by Noël Coward
|Productions||1964 Broadway |
1964 West End
Martin and Gray adhered closely to Coward's original text, although they expanded the medium's character to make it the star role. The playwright was delighted with their adaptation, then entitled Faster Than Sound, and agreed to direct it himself.
The musical opened on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre on April 7, 1964, and closed on February 27, 1965, after 375 performances and 14 previews. Gower Champion aided Coward in directing the musical.Fred Werner was music director, scenic and costumes design were by Robert Fletcher, lighting design was by Jules Fisher, and Tammy Grimes' costume was by Valentina. The production was nominated for eight Tony Awards, but did not win any. Other major musical nominees that same year (1964) were Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly! and most major Tony wins went to the latter.
Originally, Coward had mentally cast Keith Michell as Charles, Gwen Verdon as Elvira, Celeste Holm as Ruth, and Kay Thompson as Madame Arcati, with Bob Fosse as director. Coward's dream cast failed to materialize, but he continued with the project.
Coward also directed the West End production, which opened in November 1964 at the Savoy Theatre, where it ran for 93 performances. [ A London cast album was released by Pye Records, for whom Coward himself also recorded four numbers from the show: "Something Tells Me", "If I Gave You", "Forever and a Day", and "Home Sweet Heaven". Cicely Courtneidge accepted the role of Madame Arcati. This was an unhappy episode in her career. Coward himself co-directed, and the two clashed constantly in rehearsal. Courtneidge later said, "Everyone does adore him – me included – but he's hell to work with, and I never want to do anything else with him. I'd have to be starving, I really would." After the opening night, Coward wrote in his diary, "Cis also got some well-deserved cracks for vulgarizing Madame Arcati, and serve her bloody well right." The notices for the piece were dreadful, and those for Courtneidge's performance scarcely better: The Guardian wrote of "a woeful excess of underplay", and The Observer commented, "The sight of Cicely Courtneidge hamming it until she drops in purple harem knickers with diamanté cycle clips isn't honestly hilarious enough to carry the evening."
Hampstead Heath, in the north of London, claims as two of its more distinguished residents the best-selling author of mystery novels, Charles Condomine, and his second wife, Ruth. They are preparing to entertain at dinner, and Madame Arcati is expected later to conduct one of her famous séances. After dinner Madame Arcati breezes in on her bicycle, explains the details of the forthcoming séance, and begins the session to communicate with a spirit in the unknown. The spirit is Charles’ late wife, Elvira, whose voice is audible only to Charles. Unexpectedly, Elvira, clad in a greenish cloud-like garment, flies across the room, unseen by the guests. Charles sees Elvira and has a lengthy conversation with her. He even tries to introduce her to Ruth, who is upset, thinking her husband has gone slightly daffy. Ruth storms out of the room, leaving Charles with Elvira. The next morning at breakfast, Ruth feels that Charles’ unusual behavior was due to the effects of alcohol, but when Elvira shoves a bowl of flowers in her face, Ruth believes. Ruth goes to Madame Arcati’s coffee shop, where she is surrounded by her student spiritualists, to plead with her to get rid of Elvira. Madame Arcati has bungled the job; she doesn’t know how to do it. While Ruth and Madame Arcati are having their difficulties, Charles and Elvira reminisce about their marriage. Charles agrees to take Elvira to the Penthouse Club for old times’ sake. She tries to convince Charles to forget everything and follow her, as she describes her astral activities. Excited about the wonderful things that Elvira describes, and encouraged by her, he mounts the parapet, extends his arms in an attempt to fly, and plunges out of sight.
Ruth points out to Charles, who as a result of his plunge has a bandaged head, that Elvira is attempting to kill him off. Elvira tampers with Charles’ car, hoping to kill him when he drives it. Instead Ruth drives it first and is killed. Elvira declares her spiritual return a flop because she hasn’t been successful in bringing Charles to her world. She confesses homesickness and sings about the extraordinary environment of her "Home Sweet Heaven." Charles and Elvira arrive at Madame Arcati’s coffee shop to try to send Elvira back home. To Madame Arcati’s delight, Charles’ consternation and Elvira’s disgust, Ruth suddenly appears, fully materialized. Ruth bemoans the fact that she will have to spend eternity alone with Elvira. By mystical machinations, Elvira places an "extremely long distance call" to Merlin the Magician, somewhere in the great beyond. Merlin immediately dispenses a deadly poison, "instant" hemlock, which is poured into the brandy decanter. Charles and his two ectoplasmic wives try to make the best of an impossible situation. Madame Arcati attempts to untangle the mess. She discovers that Edith, the maid, unknown even to herself, is a natural medium. She dematerializes the two ghostly wives. As the dematerialized spirits romp around the house, playing havoc with the furnishings, Charles and Madame Arcati drink a toast to their success. The poisoned brandy acts quickly with Charles and Madame Arcati joining Elvira and Ruth in the celestial world of the unknown, where they will all fly faster than sound forever.
Original cast and characters
|Character||Broadway (1964)||West End (1964)|
|Madame Arcati||Beatrice Lillie||Cicely Courtneidge|
|Elvira Condomine||Tammy Grimes||Marti Stevens|
|Charles Condomine||Edward Woodward||Dennis Quilley|
|Ruth Condomine||Louise Troy||Jan Waters|
|Edith||Carol Arthur||Denise Coffey|
|Violet Bradman||Margaret Hall||Ann Hamilton|
|Dr. George Bradman||Larry Keith||Peter Vernon|
|Beth||Beth Howland||Peta Pelham|
|Bob||Robert Lenn||Matt Zimmerman|
|Rupert||Gene Castle||Maurice Lane|
Awards and nominations
Original Broadway production
|1964||Tony Award||Best Musical||Nominated|
|Best Author||Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray||Nominated|
|Best Composer and Lyricist||Nominated|
|Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical||Beatrice Lillie||Nominated|
|Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical||Louise Troy||Nominated|
|Best Direction of a Musical||Noël Coward||Nominated|
|Best Choreography||Danny Daniels||Nominated|
|Best Conductor and Musical Director||Fred Werner||Nominated|
- Mordden, Ethan, Open a New Window: The Broadway Musical of the 1960s, Palgrave (2001), pages 38–40 (ISBN 0-312-23952-1) p. 39.
- Payn, Graham. My Life with Noël Coward, Applause Books, 1994. ISBN 1-55783-190-4 p. 174
- "High Spirits - Original Broadway Cast", Castalbums.org
- "London production", musical-theatre.net
- Reissued on LP on DRG SL 5180 in 1978
- Castle, p. 247
- Coward, p. 579
- Nightingale, Benedict. "High Spirits", The Guardian, 21 October 1964, p. 9
- Gilliatt, Penelope. "Back to the big stuff", The Observer, 8 November 1964, p. 25
- "San Fran's 42nd Moon gets into High Spirits, Aug 6". 4 August 1997.
- "2008-09 Season" Archived 2009-01-02 at the Wayback Machine, 42ndstmoon.com
- Playbill 1964 Bio Cast Listaccessed 07/10/2023
- Playbill 1964 Bio Cast Listaccessed 07/10/2023