If Rex Harrison can sing, why can’t I?

Tovarich isn’t Aida

by Vivien Leigh
*Sent to vivandlarry.com by Tanguy

From July 1, 1961, through May 29, 1962, I toured Australia, New Zealand and South America with an Old Vic company in a repertoire made up of Twelfth Night, the Lady of the Camellias and Christopher Fry’s adaptation of Giraudoux’s Duel of Angels. Playing in such remote, theatre starved cities as Brisbane, Perth, Palmerston North (NZ), Lima, Caracas, Montevideo and Sao Paulo was a stimulating experience. No day was without its surprises and excitements.

High on the list of surprises was the overseas call I received in Auckland, NZ, last February from Abel Farbman in New York, 12,000 miles away. The reason for Mr. Farbman’s call ? He was about to produce a musical version of Tovarich, a comedy that had flourished in Paris, London and New York in the mid – 30s; and he wanted me to star in the leading feminine role, a Russian Grand Duchess, fgitive from the Bolsheviks, foraging for food in Paris, in 1927.
If I were interested, said Mr. Farbman, he’d airmail me a script that very day. Was I familiar with the original?

Tovarich had delighted me when I saw it at the Lyric in London, with Eugenie Leontovich and Cedric Hardwicke in the leading roles, and I like the subsequent screen version with Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer. “I’m highly flattered by your offer,” I added. “But whatever made you thing I can sing? I’m an actress, not a singer.”

Airily Mr. Farbman brushed my protests aside. “I need an actress who can convincingly impersonate a Grand Duchess”, he said. “To be sure, she must sing five or six songs, but the lyric demands of the role are secondary to its acting requirements. Remember, this isn’t Aida. The songs will be fashioned to your range”.

When I persisted in saying I couldn’t sing, Mr Farbman interrupted me.

“How do you know you can’t sing? Rex Harrison didn’t know he could sing until he tackled Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Look at Richard Burton. Never sang a note professionally until he played King Arthur in Camelot. And what about Robert Preston in The Music Man? This is the age of the non-singing singer.”

My resistance sapped by Mr Farbman’s enthusiasm and confidence, I told him to send me the script. If I found it as charming as the original I might consider undertaking his Grand Duchess.

No sooner had I hung up that I was beset by qualms. The thought of facing a pit full of musicians – oboes, French horns and the like – unnerved me. Mr Farbman must be utterly mad to offer me the role. I would be even madder to consider playing it. While thus be-deviled, I started to take inventory of my lyric past. As Ophelia I had sung her mad, bawdy songs in Hamlet. I had sung songs and fragments of songs in Max Beerbohm’s Happy Hypocrites and in Terence Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince. With Laurence Olivier and Danny Kaye I rollicked through Irving Berlin’s Top Hat, White Tie and Tails at a midnight benefit of the Actor’s Orphanage at the Palladium in London. At still another of these benefits I had delivered Cole Porter’s Be a Clown, without incurring the wrath of the audience.

Thanks to delays in the mails, the script of the musical Tovarich didn’t reach me until my arrival in Wellington on last Feb, 26. I found David Shaw’s adaptation of the Jacques Deval – Robert Sherwood comedy charming. Certain that by this time Mr Farbman rued his impulsive offer, I shrugged off ideas of playing the Grand Duchess.

I reckoned without my opponent. On March 3, while rehearsing with Robert Helpmann a Shakespearean recital that we…. (lost passage…) 

… was faulty. “Why don’t you come out there and we’ll discuss it?” To my dismay he said, “I’ll see you Wednesday. I”ll bring a recording of the songs with me”.

Mr. Farbman was a man of his word. He arrived late Wednesday, but because of prior engagements I didn’t see him until Thursday. He played the recording of the songs for me. I found them delightful. My resistance started to ebb. After all, a musical comedy would be a new adventure for me.

As I listened to the songs they seemed as simple as they were lovely, and within my limited range. Friday morning we talked again. Friday afternoon, with an accompanist recruited from the Old Vic company, I walked out on the stage of Wellington’s Grand Opera House and sang Irving Berlin’s Always, to Mr. Farbman, who crouched in the eight row.

An hour later we gave the story of my engagement for a star role in Tovarich to the Australia Associated Press.

The die was cast. I had crossed the Rubicon.

When I step out on the stage of the Erlanger on Monday night, Jan. 21, I’ll be facing a Philadelphia audience for the first time. And for the first time I’ll be singing in a musical comedy. I took singing lessons for the three months in London this past summer. From Nov. 12, when I arrived in New York, until Dec, 16, I worked daily with Lee Pockriss, Tovarich’s composer, and with Stanley Lebowsky, the show’s musical conductor. Since Dec. 18, I’ve been rehearsing daily with Jean Pierre Aumont, my royal consort in the musical, and the rest of the company. What about my dancing? That’s another tale. I don’t propose to tell all in one story.”

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