Musical of the Month
The Echo of a Sigh: Noël Coward's "Bitter Sweet"
A Guest Post By Brad Rosenstein
Bitter Sweet, an operetta that features wall-to-wall music, ironically began its life as a silent film scenario. Noël Coward’s tremendous theatrical successes of the 1920s were a lure to movie producers, and no fewer than three of his plays were translated into films in 1927 alone. But given that it was still the era of silent movies, all three adaptations unsurprisingly flopped, bereft of Coward’s scintillating comic dialogue.
Producer Michael Balcon, who had undertaken all three of the films, then suggested to Coward that he try his hand at writing a scenario specifically constructed for the silent screen. Coward responded with Concerto, and although Balcon liked the story, he felt that Coward’s romantic tale of musicians “cried out for music,” and so still failed to solve the problem. Noël wisely returned his fee to Balcon, thereby retaining rights to the basic story that would eventually become Bitter Sweet.
Previously Coward had discussed with Gladys Calthrop, his lifelong friend and longtime theatrical designer, the vague possibility of his writing a romantic operetta. They were both entranced by the idea of her designing “uniforms, bustles, chandeliers and gas-lit cafes,” but the idea was abstract until a friend played them a new recording of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. The music clicked, and Coward and Calthrop were barely out the door before they began outlining the specific shape of Bitter Sweet.
By the end of the 1920s, Coward seemed to many to be the embodiment of the Jazz Age, with his irreverent comedies like Hay Fever, daring contemporary dramas like The Vortex, and his witty satirical songs that were featured in hit revues. So it came as a surprise that this Bright Young Thing should choose to close out the decade by writing an über-romantic operetta in the style of Strauss and Lehár. But in the peak years of his career Coward had an uncanny ability to remain just ahead of the curve, predicting what audiences might want next before they themselves knew. By the end of the Twenties Noël himself was beginning to grow weary of the speed and cynicism that informed the era, and found he was yearning to tell a sincerely romantic story in the spirit of an earlier time.
For all of his up-to-the-minute sophistication, Coward had been born in the final weeks of 1899, and always felt he had one foot firmly planted in the previous century. Music had played a huge role in his family life, and music was his most potent link to the years of his Edwardian childhood (and, stretching further back, to his parents’ Victorian generation). Music is both the medium and the message in Bitter Sweet: the native language of its passionate musician characters and Coward’s graceful means of instantly bridging time across the 55-year span of his story.
Bitter Sweet is in fact about time, about the phases of a woman’s life measured out in music. Originally titled Sari Linden after its main character’s married name (Coward’s friend Alfred Lunt suggested the ultimate title), Bitter Sweet charts the transformation of Sarah Millick to Sari Linden to Lady Shayne across its three acts as a woman’s voyage from youth to experience to maturity. Music is so central to her journey Coward even built it into one of his great theatrical coups. At the start of the first act, the septuagenarian Lady Shayne sings to a group of young guests in 1929 that they, like she as a young girl, must answer to “The Call of Life.” In Coward’s original production (and in his libretto), during the last verse of the song, the lights faded to black, Lady Shayne continued to sing in the darkness, her voice growing ever younger, and the lights came up moments later on the same performer now transformed into her 16 year-old self, triumphantly finishing the song in 1875.
“I’ll See You Again,” the classic waltz that remains one of Coward’s most enduring songs (and which he famously wrote while stuck in a New York traffic jam), is not just a charming love duet uniting the young Sarah and her future husband Carl. Its yearning melody says much more than their constrained words can ever say, and it will reappear throughout the show, connecting the lovers even beyond death, later reconciling Sarah/Sari with long-lost friends at the dawn of her new life as Lady Shayne, and finally coming full circle to connect her with her young guests in 1929, who transform her song into their own jazzy foxtrot and Charleston out into the night.
Throughout, the music is both the substance and the spur to past memory and present action, connecting there and then to here and now. Ultimately, the story and score weave a complex web of associations about the cyclical nature of time and lived experience, connecting generations in the repetitive patterns it reveals. Coward’s audiences in 1929 proved as eager to take that sentimental journey as he was, and Bitter Sweet was an enormous hit in both London and New York. During the run, the stock market crashed, ending the decade with a decisive bang and further underscoring a pervasive yearning for the imagined security of a less ironic time.
The production itself, however, was marked by its own ironies. While the idea for the show had originally been sparked by Gladys Calthrop’s keen desire to design the demimonde of Old Vienna, producer Charles B. Cochran steadfastly refused to let a nice English girl soil her hands on such a sordid locale. The set and costumes for the Viennese café scenes of Act II were designed by Ernst Stern, while Calthrop had to content herself with the English drawing rooms and ballrooms of Acts I and III. She had a field day designing the dozens of beautiful gowns Noël sent swirling in his highly fluid staging of Bitter Sweet, and her sumptuous sets and costumes would come to define an era of luxurious theatrical elegance, one which would soon become impossible to replicate as the Great Depression began to be felt around the globe.
“I think of all the shows I have ever done Bitter Sweet gave me the greatest personal pleasure,” Coward later commented. It was the most glorious score he would ever write, and he himself admitted he was never quite able to match it. He never stopped trying, however, and made a number of other attempts at the operetta form, from Conversation Piece (1934) and Operette (1938) to Pacific 1860 (1946) and After the Ball (1954), and there are even echoes of Bitter Sweet in Coward’s final musical, The Girl Who Came to Supper (1963).
Coward thought that the success of Bitter Sweet would be long-lasting enough to provide an annuity in his old age, but he was disappointed in the British film version of 1933, and devastated by the MGM remake in 1940 starring Jeannette McDonald and Nelson Eddy. He is rumored to have cried when he saw it in a private screening room in Hollywood, and thought it permanently damaged the reputation of one of his most highly prized properties. Unfortunately Coward did not live to see a first-rate revival of the show mounted by Sadler’s Wells in 1988, with Valerie Masterson as Sarah, the source of a superb and complete recording of the score.
In keeping with the circular nature of life that it celebrates, Bitter Sweet’s music has continued to delight and touch new generations, with several of its songs becoming personal touchstones for Coward. Of “I’ll See You Again” he wrote, “Brass bands have blared it, string orchestras have swooned it. Palm Court quartets have murdered it, barrel organs have ground it out in London squares and swing bands have tortured it beyond recognition…and I am still very fond of it and very proud of it.” The signature line from “If Love Were All” is inscribed on Coward’s memorial stone in Westminster Abbey, in modest appreciation of The Master’s overwhelming gifts: “A talent to amuse.”
[This post is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license by Brad Rosenstein]
Brad Rosenstein is an independent curator and speaker. His acclaimed exhibition Star Quality: The World of Noël Coward is currently on view at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. The show has previously been mounted in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and in New York is the centerpiece of a five-month Noël Coward Festival. For ten years he served as the Curator of Exhibitions and Programs at the Museum of Performance & Design in San Francisco, where he organized some of the museum’s most popular shows, including Hirschfeld: A Centennial Celebration, Madame Butterfly: From Puccini to Miss Saigon, and More Life! Angels in America at Twenty. His recent speaking engagements include The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (New York) and moderating artist conversations with San Francisco Performances.