and, because it mentioned the assassinations of monarchs that were occurring throughout Europe in the early 20th century, especially in its opening number titled "Long Live the King (If He Can)", the show' beginning was hastily reworked before Supper opened on Broadway..(The replacement opening number on the original cast album was cobbled together from an old Coward song.) Even with these revisions, this tuneful operetta about a time a half a century before seemed out of place in a nation deep in mourning and closed after 112 performances. The book and lyrics were nominated for a Tony Award but didn't win. I have always thought it was deserving of a revival.

Noel Coward was once a household name epitomizing sophistication and wit. He was a composer, lyricist, playwright, author, actor and a director. His operettas and musicals, which include Bitter Sweet and Operette, are seldom revived today. Some of his plays--Private Lives and Present Laughter--have been performed on Broadway recently and are frequently done on college campuses and by regional and community theatres. Some of his songs might be remembered--perhaps "I'll See You Again" and "Mad Dogs and Englishmen." By the mid-1950s, Coward was himself feeling a little out-of-step, and so he took a one-man cabaret show to Las Vegas, to great acclaim. After his 1961 musical Sail Away had been a modest success (thanks in part to Elaine Stritch), he was approached to write the songs for a musical version of Terrence Rattigan's play The Sleeping Prince. Harry Kurnitz wrote the libretto. 

You might know the plot of The Sleeping Prince if you've seen the 1957 movie version, The Prince and the Showgirl starring Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier (the filming of which was the subject of the 2011 film My Weekend with Marilyn). The plot of the play, the 1957 film, and the musical are the same: While in London for the coronation, the Archduke Charles, Prince Regent of Carpathia, attends a musical titled "The Coconut Girl" and is smitten by Mary Morgan, a member of the chorus. She accepts his invitation for a tryst, but her assertiveness and naivety prolong her visit. They fall in love, but royal duty stands in the way.

In his diary, Coward described a troubled production. Florence Henderson, who had created the title role in the 1954 musical Fanny and starred in some revivals, was looking at the role of Mary as one all her own. She then announced that she was pregnant and would only be with the show for a few months. Jose Ferrer, who played Charles, had won the 1950 best actor Oscar for Cyrano de Bergerac and had sung in the 1954 movie musical biography of the composer Sigmund Romberg, Deep in my Heart. He possessed a pleasant voice but had never performed in a Broadway musical. Coward wrote in his diary about Ferrer that "those evil fairies at his Puerto Rican christening bestowed on him short legs, a too large nose, small eyes, a toneless singing voice and a defective sense of timing." My Mom and I saw Jose Ferrer two years later in the national tour of Man of La Mancha at the National.Theatre, which required even more of him than The Girl Who Came to Supper. He was no Richard Kiley, the incredible baritone who originated the role and immortalized "The Impossible Dream." I remember reading an interview with the great movie baritone Howard Keel who lamented that he had lost the touring company role to Ferrer. "I think Jose conned them with his Spanish 's'," Keel said. Still, Supper had opened to good reviews out of town.

For his part, Coward wrote a glittering score in an incredible variety of styles. There is a Carpathian national anthem; a complete score for "The Coconut Girl," for which Mary sings all the parts for the young prince; and the "Coronation Chorale" where the royals bemoan the boredom of attending coronations ("With stays too tight/We sit bolt upright/In a rigidly unyielding pew./Even British oak/Goes beyond a joke/When you've sat on it from nine til two") while Mary, who has been allowed to attend and, of course, has never seen anything like it, finds it "wonderful" and "entrancing," with the two contrasting viewpoints ultimately sung in counterpoint. For the subplot of the young prince roaming through the outskirts of London, Coward wrote a series of five music-hall-type songs for Tessie O'Shea as Ada, who won the Tony Award for featured actress in a musical, including "Saturday Night at the Rose and Crown," which goes,

Saturday Night at the Rose and Crown
Is just the place to be,
Tinkers and Tailors,
And Soldiers and Sailors,
All out for a bit of a spree,
If you find that you're weary of life
With your trouble and strife,
And the kids have got you down,
It will all turn right
On Saturday night
At the Rose and Crown.

As the punctuation suggests, it's sung, with a little cheating, in one breath.

Ferrer, even with his "toneless" voice, had a show-stopping number, with dizzying shifts of styles, titled, "Middle Age," which begins,

How do you do, middle age?
How do you do, middle, age?
Autumn winds begin to blow
And so 
I'd better unbend my mind to you,
You know,
I'm not quite yet resigned to you.

And the show ends quietly, as does the movie and film, with Mary deciding she can't stay with Charles as he wishes. Charles sings to himself but she can hear him,

I'll remember her
In the evening when I'm lonely
And imagining if only
She were there.
I'll relive, oh so vividly,
A sad and sweet
Incomplete affair.

And it ends, 

I'll remember her,
When we parted
With her eyes so full of tears 
She couldn't see.
And I'll feel inside
A foolish sort of pride
To know that she'll remember me.

It's a beautiful score. Coward gave it his all. It was his last musical, and he spent the remaining 10 years of his life acting in mostly forgettable movies, with the possible exception of the original The Italian Job (1969). I hope you enjoy what you hear. I hope someone revives it some day.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

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