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Coward, The Lion of Musical Theater

The original cast album of Cowardy Custard is a must for the very young and the very old.

The two-disc set of the 1972 London revue features selections and snippets from more than five dozen songs and sketches by Sir Noel Coward (1899-1973). The songs are mostly arranged as medleys, which allow a listener a fun two-hour survey.

But, ask the old-timers, there are only two discs? How could those possibly do due justice to Coward’s repertoire of over 300 songs? Well, let’s just be grateful for what we get in this 106-minute survey.

Baby Boomers and members of “The Greatest Generation” can have quick retrospective of material they’ve long known and loved. They’ll be reacquainted with moments from shows that were first produced in London (such as Sigh No More in 1945). On the other end of the spectrum is Coward’s 1963 show The Girl Who Came to Supper, the only one of his musicals that was first presented in America and has yet to be fully mounted in London.

Newbies will get a chance to hear if Coward’s to their liking. Considering that he’s been gone more than forty years – and that a new Coward musical hasn’t shown up in nearly fifty – he’s been easy to miss. Here’s hoping that young listeners will be intrigued enough by the few measures of, to cite only a couple, “Useful Phrases” and “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” from Sail Away. Chances are they’ll want to research these masterpieces in toto.

Also from Sail Away is “Beatnik Love Affair.” Whether or not the members of The Beat Generation would find this a representative example of their music, we must give Coward credit for at least trying to get into the spirit of 1961.

Even those who know the original cast album of Sail Away might have missed “Bronxville Darby and Joan,” a song delivered by a long-married couple who hate one another but stay together out of inertia. It was dropped in Philadelphia, not heard on Broadway, but then reinstated when the show played the West End. The London cast album isn’t easy to find, so enjoy the song here.

Cowardy Custard’s dozen British performers are headed by Patricia Routledge, who’d already won a Tony for her long-remembered performance in the short-lived Darling of the Day. Here she’s featured a dozen times and makes the most of each chance. In “Spinning Song,” a stand-alone ditty that Coward wrote in the ‘50s, she stops for four solid seconds to allow you to laugh at the song’s best lyrical joke. Routledge has a party with “I Went to a Marvelous Party,” in which she dishes the dirt without the rest of the girls.

The lady you’ve come to know from Keeping up Appearances also starts “Mad about the Boy,” which gets a generous cut that’s more than seven minutes long. After Routledge delivers her take from the vantage point of a society woman, Una Stubbs offers the feelings of a schoolgirl. Soon after, we find that the boy has a Cockney admirer in Anna Sharkey and another who’s a tart played by Elaine Delmar. She offers a most sultry version in which she mentions that the boy has “a gay appeal.”

Now we’re talkin’. Speculation and circumstantial evidence has long had it that Coward wrote the song as an expression of man-to-man love. But, hey, what do you want from a 1932 lyric? Even forty years on, Cowardy Custard’s director Wendy Toye didn’t dare have one of her six men sing it. So in a way, this rendition by four women is one of the quaintest cuts on the album.

There have been millions of subjects for songs, but “career advice given to a mother” isn’t one you hear every day. Nevertheless, that was Coward’s subject of “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington.” Here John Moffatt plays the experienced showman who gives curt, clear and concise opinions on Little Miss Worthington. While he concedes that she has “nice hands” and that “her teeth are fairly good,” he does have less encouraging words about her appearance, personality, voice, size, bust, squint and gluteus maximus. And while Coward manages to get all his laughs, he also creates the complete character of an experienced theater pro who knows what to look for in a prospective talent. Coward also proves that he would have made an excellent critic; indeed, he might have pursued that career if he’d had far less talent.

If the title of this revue seems odd, it comes from a British expression. In England, kids say (or at least used to say) “cowardy custard” the way our youths now employ “wuss.”

Not that Noel Coward was anything of the kind. To take on the writing of plays, novels and musicals – not to mention occasionally composing, directing and/or performing in them — takes a man of great courage and greater talent. His abilities had already been shown in “Forbidden Fruit” a song that he wrote in 1917 when he was a mere eighteen. About ten years later, he penned “I’m Mad about You” as a Charleston, honoring the prevailing style of the day. From the thirties we have his “Twentieth Century Blues,” which musically makes good on the last word of the title. Because the world was intoxicated by Latin music during the forties, Coward wrote the maracas-filled “Nina” during that decade. In 1952, for The Globe Revue, he parted with post-war jubilation with “There Are Bad Times Just around the Corner” in which he referenced “the black cliffs over the gray cliffs of Dover.”

If Coward liked a song that someone else wrote, he wasn’t above writing his own lyric to it. So while you may have heard many renditions of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It,” here’s a chance to hear some new perceptions courtesy of Coward. He certainly doesn’t settle for such observations as “birds do it; bees do it.” The one he wrote that involves drilling may be the most outrageous-slash-filthy lyric ever written – and easily the most audacious of its era. “I Wonder What Happened to Him” is not nearly as daring, but considering that it was written in 1945, it must be the first song to reference a transsexual.

Cowardy Custard didn’t neglect scenes from Sir Noel’s plays. “Last Words” comes from South Sea Bubble, a 1951 comedy in which a Coward-like author meets a dim woman who’s read his books and blithely states that she didn’t much like them. The speed in which Coward’s stand-in Moffatt decimates the dunce – often by delivering a single syllable the split-second after she embarrasses herself – is hilarious.

The dim-witted woman, by the way, is played by Una Stubbs, who at the time was playing the daughter in the famed British TV series Till Death Us Do Part – the role that Sally Struthers was concurrently playing in the American version of the show called All in the Family.

The album also contains a witty collection of lines that long-forgotten critics used to diminish Coward. We hear that the adjective of choice for Private Lives was “thin.” Well, you can never be too thin, as theatergoers have proved by flocking to the play for lo these eighty-three years; and you can never be too rich, although Coward made quite a pile from it.

It’s all here in stereophonic sound that Janice Dayton of Silk Stockings would have approved. Best of all, the disc begins and concludes with what may be Coward’s most beautiful and most appreciated song: “If Love Were All,” in which he famously understated his abilities as merely “a talent to amuse.”

And how does Act One end? Why, with the dry “Why Must the Show Go On?” These two discs offer evidence enough why it must.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at His books on musicals are available at