Noel Coward in New York
If Noel Coward was known in America before World War II, it was only to a handful of upper-crusty sophisticates – the very people he was parodying – but in the age of the LP, Coward went mainstream – or maybe the mainstream became Coward – in a big way. By the end of the 1950s, Tony Bennett and Count Basie were swinging “Poor Little Rich Girl,” and Carmen McRae and Ralph Burns had recorded a whole album of jazz versions of Coward tunes.
It culminated when Coward personally took America by storm in 1955. Tony Bennett tells a great story about how Noel Coward made it to Las Vegas, involving a character who was as well known in his world as Coward was in his: Joe Glaser, the legendary impresario best remembered as Louis Armstrong’s manager.
There was a time when all the Las Vegas casinos were trying to top one another with name acts – at the Desert Inn, The Flamingo, the Sands, and all that. Some guy came up with Marlene Dietrich; so another guy says, “I want Noel Coward.” They said, “You can’t get Noel Coward.” Joe Glaser heard about this and said, “Do you mind if I try to get Noel Coward for you?” So they said, “Okay.” So Joe Glaser gets on the phone overseas. (At this point Tony Bennett goes into an impression of Glaser’s Chicago-gangster accent.) “Hello, Mr. Coward. This is Joe Glaser. I’m Louis Armstrong’s manager.” “Yes?” “The Desert Inn would like to have you for $60,000.” Coward said, “I’ll take it.” And they got Noel Coward in there. Columbia made a great album of that, with a wonderful cover, Noel Coward with the teacup, standing in the middle of the desert.
The Vegas album captured a renewed Noel Coward, still the embodiment of the charm and sophistication of the best of the old world, but now also reinvigorated with the energy and audacity of the new. It did so well for Columbia that producer Goddard Lieberson decided to do a second album, this time in New York, and in a studio as opposed to live.
The opening track, “I Like America,” introduced by Graham Payn in Ace of Clubs, had been “given up for dead until Peter Matz’s clever arrangement transformed it.” Perhaps it had something to do with the location, as this was a song that was obviously going to play better in the States than in the UK. “Time and Again” had been recently written by Coward for one of his Café de Paris cabaret shows and thus had never been heard in the States.
“I Wonder What Happened to Him” (1944) was one of Coward’s most successful attempts at addressing the changing world: even as early as 1930’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” Coward seems to be poking fun at the very idea of silly-ass Englishmen ruling the world. Then, after Hitler gave a bad name to world domination, Coward figured he could extract even more humor at the expense of those stuffy old officers of Her Majesty’s hardly-Secret Service who brought tea and crumpets and mass repression to India. This is a Coward comedy number for the age of Gandhi.
Contrastingly, “Half-Caste Woman,” with her Eurasian creed, seems at first far too dated to be sung at a time when Eisenhower was integrating the Federal school system. Eurasian songstress Ada-May (slanting eyes and all) originally performed this song in Cochrane’s 1931 Revue, and the half-caste woman herself fits the profile of what Afro-American film historian Donald Bogle has identified as the “tragic mulatto” figure, a recurring icon in American culture. But in the Coward universe, her ethnic background is less important than her status as yet another Poor Little Parisian Pierrot who faces the music and dances. Politics aside, it is a beautiful piece of work.
There’s not much in the New York Medley of ten Coward classics in the way of specifically New York content, but it is firmly in the tradition of his many HMV medleys of the thirties and forties. “What’s Going To Happen to the Tots,” Coward’s only contribution to an obscure revue called White Birds, could have been written in 1998 as easily as 1928. “Wait a Bit, Joe,” from Sigh No More, whose title seemed to imply that the war was over, is one of those immediate postwar songs advising returning servicemen that they can’t capture a girl’s heart as expediently as they took Berlin. Where “20th-Century Blues” (from Cavalcade) looks to the past, “Sail Away” points to the future. This tune from Ace of Clubs would spring back to life as the title of Coward’s penultimate Broadway show. “Louisa,” from a Café de Paris cabaret show, and “I Went to a Marvelous Party” are classic Coward patter-and-piano songs, monologues that are extremely hummable.
In all, suffice it to say that Coward’s 1956 trip to New York was considerably more triumphant than when he first visited in1921, when he was far from ready to take the city by storm. “My faith in my own talents remains unwavering,” he had written of that unsuccessful sojourn, “but it was unduly optimistic to suppose that Americans would be perceptive enough to see me in the same glowing light in which I saw myself.” Twenty-five years later, Americans, particularly Las Vegans and New Yorkers, saw all that and more.
– from Will Friedwald’s liner notes to Columbia Masterworks ML 5163
Music and Lyrics by Noel Coward
Orchestra Direction, Piano Accompaniment and Arrangements by Peter Matz
Recorded October 18–November 2, 1956