In the wake of the great Tammy Grimes’ passing, I thought I would review one of her lesser-known, but unjustly overlooked vehicles, the 1964 Broadway cult flop High Spirits. This show, with a score by the great Hugh Martin (of Meet Me In St. Louis fame), was an adaptation of Noel Coward’s classic play Blithe Spirit. While Coward did not adapt the play himself, he liked the adaptation so much that he volunteered to direct the original production.
Indeed, he show had a great deal going for it. The book is quite faithful to Coward’s play, the only major differences being the building-up of comic medium Madame Arcati into a star part and a new ending that, to be honest, is a much funnier punchline to the play than the original ending (Coward’s reaction to the new ending, in fact, was essentially “Now, why didn’t I think of that?”).
The score is almost uniformly outstanding, with the irritating first-act finale “Faster Than Sound” being the only real dud. Hugh Martin was mostly known for the jazzy sounds he brought to shows like Best Foot Forward, but Meet Me In St. Louis showed that he could work equally well in more old-fashioned idioms, and he contributed a silky, sophisticated and very English-sounding score that sounded a great deal like Coward’s own musical compositions, while Timothy Grey’s lyrics are witty enough to match the cleverness of the dialogue.
The only problem with this is that, while the book and score are individually both extremely good, they don’t really fit together very successfully. A few of songs match the play’s tone beautifully, such as the cynically affectionate “I Know Your Heart” or the bickering waltz trio “What In the World Did You Want?”. But songs like the rhapsodic “Forever and a Day” for Charles and Elvira and the ravishing madrigal “If I Gave You” for Charles and Ruth seem wildly out of character not only for the characters singing them, but also for the play itself. Blithe Spirit, after all, for all its sparkle, is a biting, acidic play with no sentimentality or lyricism whatsoever. Trying to write love songs for these essentially loveless relationships just isn’t convincing, no matter how beautiful the songs in question are. This, combined with the uninspired staging by Coward’s co-director, Gower Champion, probably accounts for the show’s commercial failure.
Edward Woodward and Louise Troy as Charles and Ruth gave classy and subtly nuanced performances, but the real stars of the show were Tammy Grimes as Elvira and Beatrice Lillie as Madame Arcati. Grimes gave one of her most alluring performances as the coolly seductive, mercurial ghost, wrapping her smoky, purring mezzo around such juicy items as the irresistibly coquettish “You Better Love Me”, the tender, sensual “Something Tells Me”, and the sparklingly witty list song in the Cole Porter tradition “Home Sweet Heaven”.
And Beatrice Lillie utterly stole the show as the daffy psychic who is responsible for the whole mix-up. Expanding Madame Arcati’s part until it became the starring role may have unwise for certain reasons, since, while she generally steals the show is Coward’s play, too, the play’s story is not really supposed to be about her. But when you had the immortal Beatrice Lillie on hand to play her, I understand why one would make that decision. Lillie was perhaps the most genuinely over-the-top and gloriously insane performer in Broadway history…she made Carol Channing look like Nelson Eddie by comparison…and her songs here are all perfect for her. “The Bicycle Song”, a mundane idea that turned out utterly bizarre in execution, is the direct predecessor to Queen’s “Bicycle Race”, and “Go Into Your Trance”, “Talking To You” (a surreal love song to her Ouiji board), and “Something Is Coming to Tea” are all marvelous showcases for Lillie’s sublimely freakish performing style, even if none of them have much to do with the actual story.
The show wasn’t an outright bomb…it lost money, but the Broadway production ran a respectable 375 performances…but I classify it as a flop because it has pretty much disappeared since. Apart from a London production that same year, which flat-out bombed (partly due to having a much less effective cast, with Cicely Courtneidge as Madame Arcati being particularly weak), the show hasn’t been done in a major venue in over fifty years. Moreover, the play it was based on has essentially gone on without it, remaining extraordinarily popular even as its musical version vanished, which is rarely a sign of success for a musical adaptation.
Nonetheless, the cast album is one of the finest cult flop recordings of the Sixties, and is highly recommended both for the music itself and for how well it preserves Grimes and Lillie’s star turns. Grimes had more high-profiles vehicles than this one (The Unsinkable Molly Brown, 42nd Street), but I can’t think of any of them that suited her talents better than this role, and it remains one of her greatest performances.