Bitter Sweet is an operetta in three acts, with book, music and lyrics by Noël Coward. The story, set in nineteenth century and early twentieth century England and Austria-Hungary, centrs on a young woman's elopement with her music teacher. The songs from the score include "The Call of Life", "If You Could Only Come with Me", "I'll See You Again", "Dear Little Café", "If Love Were All", "Ladies of the Town", "Tokay", "Zigeuner" and "Green Carnation".
The show had a long West End staging from 1929 to 1931, and a more modest one on Broadway in 1929–1930. The work has twice been adapted for the cinema, and the complete score has been recorded for CD.
Coward wrote the leading role of Sari with Gertrude Lawrence in mind, but the vocal demands of the part were beyond her capabilities. His second choice, Evelyn Laye, refused the role because of a private grievance against the producer of the show, Charles B. Cochran. Coward's third choice, Peggy Wood, made a considerable success in the part, and Laye, realising her mistake in turning it down, willingly accepted the role in the subsequent Broadway production. For the part of the leading man, Cochran and Coward toured the theatre's of Europe in search of someone suitable. According to Coward, a likely candidate named Hans Unterfucker was ruled out because of his name, and George Metaxa was cast.
- Parker, a butler – Claude Farrow
- Dolly Chamberlain – Dorothy Bond
- Lord Henry – William Harn
- Vincent Howard – Billy Milton
- Marchioness of Shayne (Sari) – Peggy Wood
- Marquess of Shayne – Alan Napier
- Carl Linden – George Metaxa
- Manon la Crevette – Ivy St Helier
- Nita – Isla Bevan
- Captain August Lutte – Austin Trevor
- Hugh Devon – Robert Newton
- Helen – Nancy Bevill
- Jackie – Maureen Moore
- Frank – Arthur Alexander
- Source: The Times and Stanley Green.
- Act I
In 1929, the elderly and widowed, but still lively, Marchioness of Shayne is holding a party at her home in London to celebrate the impending society marriage of a young woman who, it turns out, is in love not with her fiancé but with another man, a poor musician ("That Wonderful Melody"). The young woman is torn between love and fortune, and Lady Shane is reminded of her own youth ("The Call of Life").
Nearly 55 years earlier, in 1875, Lady Shane is the young Sarah Millick, a wealthy London girl, who's having a singing lesson with her dashing music teacher, Carl Linden. The spirited Sarah is engaged to Lord Hugh, a wealthy but rigid young nobleman, but she and her music teacher have fallen in love ("If You Could Only Come With Me"). Carl is a man of integrity and doesn't want to ruin Sarah's young dreams. He plans to return to his native Austria late that night but vows to think of Sarah each Spring ("I'll See You Again"). At the pre-wedding party, Sarah realises that her life with Lord Hugh would be quite unhappy indeed ("What Is Love"). Carl is entertaining at the party ("The Last Dance"), and when she sees the depth of his love for her, she agrees to run away with him to Vienna.
- Act II
Five years later, in Vienna, Carl is a bandleader, and Sarah (now called Sari), sings his songs, but she's unhappy with their new employment at Schlick's Café, a racy establishment where she's expected to dance with the patrons, and perhaps more ("Ladies of the Town"). Carl's earlier love, Manon, is another entertainer at the cafe, who has mixed feelings about Sarah ("If Love Were All"). Sarah begs Carl to quit the cafe and take them to a safer place ("Evermore and a Day"; "Dear Little Café"). He agrees, but that night is busy at the cafe ("Tokay"). Manon sings "Bonne Nuit, Merci". Sarah is asked to dance with an army captain who handles her boldly and steals a kiss on the dance floor ("Kiss Me"). Carl is enraged and strikes the military man. The captain challenges Carl to a duel and easily kills the musician with his sword.
- Act III
Thirteen years pass, and it is the Gay Nineties ("Ta Ra Ra Boom"; "Green Carnation"). Sarah has become world-famous as an interpreter of Carl's song ("Alas! The Time is Past"). She returns to London, pursued by the amiable Marquis of Shayne, who's struck by her talent and sadness; he's sure that he can restore her youthful spirit. She sees her old London friends after nearly 20 years and entertains them with Carl's music ("Zigeuner"). Lord Shayne has proposed to her in every capital in Europe and now, home in London, he tells her that he accepts the fact that her love for Carl has never died. He begs her to let him make her happy again. She reluctantly accepts his proposal; she sings to Carl, "I shall love you till I die – good bye" ("I'll See You Again" (reprise)).
After the opening night in Manchester the reviewer in The Manchester Guardian wrote that the future of the show seemed rosy: "If a wealth of light melody, a spice of wit, and much beauty of setting can assure it, Mr Coward need have no misgivings". In London, James Agate praised the piece: "a thundering good job … a thoroughly good light entertainment". When the piece was revived in 1988, Jeremy Kingston wrote in The Times, "Coward's melodic gift reached its peak in this show, with its gipsy music, drinking song, witty jokes about the gay Nineties and the waltzes that, once heard, are imperishable."
The piece, directed by Coward, opened on 2 July 1929 at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, before the London premiere at His Majesty's Theatre on 18 July. It ran in London for 697 performances, at five different theatres, concluding its run at the Lyceum, with Laye returning from New York to succeed Wood as Sari. Ivy St. Helier played Manon, and the role of the aged Marquess of Shayne was played by the 26-year-old Alan Napier, later to gain fame as Batman's butler, Alfred.
With the success of the London production, Cochran wanted a Broadway presentation. Rather than wait until the end of the West End run and take the original cast to New York, Cochran insisted on moving quickly. The musical opened on Broadway on 5 November 1929, starring Evelyn Laye as Sari. She was well received by audiences and critics, but otherwise the cast wasn't as strong as their London counterparts. The production ran for 159 performances, closing on 22 March 1930.
Although popular with amateur operatic societies, Bitter Sweet has had few professional revivals. A Broadway production played in 1934, starring Evelyn Herbert and Allan Jones. In America, the St. Louis Municipal Opera presented six productions of Bitter Sweet between 1933 and 1953 as well as one in 1974. The Long Beach Civic Light Opera in Southern California staged a production in 1983 starring Shirley Jones as Sari. The first professional revival in London was in 1988 at Sadler's Wells; Valerie Masterson and Ann Mackay alternated as Sari, with Martin Smith as Carl and Rosemary Ashe as Manon. The Ohio Light Opera produced Bitter Sweet in 1993 and 1998.
Films and recordings
The piece has been filmed twice. The first, in 1933, directed by Herbert Wilcox was filmed in black-and-white, with Anna Neagle and Fernand Gravet in the leading roles. A version for MGM in 1940, directed by W S Van Dyke was in colour and starred Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. In both cases, the score was heavily cut. Coward disliked the much-rewritten 1940 film and vowed that no more of his plays would be filmed in Hollywood. In 1951 he told The Daily Express, "I was saving up Bitter Sweet as an investment for my old age. After MGM's dreadful film I can never revive it."
Abridged recordings have been made starring Vanessa Lee (1960) and June Bronhill (1969) The first recording of the complete score was issued in 1989, based on the 1988 Sadler's Wells production, with Masterson as Sari.
- Tara-ra boom-de-ay (by Henry J. Sayers) – Wealthy and noble couples of London
- Alas! The Time is Past – The Duchess of Tenterton, Lady James, Mrs. Proutie, Lady Sorrel, Mrs. Vale and Mrs. Bethel
- We All Wear a Green Carnation – Bertram Sellick, Lord Henry Jade, Vernon Craft and Cedrick Ballantyne
- Zigeuner – Sari
- I'll See You Again (reprise) – Sari
The Noël Coward Society's website, drawing on performing statistics from the publishers and the Performing Right Society, ranks "I'll See You Again" and "If Love Were All" as among Coward's ten most popular songs. "Dear Little Café" is among the top twenty.