Obituary: Vivienne Segal
Monday 25 January 1993
A LEADING figure in the history of the American musical theatre, Vivienne Segal was the original star of The Desert Song, I Married An Angel and Pal Joey, and introduced such songs as 'Auf Wiedersehen', 'Romance' and 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered'. Her sweet lyric soprano and perfect enunciation made her one of the finest of operetta heroines and later an expert exponent of worldly cynicism. She was an early champion of George Gershwin and the last song written by the team of Rodgers and Hart was composed especially for her.
A physician's daughter, Segal was born in Philadelphia in 1897 and educated at the city's Academy of the Sisters of Mercy. She created a sensation at the age of 16 by playing Carmen at the local opera house, then sang Siebel in Faust. Her father, a patron of the arts, was one of the backers of a 1915 Broadway operetta, The Blue Paradise, and when the original leading lady proved unsatisfactory during rehearsal Segal was hired to replace her. Sigmund Romberg composed the score and Segal was given the best song, the lovely 'Auf Wiedersehen'. Her next two shows, My Lady's Glove (1916, score by Romberg) and Miss 1917 were flops, but the rehearsal pianist was George Gershwin in the latter show. He and Segal became friends and Segal hired him as her accompanist for a Sunday-night solo concert performance and introduced two of his songs (lyrics by Irving Caesar), 'Yoo-oo, Just You' and 'There's More To A Kiss Than The X-X-X'. They were so well received that Segal insisted that Gershwin take a bow with her.
Miss 1917 had two composers, Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern, and Segal was at the centre of a dispute between them. Kern had written a number, 'The Land Where The Good Songs Go', which was to introduce a selection of well-known songs. Herbert suggested that Segal's number be his 'Kiss Me Again', while Kern wanted her to sing his, 'They Didn't Believe Me'. Segal decided the Herbert song was better suited to her style and when the producers backed her decision Kern stalked out of the theatre and did not return until the opening night.
Segal starred in Kern's next musical, Oh, Lady] Lady]], but ironically her best song, 'Bill' (lyrics by PG Wodehouse), was cut during rehearsals, resurfacing in slightly amended form for Show Boat 10 years later. Rudolf Friml's The Little Whopper (1919) and an adaptation of Emmerich Kalman's operetta Die Bajadere, titled The Yankee Princess (1922), were further personal triumphs before the enormous success of The Desert Song (1926). One reviewer noted of Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics that 'with the exception of a song called 'It' the lyrics give indication that WS Gilbert lived and died in vain'; but The richly melodic score by Sigmund Romberg made it one of the best-loved of operettas. Next Segal played Constance in Rudolf Friml's The Three Musketeers (1928).
With the coming of talkies Hollywood was desperately recruiting Broadway performers who could cope with the demands of sound, and Segal joined such stars as Eddie Cantor, Marilyn Miller, Mae West and the Marx Brothers in California.
She made her screen debut in Golden Dawn (1930), a foolish operetta about an African uprising in which she was mistaken for a native by villagers, followed the same year by Song of the West, Bride of the Regiment and Viennese Nights. The last, written directly for the screen by Romberg and Hammerstein, was the best, and became a hit in England though not in the US.
With the advent of sound, Hollywood had come to rely so much on musicals, producing 57 in 1929 and 74 in 1930, that the public came to equate them with tedium to the extent that by 1931 cinemas were putting placards outside proclaiming, 'There is no music in this film.'
After a role in The Cat and the Fiddle (1934), secondary to that of Jeanette MacDonald, Segal confined herself primarily to radio until her career was reactivated by the composers Rodgers and Hart. Segal had met the team in Hollywood, becoming a close friend of Lorenz Hart (shortly before he died, Hart proposed marriage to her, though their relationship was never sexual).
The songwriters had discerned her under-exploited talent for comedy, promising that one day they would write a role for her, and in 1938 they created the role of Countess Palaffi in I Married An Angel for her. In one of the sophisticated show's highlights, 'At The Roxy Music Hall', Segal and Audrey Christie impersonated a complete line of Rockettes. Her solo, 'A Twinkle In Your Eye', was tailored for her delicately droll vocal delivery, while in contrast she introduced with Dennis King the wistful 'Spring Is Here'.
Two years later Segal starred in the team's masterpiece, Pal Joey, as Vera Simpson, the bored socialite who for a time supports an opportunistic young night-club entertainer, played by Gene Kelly. Segal's major solo, 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered', had met only a mild reception in try- outs, but the opening-night audience cheered it so fiercely that Segal found herself singing lyrics Hart had earlier discarded as encores.
Daring and innovative, the show divided critics sharply, some hailing its acerbic libretto, superb score and fine performances, others (including the influential New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson) offended by its lack of morality, self-serving characters, risque lyrics and themes of bought love and blackmail. Hart cried on reading Atkinson's description of the 'Bewitched' lyrics as 'scabrous'. Twelve years later, a revival had even Atkinson conceding its brilliance.
When Rodgers and Hart revived their 1927 musical A Connecticut Yankee in 1943, they wrote five new songs, the very last song they wrote together being Segal's speciality as Morgan Le Fay, 'To Keep My Love Alive', detailing how she disposed of a string of unwanted husbands ('When I'm ill at ease I kill at ease').
It was one of Hart's cleverest and wittiest lyrics and Segal delivered it in a sweetly deadpan style that stopped the show nightly. Five days after the opening Hart died, and the following night Segal forgot the lyrics of 'To Keep My Love Alive', had to leave the stage then return and start the song again. 'It was the only time in my whole career that I've done something like that,' she said later.
Segal's last great Broadway triumph was the Pal Joey revival. In 1951 the record producer Goddard Liebersen, one of the many champions of the neglected score, made an album of the songs featuring Segal and the dancer-singer Harold Lang. It sparked renewed interest in the show, and a summer stock production starring Bob Fosse confirmed that the libretto was equally strong. Segal and Lang were hired for a full-scale revival (Fosse was not considered well enough known), and it was the biggest hit of the 1952 season, most critics agreeing that Segal, now closer to the right age for Vera, was thus even more effective than before.
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