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8.120559 - COWARD, Noel: Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1932-1936)
Volume 2: Mad Dogs And Englishman
As a comic genius and purveyor of his own unique brand of sarcastic wit Coward, playwright, singing-actor, novelist, short-story writer, composer-lyricist, director film-star and all-round Man of the Theatre is now viewed in the tradition of Congreve, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Wilde and Shaw. And Coward excelled his predecessors in one vital aspect: he combined his clever lyrics with a brilliantly piquant and economically tuneful music, alternately sentimental and pithily eloquent, which has endeared him to successive generations of admirers.
Born on 16th December, 1899, in Middlesex, Noël Peirce Coward spent the first five years of his comfortable, middle-class upbringing in Waldegrave Road, Teddington and afterwards grew up in Surbiton, Surrey. Although he received no formal training in music he was always aware of it as an art-form, and as his paternal grandfather was a music professor and several of his aunts and uncles were members of Teddingtons St. Albans Church Choir, one might say it was in his blood. His first love, however, was the theatre and his mother took him frequently to Dalys and the Gaiety, where he would bask in the glow of Lily Elsie, Camille Clifford, Gertie Millar, Gabrielle Ray and the other glamorous stars of the Edwardian musicals of Sidney Jones, Leslie Stuart, Lionel Monckton and Paul Rubens.
Noëls own first stage appearance was in the childrens play The Goldfish, at the London Little Theatre, on 27th January, 1911. This début was followed by other juvenile rôles undertaken mostly under the directorship of Charles Hawtrey. After serving in the British Army in 1918, he wrote and acted in the first of his own plays, the unsuccessful Ill Leave It To You (New Theatre, July 1920) and in May 1921 he made his stage début, again with little success, in New York. Premièred in London, his next play The Young Idea (Savoy Theatre, February 1923) was more gratefully received, but a far greater success ensued from his association with André Charlots London Calling (Duke of Yorks, September 1923) in which Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952) co-starred. For this revue Coward produced most of the lyrics and music, with "Parisian Pierrot" and "Russian Blues" still the best-remembered of his twelve song contributions.
While his straight plays The Vortex (1923), Fallen Angels and Hay Fever (both 1925) earned him a not unqualified recognition, his further revues for Charlot and C.B. Cochran (1872-1951) foreshadowed his far greater talent for musical comedy, beginning with On With The Dance (1925), a star-studded show for which he wrote all twelve numbers, most notably "Poor Little Rich Girl". In 1928, again, for Cochran, Coward provided all lyrics and songs, including "Dance, Little Lady" and "A Room With A View". A resounding triumph which ran in London for 316 performances (and a further 157 in a simultaneous Broadway production), it brought its author £1000 per week in royalties and helped to consolidate his name in a Transatlantic sense.
Bitter Sweet (London, then New York, 1929) was Cowards answer to a call for Viennese operetta and, at 697 initial performances, proved his biggest box-office draw to date. With "Ill See You Again" and "Ziguener" its main highlights, this quintessential Coward show was the first to be filmed (in England, in 1933). With Private Lives (Phoenix Theatre, September, 1930), his stage partnership with Gertrude Lawrence was reaffirmed in a "comedy with music". With its immortally droll, tongue-in-cheek lovescenes and subtle mockery, it proved a significant milestone both in London and, in 1931, on Broadway. And during that same year, Coward had further successes in London with Cochrans Revue and Cavalcade, a monumental paean to Edwardian life which, two years later, netted its author a $1m-dollar contract for an Academy Awardwinning Fox films production.
Meanwhile London, in 1932, had seen the première of Words And Music (Adelphi, 164 performances). Presented for Cochran with the usual Cowardian mixture of worldweariness and frivolity this show, albeit it lacked the wonted star-studded casts and spectacular sets and lasted only five months, contained no fewer than eighteen Coward numbers, including some of his most durable, most notably Mad Dogs And Englishmen (thereafter his indispensable signature-tune and to this day the most representative sample of his satirical humour, this had had its first airing in New York, in The Third Little Show, in 1931), the poignant Lets Say Goodbye, The Partys Over Now and Something To Do With Spring.
In 1936, after the further successes of Design For Living (1933) and Conversation Piece (1934), Coward sublimated his talent for satire and musical comedy in Tonight At 8.30. Originally entitled Tonight At 7.30, this series of nine one-act plays (of which three had interpolated musical interludes) was first presented in two groups at the Phoenix, in January, 1936. The series co-starred Lawrence and ran for 157 performances (plus another 118 on Broadway). Family Album contained Heres A Toast and Hearts And Flowers (Musical Box); Shadow Play Then; Play Orchestra, Play and You Were There and Red Peppers (featuring Gertrude in a trouser role) the whimsical Has Anybody Seen Our Ship? and Men About Town.
In the early 1930s Coward wrote various miscellaneous songs, some of which may have originally been intended for inclusion in revues or shows. Some of these he recorded (notably the sentimental I Travel Alone, Most Of Evry Day and Fare Thee Well) and these, along with the best songs by Cole Porter, Ralph Rainger and other popular contemporary writers, were regular features of his cabaret appearances.
Peter Dempsey, 2001
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