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BROADWAY RECALL: Noel Coward's Back On Broadway

Welcome to BROADWAY RECALL, a bi-monthly column where's Chief Theatre Critic, Michael Dale, delves into the archives and explores the stories behind the well-known and the not so well-known videos and photographs of Broadway's past. Look for BROADWAY RECALL every other Saturday.

Shakespeare's okay, Stoppard provides a fine mental workout and Ayckbourn is always good for a serious laugh, but the British playwright who never fails to delight me is the witty and wonderful Noel Coward.  Like America's Cole Porter, Coward was born to a family of modest means, was introduced to high society as a young man and soon became a musical comedy symbol of what it was like to be wealthy, sophisticated and abundantly clever.  But unlike Porter, Coward's prolific creative output not only included writing music and lyrics, but also plays, the books for musicals and directing as well.  In his later years he even revealed that he also served Britain as a spy during World War II.

"I was the perfect silly ass," he said of his service to his country. "Nobody considered I had a sensible thought in my head and they would say all kinds of things that I'd pass along."

Currently, Kim Cattrall and Paul Gross (pictured) have the honor of bringing Noel Coward's masterpiece Private Lives to New York for its 8th Broadway production since the playwright and his dear friend and muse Gertrude Lawrence (not to mention a young chap named Laurence Olivier) stared in its 1931 American premiere.  (see photo below)  Since then, the leading roles of Amanda and Elyot have been played on Broadway by the pairings of Tallulah Bankhead and Donald Cook (with Barbara Baxley as Sybil), Tammy Grimes and Brian Bedford, Maggie Smith and John Standing, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (with John Cullum as Victor), Joan Collins and Simon Jones and Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman.

Although few Broadway seasons go by without a Coward revival, there's been a steady resurgence of his work in recent years, beginning with an all-star mounting of Blithe Spirit that featured Angela Lansbury, Christine Ebersole, Rupert Everett, Jayne Atkinson, Simon Jones and Deborah Rush.  (The company's only unknown, Susan Louise O'Connor, earned a Theatre World Award for her performance as the maid.)


Victor Garber turned in a hilarious performance in Present Laughter in a role the playwright fashioned to spoof himself.


Brief Encounter was director Emma Rice's wondrous adaptation of Coward's dramatic screenplay and his play Still Life.


Though Brief Encounter did include a handful of musical selections, Noel Coward's songs are, unfortunately, no longer heard very frequently on the Broadway stage, as most of his musical successes were revues with short shelf lives and the flimsy sort of book musicals that were popular in the first half of the 20th Century.  His sturdiest book musicals, Sail Away and The Girl Who Came To Supper are fondly regarded by connoisseurs but were not successful in their original Broadway runs.

But we cannot close this column without at least one irresistible musical morsel sung by the great man himself.  During World War II Noel Coward honed his skills as a concert and cabaret artist by entertaining British troops.  After becoming an extremely popular nightlife attraction in London, Paris and Las Vegas, CBS signed him to do a series of television specials.  The first, Together With Music, had Mary Martin introducing her friend and colleague to a coast-to-coast American audience, and he regaled them royally with plummy selections such as his beloved "Nina."


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