Hard to believe but it is nine years since I wrote the book and lyrics for a musical based on the life of La belle Otero the famous, or infamous, Spanish courtesan of La Belle Époque. I had wanted to write about her for more years than I can remember but it was only coming to Crete and discovering the award winning composer Chris Littlewood lived not more than four kilometres away that it all came together. I sent him a sample of previous lyrics to whet his appetite and it did. He and Chris Beeching produced a demo disk in Athens with a number of the songs but nine years later there is still no sign of a production, not even a workshop. I know I’ve said it before but I will say it again, it takes an act of God to get a straight play on; to get a musical produced it seems it takes God in convocation with angels, archangels, saints, cherubim and seraphim.
In 1965 a film on the life of Otero was made in France with the beautiful Mexican actress Maria Felix and I have used the idea of a film in production being the core around which the story is set.
There are in fact three Oteros in the show: as a young girl, Otero in her prime, and as a very old woman and act one ends with all three on stage singing a song, ‘I Want Love.’ Looking at photographs of her it is difficult now to imagine just what she had that she was so sought after by kings, princes (The kings of Belgium and Spain, Edward the Seventh, the Czar, the Emperor of Japan) and the very rich including William Vanderbilt, Joe Kennedy, father of the American president, but she must have had something. You had to be extremely rich to enjoy her services and although she earned one fortune after another, because she was an inveterate gambler and couldn’t resist Monte Carlo and the wheel, she died in one room, penniless, cooking a rabbit stew.
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in writing Otero’s story was how to make someone who was really nothing more than a prostitute, no matter how high class, one of the grand horizontals as they were known of La Belle Époque, sympathetic to an audience and the number at the end of the first act sums it up. Born in Spain in abject poverty she was raped at an early age. She never knew who her father was, it could have been any one of a number, and I decided she was looking for him throughout her entire life. Maybe every new conquest, who never gave her the love she really wanted, only material riches, could have been a father figure. Nearly all her royal conquests bore an uncanny likeness to each other and so I have five characters; William Vanderbilt, Prince Nicholas of Montenegro, King Leopold of Belgium, Czar Nicholas ll, and Otero’s imaginary father all played by the same actor.
The story is set against the backdrop of Paris, New York, Monte Carlo and St. Petersburg, told both directly and indirectly interwoven with scenes from her ‘biopic’.
Reading Arthur Laurents’ book ‘On Directing – Gypsy, West Side Story and other musicals,’ it would seem La Belle Otero has all the ingredients that make for success: great characters; lush, romantic, haunting music, a book with pathos, humour, sex, comedy, drama and opportunities for great visual set pieces, what more could one ask for?