Forgotten Musicals Friday: Blithely Broadway with HIGH SPIRITS

Bea Lillie in HIGH SPIRITS, sits on her pink bed with a ouija board.
Bea Lillie in High Spirits on Broadway

This Friday, we’re heading to the legendary Broadway season of 1963-1964. Hello, Dolly! won 10 of the 11 Tony Awards for which it was nominated. They all coloured her Barbra after Funny Girl opened, and even the most-esteemed flop of the season, Anyone Can Whistle, is remembered and beloved by Stephen Sondheim’s cookies, myself included. 110 in the Shade has its rainmakers; She Loves Me has devotees who love it as much as Amalia loves “Vanilla Ice Cream.” The show we’re celebrating as today’s Forgotten Musical opened on 7 April 1964, 58 years ago to the day of this column: Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray’s High Spirits, based on the hugely popular Noël Coward play, Blithe Spirit.

Like the play upon which it is based, High Spirits tells the story of a writer, Charles Condomine, who invites a medium, Madame Arcati, to his home to provide post-dinner entertainment in the form of one of her famous seances. During the seance, Charles’s dead wife, Elvira, is manifested, which leads to all sorts of romantic hijinks – particularly as Charles tries to explain what’s going on to his new wife, Ruth, and Elvira’s plan to bring Charles into the afterlife to join her goes awry.

Martin (of Meet Me in St Louis fame) and Gray (who also penned the Daddy-Long-Legs musical Love From Judy) hewed pretty closely to the original play in their adaptation, which Coward loved so much that he agreed to direct it. Their main departures from the source material are in building up the role of Madame Arcati into a star turn and in the adjusted ending of the show. It’s all very charming and was warmly received in New York – less so in London, where the battle of wills between Coward and Cicely Courtneidge, who played Madame Arcati in the West End, seemed to seep into the production and rather spoil things. On Broadway, that role was played by Beatrice Lillie, who delivered a performance that was appreciated by critics and audiences alike.

The score is just delightful. Even on a first listen, it greets you like an old friend, with three of Madame Arcati’s big numbers, “Faster Than Sound,” “Talking to You,” and “Something is Coming to Tea,” extending the most generous hand. Evira also has a wonderfully camp showstopper in “Home Sweet Heaven.” The material for Charles and Ruth is endearing, her “Was She Prettier than I?” and their “If I Gave You” beautifully grounding the everyday world that contrasts all of the supernatural silliness.

When it comes to that silliness, I dare say that Jerry Herman wanted the quirkier sections of Dear World to land like this. In High Spirits, the offbeat characters, wit and whimsy feel effortless, while Herman’s effort from a half-decade later – more often than not – sounds like work. It’s true that there isn’t an anthem like “I Don’t Want to Know” in High Spirits. Everything in High Spirits is tailored to the show and its characters and is thus more difficult to extract for show-tune-friendly albums and events. It may be a limiting factor in terms of the show’s popularity, but on its own terms, High Spirits is all the better for the integrity of its internal logic.

The factor that perhaps holds back High Spirits from being a better-remembered musical is that it is based on a fantastic play that is still produced quite often today. Nonetheless, if ever there was a case to be made for a Broadway show that has never had a revival that needs one, here it is. It may not have the razzle-dazzle or weighty enlightenment of Moulin Rouge or Hamilton, but it could certainly hold its own next to something like the twice-revived She Loves Me. Yes – High Spirits needs its own Madame Arcati to come cycling in and restore it to our memories!

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2 Responses to Forgotten Musicals Friday: Blithely Broadway with HIGH SPIRITS

  1. EJ Oshins says:

    Great site. Does this include clips? Only saw wondrful Bea Lillie photo. Thanks.

    • David Fick says:

      Thanks for the feedback. Sadly, I didn’t track down any clips in my searches this week – but I’ll be sure to post any if I do!

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