Cowardy Custard – The Original Cast Recording 1971
THE MUSIC OF NOËL COWARD It may seem perverse to suggest that Sir Noël Coward, perhaps the most renowned theatrical figure in the world today, has suffered the injustice of professional neglect, but it is true for all that. The fault lies with the man himself, who has mastered so many diverse arts that it was inevitable that some should be overlooked in favour of others. Of Coward the dramatist, actor, writer, cabaret artist, raconteur and coiner of epigrams enough has been said. But what of Coward the composer and lyricist? Because his musical work falls between the two rickety stools of the respectably classical and the outrageously commercial, little or nothing has ever been said about it, and to someone like myself, who believes that the best Coward songs will prove as durable as the best Coward plays, this seems ridiculous. Coward the musician has worked in a field dominated almost entirely by Americans. When one thinks of the outstanding popular songwriters the names which spring to mind are Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers. In lyric-writing it is Hart, Ira Gershwin, Lerner. That Coward, in the midst of his multifarious activities, should have found the time to match these men, not only as a composer but also as a lyricist, is one of the most astonishing facts about him. Of all the popular musical figures of this century, Cole Porter alone can claim a comparable mastery of both halves of the songwriting art, and Porter never wrote a play or a novel, never acted a role and never appeared in cabaret. Although songwriting has only represented a tiny proportion of his professional life, there is no question that had Coward never done anything else, his reputation would still have survived. It is true that Coward the lyricist has received sensible praise, obviously because the style and attitude of his words are merely the style and attitude of his dialogue converted into rhyme, in much the same way as the colloquial levity of P.G. Wodehouse’s shamefully neglected song lyrics mirror the suave lunacy of Bertie Wooster and company. Coward’s lighter lyrics are rooted firmly in the Gilbertian tradition of derisive comment on the foibles of the English, although Coward, with his infinitely superior grasp of rhythm, has never been limited to the rumpty-tumpty stresses which push so many of Gilbert’s verses to the brink of doggerel. In “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” the sentiments are pure Gilbert: “It seems such a shame when the English claim the earth/That they give rise to such hilarity and mirth.” But although it is the interior rhyme on the fifth and tenth syllables of the first line which show the true craftsman at work, the comic overtones of the couplet distract our attention from the neatness of the technique. “The Stately Homes of England” is an even better example of the way in which our laughing reaction to the meaning of the words tempts us to take for granted the technical wit, in this case the ingenuity of the rhythmic variations which extend and contact certain lines in a way which the listener hearing the song for the first time can never quite anticipate. But there is another aspect of Coward’s lyric writing which requires it to be judged by quite different standards. The sophistication of his rhyme-schemes and the literate expression of their sentiments bring him at once into the area dominated by Hart and Porter. Neither of those two gifted men would have been ashamed to own to the skill of “Mad About the Boy,” which ranges from the romantic “The sleepless nights I’ve had about the boy,” through the Hart-like flippancy of “Houseman really wrote ‘The Shropshire Lad’ about the boy” to the sheer knock-about comedy of “And ’ad a row with dad about the boy.” But it is a great mistake to assume that the merits of a song like “Mad About the Boy” are limited to its words. The melody happens to be one of the most enlightened examples in the entire popular repertoire of how to deploy the conventional thirty-two-bar form. Then there are the waltzes, “I’ll See You Again,” “Ziguener,” “Some Day I’ll Find You,” and the one Sinatra included in his album of definitive British ballads in 1962, “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart.” In quite a contrasting style there is “Poor Little Rich Girl,” a song so difficult to sing in a flat, listless way that it must be included among those items where the composer has contrived somehow to build into the structure an invisible dynamo which impels the melody. Most revealing of all are Coward’s harmonies which, like those of the great Jerome Kern, arrive at the perfect compromise between the refinements of the conservatoire and the earthiness of the living stage. It is this quality in his work which tempts one to nominate him as the best British light composer of the last fifty years, just as the impudent brilliance of his rhymes suggests he is the best lyricist this country has produced, certainly since Wodehouse, perhaps since Gilbert. This body of work may have been a mere sideshow for those who rejoice exclusively over his plays and his performances but to the working musician they have always been very much more than that, a major contribution to one of the most elusive of all art forms.
– Benny Green From the original liner notes for LSO-6010
ABOUT COWARDY CUSTARD A number of tributaries of interest in Noël Coward at London’s Mermaid Theatre converged during the such-as-it-was summer of 1972 to form the river head of Cowardy Custard. Sir Bernard Miles had known Sir Noël for years – he’d worked with him in the 1942 movie In Which We Serve; Coward had generously contributed to the building of the Mermaid in the ’50s; and there had been a riotous if long-delayed reunion when Coward came to Hadrian VII, which had culminated in these two sprightly theatrical knights leaving the theatre’s restaurant in the early hours one spring morning, arm-in-arm singing “Dance, Little Lady” loudly to the sleeping city of London. There had been some talk at the time of Coward’s 70th birthday celebrations of honouring him at the Mermaid, but with London resounding with the adulation of dinners and special performances and the press running to thousands of column-inches of idolatry, it seemed somehow the wrong time – too obligatory, too necessarily devotional. Bernard Miles finally signalled a go-ahead during 1971, scheduling the production as the Mermaid’s City of London Festival production for 1972 – Coward’s roots, for all his international success, after all do lie firmly in London. The initial collaborators, Gerald Frow (author of Gulliver’s Travels and other Mermaid shows and a long-time fan of Coward) and Alan Strachan, Associate Director at the Mermaid, first got to work on the show one arctic Sunday in the unheated waiting room of the Mermaid Restaurant (after some invaluable preliminary meetings picking the brains of the theatre historians and Coward experts Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson). Bolstered by hot coffee, which Sir Bernard miraculously discovered in the depths of his darkened Sunday theatre, we thumbed and hummed through a pile of songs and made the first choice of utterly obligatory musical material – a selection that would have given us, as it stood, something like nine hours running time! We’d started with the idea of a programme from Coward’s songs and sketches. But a glance at the sketch material proved that (as is usually the case with topical revue) they were somewhat dated, and far from his best work viewed some forty years on, so something else was needed to leaven the show and punctuate the flow of melody and lyric. We’d had a go-ahead from “The Master,” with carte-blanche to rifle his London office for material, to search his press cuttings and unpublished material and to help ourselves to the plays as we wished. From early discussions over many weeks in backrooms, bars and cramped offices, we’d agreed to try to present not just the material, but something of the man as well. For so long, the image of the svelte, sophisticated Coward had been taken for granted, complete with dressing-gown and looking, as he once put it himself, “like a heavily-doped Chinese illusionist.” People seemed to think he’d been born that way, the product of one of his own “Stately Homes of England.” But, as John Osborne once pointed out, this Coward was nothing but one of his own most brilliant creations. He had, in fact, crashed the profession by determination and talent, grabbing stardom as he might have crashed one of those “marvellous parties” on the Riviera and grabbed a gin fizz. We wanted to show the struggle that so many people appeared to think he’d never had, to etch in the impoverished gentility of his suburban background all those years ago with a family forced to take in lodgers, a family “enormous, active and fiercely musical,” and a young Noël “dreaming of the future, reaching for the crown” to whom the theatre was even then a magic place. So we turned to the autobiographies and the little-known poems in the attempt to give a sketch of the man through his work, to cover different angles without making it a “theatrical portrait,” without the burden of making it chronological, and with no lavish hero-worship. Now the collaborators split. Research continued in various corners of London, in Gerald Frow’s Warwickshire home and in the flat of the show’s director, Wendy Toye, who brought her enormous knowledge of previous work with Coward to the project with unflagging enthusiasm. We delved into the plays for snippets of dialogue and scenes, into the autobiographies for stepping-stones of background, and into piles of songs, many unpublished and unfamiliar. For weeks the delving, typing-out and photocopying continued. Material was circulated; meetings set up (usually a terse summons from Sir Bernard – “Can you make tomorrow at 10:00 am?”). Against the exhaustive auditions to find the right cast, the show gradually assumed a plausible shape and balance to give the kaleidoscopic glimpse of the Coward achievement we were after. Finally, Wendy Toye – miraculously organized and superbly certain of both aims and their achievements – wielded the axe over the welter of collective material and in a cold cavernous hall in North London began six weeks of long hard rehearsal to move the paper mountain towards the stage. Surprisingly, very little of our final selection or its shape was changed in the usual cut-and-thrust of musical or revue rehearsal. And, happily, the final outcome was not only immensely successful with both critics and audience, but also eminently satisfactory to the Master himself (an acute critic, especially of productions of his own work), whose final and definitive “note” to Wendy Toye, after a dazzling first night on which he was twice given a standing ovation by a packed house, was simply “don’t change a thing.” The show’s immense success would seem not only to have amply justified Coward’s humble claim that “the most I’ve had is just a talent to amuse.” We hope it has also shown that this, on the Master’s scale, is no mean achievement.
– Gerald Frow / Alan Strachan From the original liner notes for LSO-6010
*Songs in the OPENING MEDLEY are I’ll See You Again (from Bitter-Sweet) Time and Again (1950s) Has Anybody Seen Our Ship? (Red Peppers from Tonight at 8:30, 1936) Try to Learn to Love (from This Year of Grace, 1928) Kiss Me (from Bitter-Sweet) Go Slow, Johnny (from Sail Away, 1961) Tokay (from Bitter-Sweet) Dearest Love (from Operette, 1938) Could You Please Oblige Us with a Bren Gun? (1940s) Come the Wild, Wild Weather (from Waiting in the Wings, 1960) Spinning Song (1950s) Parisian Pierrot (from London Calling, 1923) The Boy Actor (from Not Yet the Dodo and Other Verses, 1967) Play, Orchestra, Play (from Shadow Play, from Tonight at 8:30, 1936) Shadow Play / You Were There (from Shadow Play) Any Little Fish (from Cochran’s 1931 Review) A Room with a View (from This Year of Grace) New York Poverty (from Present Indicative) When You Want Me (from Sail Away) Specially for You (from Charlot’ s Revue, 1924) Beatnik Love Affair (from Sail Away) Success (from Present Indicative) I’m Mad About You (from This Year of Grace) Poor Little Rich Girl (from On with the Dance, 1925) **Songs in the LONDON SEQUENCE are London Pride London Is a Little Bit of All Right (from The Girl Who Came to Supper, 1963) What Ho, Mrs. Brisket (from The Girl Who Came to Supper) Don’t Take Our Charlie for the Army (from The Girl Who Came to Supper) Saturday Night at the Rose and Crown (from The Girl Who Came to Supper) London at Night (from After the Ball, 1954) London Finale ***Songs in the TRAVEL SEQUENCE are I Love Travelling The Passenger’s Always Right (from Sail Away, 1961) Useful Phrases (from Sail Away) Why Do the Wrong People Travel? (from Sail Away) St. Peter’s (from Come into the Garden Maud, 1965) ****Songs in the CLOSING MEDLEY are Touring Days (1920s) Nothing Can Last For Ever (from Ace of Clubs) Would You Like to Stick a Pin in My Balloon? (from Ace of Clubs) Mary Make-Believe (from This Year of Grace) Dance, Little Lady (from This Year of Grace) Men About Town (from Tonight at 8:30) Forbidden Fruit (1917) Sigh No More (from Sigh No More) Younger Generation (from Words and Music) I’ll Follow My Secret Heart (from Bitter-Sweet) If Love Were All (from Bitter-Sweet)
CAST Olivia Breeze Geoffrey Burridge Jonathan Cecil Tudor Davies Elaine Delmar Laurel Ford Peter Gale John Moffatt Patricia Routledge Anna Sharkey Una Stubbs Derek Waring Words and Music by Noël Coward Directed by Wendy Toye and the Cast Orchestrations by Keith Amos Musical Director John Burrows