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2012 Tony Awards Clip Countdown - Day 18: Katharine Hepburn Is COCO


Today in the 2012 Tony Awards Clip Countdown we are setting our sights on one of the most notable early examples of mega-star casting on Broadway - that of none other than the iconic Katharine Hepburn - in a brand new musical composed by Andre Previn and staged by a young Michael Bennett: COCO. One of the most celebrated clips in Tony Awards history, the fifteen-minute dialogue scene and ensuing production number is nothing like we have ever seen on the show before or since - this puts the razzle in razzle dazzle, for shizzle.

“Who the devil cares / What a woman wears?” Well, Coco Chanel, for one, sure did. Long before star casting became commonplace on the Great White Way, there was the impossible combination of Coco Chanel and Katharine Hepburn onstage in the new musical COCO. Finding earthy gravitas and imbuing an undeniable American East Coast air to almost everything she did, Katharine Hepburn may not have seemed the first choice for the role of Coco Chanel in a new biomusical about her life - yet, in a career defined by defying the odds, she characteristically took on the challenge and made the role unmistakably all her own. No, she was not Ethel Merman in the vocal department and her French affectations and accent were not quite Paris quality, but, hey, it’s Katharine Hepburn, live on stage, in a Broadway musical written, designed and existing solely because she is the star of the enterprise. Surrounding the non-singing, non-dancing lead with a fetching and feisty corps of chorus girls, boys and models, as well as committed and memorable performances by the spirited original cast members, largely covered most of the most outright flaws and the positively mind-blowing staging for the musical numbers by a then-up-and-coming Michael Bennett gave new meaning to razzle dazzle wow-factor. Utilizing a gigantic circular mirrored multi-platform staircase that swirled around Chanel - a physical embodiment of the dress designs in her head made real before our very eyes - “Always Mademoiselle” was a highlight of the era on Broadway and firmly established Michael Bennett as one of the most exciting new talents on the Broadway scene. Bennett would follow up COCO with two modern musical theatre classics - COMPANY and FOLLIES, both with director Hal Prince and composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim; winning multiple Tonys in the process - so, it is more than fair to say that those may never have been the classics they were if not for the somewhat confused, but spectacularly entertaining and diverting COCO and the incalculable contributions afforded it by Michael Bennett due to the challenges posed to by the star-casting and the rest.

See screen legend Katharine Hepburn - who appeared in many of the show's best scenes alongside standout newcomer Rene Auberjonois; his first major Broadway role - in this glamorous and decadent Tony Awards musical production number, “Always Mademoiselle”.

For the full, unedited clip which includes the entire dialogue scene preceding the musical sequence, click here.

So, does Katharine Hepburn simply make anything work by sheer force of will and raw talent or was her Coco a bit less than it could have been with another performer with more vocal prowess? While no one could ever replace Hepburn, no one could stand in for Chanel, either - so, perhaps, this was the best of both worlds. Since COCO was created to the specifications of the star, we may never know how it all could have otherwise turned out, but thanks to COCO and Michael Bennett’s involvement in it we were treated to some of the most extravagant production numbers of all time - and thank goodness the Tony Awards gave us such a healthy helping of COCO in its obscenely generous representation on the 1970 Tony telecast.

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