Bitter Sweet

Bitter Sweet

"Bitter Sweet" is an operetta in three acts written by Noel Coward and first produced in 1929 at Her Majesty's Theatre in London. It ran for a very successful 967 performances.

The relatively simple plot - set in 19th century and early 20th century England and Austria-Hungary, and concerning a young woman's elopement with her music teacher - is used as the hook for a series of light operatic numbers, many with complex melodies strongly reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan. Of the songs in the show, the best known by far is "I'll See You Again", used as a recurring motif throughout the play. Short on memorable Cowardian dialogue, "Bitter Sweet" nonetheless stands out as containing some of Coward's best music and has always been popular in revivals around the world, a number of which have been recorded on CD. It was filmed twice, in 1933 in black-and-white (in Britain with Anna Neagle in the leading part) and in 1940 in Technicolor by MGM, starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. It is said that Noel Coward wept when he saw the 1940 film version, because he thought it was terrible.


In a flashback, the aged Marchioness of Shayne is seen as the young Sarah Millick, having a singing lesson with Carl Linden. The action passes from London to Vienna, where Carl is fatally wounded in a duel, and back to London, where Sarah (now known as Sari), having become world-famous as an interpreter of Carl's songs, somewhat reluctantly accepts a marriage proposal from the Marquis of Shayne. Finally, the action is back to the Jazz Age where it was at the start of the show, and Sarah, who has never stopped loving Carl, sings sadly, "I shall love you till I die - good bye"."


Although popular with amateur operatic societies, "Bitter Sweet" has had relatively few professional productions. The original production in 1929 at Her Majesty's Theatre in London starred Peggy Wood as Sarah, with Georges Metaxa as Carl. Evelyn Laye had been the first choice to play Sarah, but turned it down as she was annoyed with the producer, C.B. Cochran, who she felt had caused her marriage to actor Sonnie Hale to fail by putting him in a show opposite Jessie Matthews, with whom he had an affair. Laye later played the part on Broadway. The role of the aged Marquis of Shayne was played by the 26 year-old Alan Napier, later to gain fame as Batman's butler, Alfred, in the 1960s.

A revival at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter in the early 1980s with Jan Hartley-Morris as Sarah led to a large-scale revival in London which also toured the provinces in 1988. This New Sadler's Wells Opera production by Ian Judge used a revised orchestration by Michael Reed, and was recorded complete (although without dialogue) by TER (That's Entertainment Records). On stage, Valerie Masterson and Ann Mackay alternated in the major leading part of Sarah, with Martin Smith as Carl and Rosemary Ashe as Manon. Valerie Masterson was chosen to record the role.

The St. Louis Municipal Opera ("the Muny") presented numerous 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 celebrated production of "Bitter Sweet" in 1983 starring Shirley Jones as Sarah/Sari/Marchioness, and the Ohio Light Opera produced "Bitter Sweet" in 1993 and 1998, both times starring Julie Wright as Sarah/Sari/Marchioness.


It has been suggested that the operetta has an early use of the word "gay" to mean "homosexual", in the song "Green Carnation" where four overdressed, 1890s dandies sing:

:"Pretty boys, witty boys, You may sneer":"At our disintegration.":"Haughty boys, naughty boys,":"Dear, dear, dear!":"Swooning with affectation...":"And as we are the reason":"For the "Nineties" being gay,":"We all wear a green carnation."

The suggestion is that Coward uses the "gay nineties" as a double entendre. The song title alludes to the gay playwright Oscar Wilde, who famously wore a green carnation himself. (The first use of the word "gay" in this sense recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is in a novel published in America in 1951, but earlier instances have been found.)

It has also been suggested that when MGM made the 1937 film "Maytime", they unofficially used the basic storyline of "Bitter Sweet", rather than using the plot of the stage "Maytime". The film of "Maytime" has an aged Jeanette MacDonald living under a phony name, and recalling how, as a young opera singer, she fell in love with a young baritone (Nelson Eddy), who was eventually murdered by MacDonald's jealous music teacher (played by John Barrymore), whom MacDonald had felt obligated to marry. As a result of this film, when MGM remade "Bitter Sweet" with MacDonald and Eddy, they kept most of the original plot, but dropped the framing device in which the Marchioness appears.

Musical numbers

Act I
* That Wonderful Melody
* The Call of Life
* If You Could Only Come with Me
* I’ll See You Again
* Polka
* What is Love?
* The Last Dance Act II
* Ladies of the Town
* If Love Were All
* Dear Little Café
* Bitter Sweet Waltz
* We Wish to Order Wine
* Tokay
* Bonne Nuit, Merci
* Kiss me

* Tara-ra—boom-de-ay
* Alas! The Time is Past
* We All Wear A Green Carnation
* Zigeuner


Eames, John Douglas. "The MGM Story: The Complete History of Fifty Roaring Years"

External links

* [ "Bitter Sweet (1940 film)"] at Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy: A Tribute
*imdb title|title=Bitter Sweet (1940)|id=0032256
*imdb title|title=Bitter Sweet (1933)|id=0023813
*ibdb show|title=Bitter Sweet|id=2052

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