Following my recent adventures to see Blithe Spirit in Perth, I simply couldn’t resist the urge to delve further into the world of Noel Coward’s ghostly farce by retreating from the unfamiliar ground of plays (an unfamiliarity I intend to change sooner rather than later) and returning to the world of musicals where Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray created the 1964 show High Spirits. Directed by Coward himself, High Spirits haunted both Broadway and the West End for a short period of time, gaining Tony Award nominations for Best Musical, Best Author, Best Composer and Lyricist and Best Direction of a Musical to name but a few. Armed with both the Broadway and West End cast recordings from a friend’s record collection, I settled down for a night of singing, seances and spirits.
High Spirits closely follows the plot line of Coward’s 1941 play although the role of Madame Arcati has been expanded significantly – it was Beatrice Lillie as Madame Arcati who received a Tony Award nomination for Best Leading Actress in a Musical whereas Louise Troy gained a nomination for Best Featured Actress as Ruth Condomine, the role typically expected to be classed as the leading female role.
High Spirits opens with writer Charles Condomine and his second wife Ruth hosting a seance during which Charles hopes he will learn the “tricks of the trade” and gather material for his new novel by inviting the crazy local medium Madame Arcati to conduct the seance. However he gets more than he bargained for when, after a relatively disappointing evening, his late first wife Elvira materialises in front of his – and only his – eyes, causing havoc for his second marriage. The musical, like the play it is based on, is packed full of comical lines and fascinating character traits that translate well into the lyrics of Martin and Gray. The light and somewhat dated tunes convincingly convey the emotions of each character, welcoming room for character development and adding a little extra spice to the already fantastic story.
Martin and Gray provided not only the lyrics but also the book and the music for High Spirits. After several listens of both cast recordings I have found myself naturally drawn to the duets, all of which are between Charles and one of his two wives. The music is catchy and memorable; the lyrics often witty and packed with lines that accurately portray different aspects of each character.
Although I believe it would be unlikely for High Spirits to survive if it were to be revived today, I cannot help but wonder if a new, modern musical adaption of Blithe Spirit would make a lasting impression in the world of theatre. Perhaps another budding lyricist will expand this farce even further. Only time will tell… I’ll be waiting for the press night.