A popular, talented and gorgeous but mentally unstable leading lady… A newspaper strike preventing opening night reviews from being published… A musical where both the leading man and leading lady were insecure first time musical comedy performers… Put this all together and you have Tovarich, a quirky, but lovable, 1963 Broadway show about two impoverished members of the exiled Russian aristocracy showcasing Vivien Leigh and Jean-Pierre Aumont. That Vivien Leigh was popular, talented and gorgeous is well known: witness her performances in films like Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire and you will see that her brilliance is beyond dispute. What was less well known, and what remains somewhat obscure even today, is that Vivien Leigh also suffered from Bipolar Disorder and this often hampered, sometimes severely, her performances on stage.
Bipolar Disorder has been defined as “a mental disorder characterized by episodes of mania and depression” and is popularly known as manic depressive illness. Over two million Americans suffer from Bipolar Disorder today, and they experience wide and sometimes sudden mood swings from the heights of mania to the depths of depression. Conversely, the disorder can be almost invisible when the sufferer is not in one of the manic highs or depressive lows and it is during this small window of apparent ‘normalness’ that the person will function at their best.
Leigh won the 1963 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance as Grand Duchess Tatiana Petrovna in Tovarich. Given Leigh’s condition, it is fitting that Alice Ripley would win the 2009 Tony Award in the same category for her role in Next to Normal as a wife and mother suffering from Bipolar Disorder. The tragic difference is that Leigh would ultimately be forced to give up her role and to cut the show’s run short due to her worsening mental state.
Tovarich began life in 1933 as a play by French dramatist Jacques Deval. The show wowed audiences in Paris, where it ran for over 800 performances, and sister productions soon opened in all of the major European cities. It was not long before an English adaptation was written by American playwright Robert E Sherwood and this version opened in London in 1935 and ran for a year and a day. A New York production soon followed, opening in October 1936.
In 1937, the play was finally made into a film, which starred Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer. In all of its incarnations, however, the production would keep the same name ‘Tovarich‘, which means ‘friend’ or ‘comrade’ in Russian.
It took almost twenty years, but Tovarich finally made it to the Broadway stage in 1963. With a book by David Shaw, music by Lee Pockriss and lyrics by Anne Croswell, producers Abel Farbman and Sylvia Harris were now on the look out for a pair of stars that would give the show public appeal. They found them in Vivien Leigh and Jean-Pierre Aumont.
Leigh was busy with an extended tour of Australia, New Zealand and Latin America when she was tracked down by the producers in Mexico City and made to listen to the score. Aumont, a long time star of French stage and screen who is now best known for his role in Lili opposite an ingénue Leslie Caron, was cornered in France and was offered the role of Grand Duchess Tatiana’s consort, General Prince Mikail Alexandrovitch Ouratieff. Leigh was hesitant at first – she had never done a musical before and was unfamiliar with the genre – but she is on record as saying that she had always had a secret longing to sing and dance on stage as “everyone always looks as if he were having so much fun.” After discussing the project, Leigh and Aumont both decided to do it and she even told him that “we’ll have fun.” They may have had fun but, in true musical style, there was also plenty of heartbreak.
With Peter Glenville and Herbert Ross signed on as director and choreographer respectively, the show had an auspicious beginning. The supporting roles were filled out with the solid musical comedy talents of George S Irving as Charles Davis, Louise Kirtland as Grace Davis, Alexander Scourby as Commander Gorotchenko and Louise Troy as Natalia Mayovskaya. The team rehearsed non-stop, with Leigh taking singing and dancing lessons as well as consulting a real life Russian émigré in order to perfect her Russian accent. For her the going was rough, however, and she found the musical comedy medium, with the constant changes being made to book and musical numbers, a great challenge. She also felt that she had to work extra hard to even approach the level of her supporting actors, who were all, with the exception of Aumont, experienced musical comedy performers. There is no doubt that all these factors prayed heavily on her mind.
Out of town tryouts rolled around and the show opened at the Erlanger Theater in Philadelphia. It got good reviews and eventually grossed $72,000. A fly in the ointment was Noel Coward’s visiting Leigh after one performance and informing her that musical comedy was beneath her dignity and her talent and that the fluffy and inconsequential show was not a fit vehicle for her to appear on Broadway in. She absorbed his criticism and resorted to medication but she stuck it out.
Tovarich opened on Broadway on March 18th 1963 at the Broadway Theater. Reviews were kind but this did not matter one whit as New York was still laboring under the stranglehold of the 1962/1963 newspaper strike and nothing was published. News of the show spread through word of mouth and of course Leigh’s, and to a lesser extent Aumont’s, names drew in the crowds. Due to the strike, however, the show never received publicity sufficient to ensure a very long run (even though the strike did end a mere 12 days after opening night).
The unpublished review written by the New York Daily News’ drama critic, John Chapman, says “Vivien Leigh is incredibly beautiful, incredibly graceful and incredibly charming. She would make any musical in which she appeared distinguished, but Tovarich is a distinguished musical in its own right.” Wonderful on the surface, it must be noted that this ‘incredibly’ tactful review does not make any mention of Leigh’s singing and dancing talents…or her lack thereof.
After an opening at the Broadway, the show transferred to the Majestic and then to the Winter Gardens Theater. It did well at the 1963 Tony Awards, with Leigh winning in the Best Actress category and Louise Troy being nominated as Best Featured Actress in a Musical. It had survived for a total of 264 performances when Leigh’s condition finally got the better of her and she was forced to withdraw from the production due to “nervous exhaustion”. This brought the show’s run to a premature end and it closed on November 9th 1963. To date, there have been no Broadway revivals.
The story of Tovarich is elegant and simple and harks back to a time when musical theater did not have to tell of angst or infectious diseases in order to be noticed. After a prologue set in Russia, the action moves to Paris in the 1920s where we find Grand Duchess Tatiana and General Prince Mikail living quiet lives after escaping the Russian Revolution. Before they fled Russia, the Tsar had entrusted them with holding four billion francs and they are keeping the money in a Swiss bank account until it can be claimed by the Romanov heir. Tatiana and Mikail are living in abject poverty and it is only when the Governor of the Bank of France, who knows they could use the money to fend for themselves, warns them that their behavior, including Tatiana’s stealing food to survive, is well known to the police that they decide to take action. They begin working for the Davises, an American family who are temporarily living in Paris and, not wanting to give away their true identities, they take up the duties of maid and butler in the guise of “Tina” and “Michel”. They get on extremely well with the Davis children and generally make a good impression but, one night, they are recognized by guests at a party thrown by the Davises. Thoroughly disconcerted at being found out, Tatiana and Mikail leave the party to debate their future and eventually decide to return to the Davises only to clear up after the party and to say goodbye. Tatiana is then approached by Commander Gorotchenko, a Soviet official who recognized her at the party and who also happens to be an old flame. He is eventually able to persuade her and Mikail to release the Tsar’s fortune to him so that he can take the money back to Russia and feed the starving people there. Now truly penniless, they decide to accept the Davises’ suggestion of a compromise: they will stay on as the family servants but will appear as guests of honor at every party.
The original cast recording, which is available on CD, is a must for every Vivien Leigh fan as it is a true pleasure to be able to hear her voice whenever the mood takes you. The songs are tuneful and inventive but contain no Broadway standard. Personal favorites include “Wilkes-Barre PA” (Leigh and Byron Mitchell as young George Davis) where Tina is courted by Master Davis, “I Go To Bed” (Aumont) where Mikail shares his strategy for dealing with problems, “Stuck With Each Other” (Mitchell and Margery Gray as his sister, Helen Davis) where the young Davises bemoan their fate about being stuck in Paris with only each other for company and “No! No! No!” (Aumont and Gray) where Mikail tries to deal with Helen’s crush on him.
My Two Cents
I have never had the pleasure of seeing this show on stage but I often listen to the soundtrack and it never fails to delight me. I am also in awe of Vivien Leigh’s courage, not to mention her talent. Imagine what dedication and commitment she must have possessed that allowed her to perform on stage, again and again, when she knew how precarious her mental state was and when she had often spent hours in tears before the curtain went up. Whenever I don’t feel like performing because of a headache, a sore ankle or whatever, I think of her and I am both ashamed and filled with a determination to succeed.
Thank you Vivien: you were truly a great actress and you will be forever loved and missed.
Alexander Walker. Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh. Grove Press (1994)
Michelangelo Capua. Vivien Leigh: A Biography. McFarland (2003)
David Shaw. Tovarich Liner Notes
Jean Pierre Aumont Wikipedia
Vivien Leigh Wikipedia
Tovarich (Musical) Wikipedia
Tovarich The Free Dictionary
Living with Manic Depression Manic Depression
On This Day: May 9th 1963 Times OnLine
1962 New York City Newspaper Strike Wikipedia
Tovarich Internet Broadway Data Base
Bipolar Disorder WordNetWeb
Billy Elliot Dances Away With 10 Tony Awards ABS CBN News