"Love, Noel : The Songs and Letters of Noel Coward" - New York City Article
"Love, Noel : The Songs and Letters of Noel Coward" Follow @nyccitiview
“Love, Noël : The Songs and Letters of Noël Coward”
Starring Steve Ross and KT Sullivan
Devised and written by Barry Day
Directed by Charlotte Moore
The Irish Rep
132 W 22nd St
Through August 25
One of the first lines we hear in Love, Noël is the famous testimonial given by Lord Louis Mountbatten’s at Coward's 70th birthday celebration: "There are probably greater painters than Noël, greater novelists than Noël, greater librettists, greater composers of music, greater singers, greater dancers, greater comedians, greater tragedians, greater stage producers, greater film directors, greater cabaret artists, greater TV stars. . . . If there are, they are 14 different people. Only one man combined all 14 different talents—The Master, Noël Coward."
Agreed. But the larger point is not that Coward did all kinds of different things - he was much more of a musical and theatrical polymath, probably, than any other figure in all of history, but the way that all these myriad talents interlocked with each other. At the height of his fame in the 1930s, Coward was not only everything that Lord Louis said, but also a highly successful recording artist. And in addition to making records of his own songs, he also recorded sections of his non-musical plays, most famously, the key nine minutes of dialog from his masterpiece comedy, Private Lives. These sold well enough for HMV to record and release at least four of them (also Shadow Play, Family Album, Red Pepper) and it's not hard to see why: there's a remarkable consistency to everything he wrote, and even the spoken words in his plays have the poingancy and the musicality of his best lyrics: lines like “Moonlight can be cruelly deceptive” and “There isn’t a particle of you that I don’t know, remember, and want" might sound even better if they were sung rather than spoken, and dialog such as,
He: "“That orchestra has a remarkably small repertoire."
She: "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is."
is not only remarkable for the emotional content and the self-deprecating humor (the phrase "cheap music" refers to one of his own songs) but for the rhythm of the words - the beat, the tempo, the time signature here are no less important than in one of his own patter songs, like "Mad Dogs and Englishmen." As a piece of conversation, it literally sings.
This is why Love, Noël, a concoction by Barry Day works so well - because Coward's correspondence is just as poetic and performative as his lyrics and his dialog. In 80 minutes, the high points of Coward's life and career are laid out, and illuminated not only by songs but by letters. Because the performers are the delectable Steve Ross and KT Sullivan, ie, a man and a woman, special attention is given to the ladies in Sir Noël's life; famously Gertrude Lawrence, but he also had platonic but intense affairs with Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Elaine Stritch. The overall format is one that I have long been predicting would become more and more prevalent, somewhere between a very ambitious cabaret show and an extraordinarily intimate work of musical theater. Coward is hardly an under-appreciated or under-sung songwriter - even ignoring the other 14 (or is it 15?) aspects of his canon - I've seen many more songbook shows devoted to his music, than say, that of Harry Warren, but Mr. Ross and Ms. Sullivan make it clear why he is so consistently worthy of our attention.
Author: Will Friedwald
Will Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, VANITY FAIR and PLAYBOY magazine and reviews current shows for THE CITIVIEW NEW YORK. He also is the author of nine books, including the award-winning A BIOGRAPHICAL GUIDE TO THE GREAT JAZZ AND POP SINGERS, SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU, STARDUST MELODIES, TONY BENNETT: THE GOOD LIFE, LOONEY TUNES & MERRIE MELODIES, and JAZZ SINGING. He has written over 600 liner notes for compact discs, received ten Grammy nominations, and appears frequently on television and other documentaries. He is also a consultant and curator for Apple Music.
SINATRA: THE SONG IS YOU - NEW REVISED EDITION (Chicago Review Press, May 2018)