Remembering High Spirits
There is not all that much about Noël Coward’s brilliant 1941 play Blithe Spirit that would initially make you think “this needs to be a musical.” It’s a drawing room comedy, with a relatively small cast, and tightly-written That doesn’t leave itself room for opening up or expanding in the way that musicals traditionally are. On the other hand, Blithe Spirit features an array of colorful, larger-than-life characters, including a wacky medium and an insane diva who happens to be a ghost. Suddenly, the prospects for musical comedy seem just a bit more accessible. That must be what Timothy Gray and Hugh Martin had in the front of their minds when they conjured up the musical High Spirits, adapted for the musical stage from Coward’s Blithe Spirit.
High Spirits (via Blithe Spirit) tells the story of writer Charles Codomine who lives with his second-wife Ruth in their English home. The Codomines are planning a séance where Charles seeks to unravel the mystery and trickery of local medium Madame Arcati. Instead of revealing her as a fraud, Arcati actually makes contact with Charles’s first wife Elvira, inviting her spirit into the house. Soon, Elvira is haunting the place with poltergeist-level ferocity, determined to kill Charles so they can be together in the afterlife. She accidentally kills Ruth instead and now the two “former” wives are trapped, together, in limbo making Charles miserable. In the play Blithe Spirit, the show resolves with Charles dying and joining his two wives in the afterlife. In High Spirits, however, Madame Arcati is once again summoned and she dematerializes Elvira and Ruth so that Charles in free to go along his merry way.
Gray and Martin were relatively loyal to Coward’s play when they decided to fashion a musical out of it. Indeed, the book for High Spirits glitters with all the wit that makes Blithe Spirit such a winning, caustic comedy. The only place besides the ending where they steered away from the original was in their expansion of the character of Madame Arcati. Why wouldn’t they? Arcati was a rich and colorful presence, beloved by the audience, and making her a larger part of the show would only delight ticket-buyers even more.
With some assistance from Gower Champion, Noël Coward directed High Spirits for Broadway. The musical opened at the Alvin Theatre on April 7, 1964 and it ran a solid 375 performances. It was neither a runaway hit, nor was it a calamitous flop. It was nominated for eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, but won none. This just happened to be the year another quiet little musical swept the awards, a show called Hello, Dolly! Still, High Spirits boasted many bravura performances including Tammy Grimes as Elvira, Edward Woodward as Charles, Louise Troy as Ruth, and arguably the most delicious casting-coup of all, stage comedienne extraordinaire Beatrice Lillie, known for her eccentric and over-the-top performances, as Madame Arcati.