Bitter Sweet is an operetta in three acts written by Noël Coward. The story, set in 19th century and early 20th century England and Austria-Hungary, centres on a young woman's elopement with her music teacher. Her half-century story of suffering for love focuses on irony instead of sentiment. Of the songs in the show, the best known by far is "I'll See You Again". Another popular song is "If Love Were All".
The piece was first produced in 1929 at Her Majesty's Theatre in London, running for a very successful 967 performances. There was a brief Broadway production the same year. Short on memorable Cowardian dialogue, Bitter Sweet nonetheless contains some of Coward's best music, and several recordings of the score are available on CD. The piece has been popular with amateur operatic societies, but there have been few major professional revivals. The operetta was filmed twice, in 1933 in black-and-white (in Britain, with Anna Neagle and Fernand Gravet in the leading roles) and in 1940 in Technicolor by MGM, starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. In both cases, the score was heavily cut. Coward disliked the much-rewritten 1940 film and vowed that no more of his plays would be filmed in Hollywood.
- Act I
In 1929, the aged and widowed, but still lively, Marchioness of Shayne is holding a party at her home in London to celebrate the impending society marriage of a young woman who, it turns out, is in love with another man, a poor musician ("That Wonderful Melody"). The young woman is torn between love and fortune, and Lady Shane is reminded of her own youth ("The Call of Life").
Nearly 55 years earlier, in 1875, Lady Shane is the young Sarah Millick, a wealthy London girl, who is having a singing lesson with her dashing music teacher, Carl Linden. The spirited Sarah is engaged to Lord Hugh, a wealthy but rigid young nobleman, but she and her music teacher have fallen in love ("If You Could Only Come With Me"). Carl is a man of integrity and does not want to ruin Sarah's young dreams. He plans to return to his native Austria late that night but vows to think of Sarah each Spring ("I'll See You Again"). At the pre-wedding party, Sarah realises that her life with Lord Hugh would be very unhappy indeed ("What Is Love"). Carl is entertaining at the party ("The Last Dance"), and when she sees the depth of his love for her, she agrees to run away with him to Vienna.
- Act II
Five years later, in Vienna, Carl is a bandleader, and Sarah (now called Sari), sings his songs, but she is unhappy with their new employment at Schlick's Café, a racy establishment where she is expected to dance with the patrons, and perhaps more ("Ladies of the Town"). Carl's earlier love, Manon, is another entertainer at the cafe, who has mixed feelings about Sarah ("If Love Were All"). Sarah begs Carl to quit the cafe and take them to a safer place ("Evermore and a Day"; "Dear Little Café"). He agrees, but that night is busy at the cafe ("Tokay"). Manon sings "Bonne Nuit, Merci". Sarah is asked to dance with an army captain who handles her boldly and steals a kiss on the dance floor ("Kiss Me"). Carl is enraged and strikes the military man. The captain challenges Carl to a duel and easily kills the musician with his sword.
- Act III
Thirteen years pass, and it is the Gay Nineties ("Ta Ra Ra Boom"; "Green Carnation"). Sarah has become world-famous as an interpreter of Carl's song ("Alas! The Time is Past"). She returns to London, pursued by the amiable Marquis of Shayne, who is struck by her talent and sadness; he is sure that he can restore her youthful spirit. She sees her old London friends after nearly 20 years and entertains them with Carl's music ("Zigeuner"). Lord Shayne has proposed to her in every capital in Europe and now, home in London, he tells her that he accepts the fact that her love for Carl has never died. He begs her to let him make her happy again. She reluctantly accepts his proposal; she sings to Carl, "I shall love you till I die – good bye" ("I'll See You Again" (reprise)).
Although popular with amateur operatic societies, Bitter Sweet has had relatively few professional productions. The original production in 1929 at Her Majesty's Theatre in London starred Peggy Wood as Sarah, with Georges Metaxa as Carl. Ivy St. Helier played Manon, and the role of the aged Marquis of Shayne was played by the 26-year-old Alan Napier, later to gain fame as Batman's butler, Alfred, in the 1960s (both repeated their roles in the 1933 film). Evelyn Laye had been the first choice to play Sarah, but turned it down as she was annoyed with the producer, C. B. Cochran, who she felt had caused her marriage to actor Sonnie Hale to fail by putting him in a show opposite Jessie Matthews, with whom he had an affair. Laye soon played the part on Broadway, however, later in 1929, alongside Gerald Nodin as Carl and Desmond Jeans as Captain Lutte. This production lasted for 159 performances. A brief Broadway revival played in 1934, starring Evelyn Herbert and Allan Jones.
An abridged studio recording was made in 1961, featuring Adele Leigh, James Pease and Susan Hampshire. A revival at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter, in the early 1980s with Jan Hartley-Morris as Sarah led to a large-scale revival in London which also toured the provinces in 1988. This New Sadler's Wells Opera production by Ian Judge used a revised orchestration by Michael Reed, and was recorded complete (although without dialogue) by TER (That's Entertainment Records). On stage, Valerie Masterson and Ann Mackay alternated in the major leading part of Sarah, with Martin Smith as Carl and Rosemary Ashe as Manon. Valerie Masterson was chosen to record the role.
The St. Louis Municipal Opera ("the Muny") presented numerous productions of Bitter Sweet between 1933 and 1953 as well as one in 1974. The Long Beach Civic Light Opera in Southern California staged a celebrated production of Bitter Sweet in 1983 starring Shirley Jones as Sarah/Sari/Marchioness, and the Ohio Light Opera produced Bitter Sweet in 1993 and 1998.
- Tara-ra boom-de-ay (by Henry J. Sayers) – Wealthy and noble couples of London
- Alas! The Time is Past – The Duchess of Tenterton, Lady James, Mrs. Proutie, Lady Sorrel, Mrs. Vale and Mrs. Bethel
- We All Wear a Green Carnation – Bertram Sellick, Lord Henry Jade, Vernon Craft and Cedrick Ballantyne
- Zigeuner – Sari
- I'll See You Again (reprise) – Sari
The Noël Coward Society's website, drawing on performing statistics from the publishers and the Performing Right Society, ranks "I'll See You Again" and "If Love Were All" as among Coward's ten most popular songs. "Dear Little Café" is among the top twenty.
- Dugan, Eleanor Knowles, John Cocchi and J. Peter Bergman. The Films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, pp. 399–400, Grand Cyrus Press (2011) ISBN 0979099455
- Wright, Adrian. Bitter Sweet, Record Cabinet, accessed 13 May 2012
- "Appendix 3 (The Relative Popularity of Coward's Works)", Noël Coward Music Index, accessed 9 March 2009
Eames, John Douglas. The MGM Story: The Complete History of Fifty Roaring Years
- Bitter Sweet (1940 film) at Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy: A Tribute
- Bitter Sweet at the Internet Broadway Database