About this Recording
8.120721 - COWARD, Noel: I Wonder What Happened to Him (1944-1951)



I Wonder What Happened To Him

Original 1944-1951 Recordings


His triumph has been to unite two things ever disassociated in the English mind: hard work and wit  – Kenneth Tynan


Noël Coward’s polymathic activities as a performer – embracing straight theatre, cabaret revue and cinema – were matched only by his contributions as playwright and critic and as songsmith rivalled only by Cole Porter.  A kind of 20th century ‘Renaissance Man’ he was also a highly skilled and successful theatrical entrepre-neur.  Born Noël Peirce Coward in Teddington into a comfortable, middle-class family, he grew up in suburban Surbiton in Surrey, receiving no formal musical training, albeit several of his antecedents were practising musicians.  From the first his inclination veered unerringly towards the theatre and, at Daly’s and the Gaiety, he was fed on a diet of Edwardian musical comedy and the lighter drama classics until he made his own first stage appearance in The Goldfish, at the London Little Theatre, in 1911.


By that time the self-taught Coward was also writing music (his earliest surviving song dates from 1915) and, under the tutelage of Charles Hawtrey, he made a few other juvenile appearances as an actor prior to a brief stint in the British Army during WW1, during 1918, the year he also made his first film appearance, in D.W.Griffith’s Hearts Of The World (a British-made silent starring Dorothy and Lillian Gish).  In 1920 he starred in his first play I’ll Leave It To You (which failed) and, less than a year later and again unsuccessfully, he made his New York stage début.  In London, in February 1923, he made less of an impression in his next play The Young Idea than in the André Charlot revue London Calling, in which he danced with his co-star Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952) and collaborated with writer Ronald Jeans on twelve numbers, of which the wistful “Parisian Pierrot” is best remembered.


Coward’s parallel career as a playwright blossomed simultaneously and his straight plays The Vortex (1923), Fallen Angels and Hay Fever (both 1925) won him early recognition. However, it was in his contributions to revues, first for Charlot then, more significantly, for C.B.Cochran (1872-1951), that his greater talent for musical comedy first manifested itself.  In 1925 the first of these, On With The Dance (a star-studded show for which Coward wrote all twelve numbers, including the catchy “Poor Little Rich Girl”, introduced by the French-born Alice Delysia) made him his name in the genre and led to the bigger success, again for Cochran, of This Year Of Grace (1928).  For this show (a virtual triumph with a 316-performance London run complemented by 157 in a concurrent Broadway production which netted him £1000 per week in royalties and established his American reputation), Coward wrote all lyrics and songs, including the jazz-influenced “Dance, Little Lady” and “A Room With A View”.


In 1929, inspired – he claimed – by Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, Coward decided to try his hand at the Viennese ‘operette’ with Bitter-Sweet.  His stars of the original London production (697 performances), the American soprano Peggy Wood and Rumanian high-baritone Georges Metaxa, regaled audiences with “Dear Little Café” and “I’ll See You Again”.  The show also ran for 159 performances on Broadway and was the first Coward musical to be filmed (in England, in 1933).  In 1930, in London, in the ‘comedy with music’ Private Lives, Coward next reaffirmed his stage partnership with Gertrude Lawrence (its Broadway production the following year was also a significant hit) and in another successful London revue, Cavalcade, for Cochran.  This monumental paean to Edwardian life, two years later, would land its author a $1million contract for an Oscar-winning Fox films production.


Meanwhile, in London in 1932, Words And Music ran at the Adelphi for 164 performances. Produced for Cochran and featuring Ivy St. Helier, Effie Atherton and a very young John Mills, this contained eighteen Coward numbers, most notably “Mad Dogs And Englishmen” and “Mad About The Boy”.  After the further successes of the non-musical Design For Living (1933) and the 1934 musical Conversation Piece, in 1936 Coward combined his talent for satire and musical comedy in Tonight At 8.30, a series of nine one-acters of which three contained musical interludes.  First presented at the London Phoenix and co-starring Coward and Lawrence, these also ran on Broadway.


In 1938, at His Majesty’s Theatre, Operette proved a comparative failure for its author, despite some very plaintive tunes in the best Coward tradition, notably “Dearest Love”, “Where Are The Songs We Sung?” and the monumentally droll “Stately Homes Of England”.  It was to be his last British pre-war musical, but the outbreak of the Second World War found Coward busy working for ENSA and the war-effort.  In 1942, in the propaganda film In Which We Serve (his first screen appearance for nine years) he played a Mountbatten-like admiral and wartime inspired some of the finest Coward ‘occasionals’, including “Don’t Let’s Be Beastly To The Germans” (wrongly interpreted as pro-Nazi, this was for a time banned by the BBC) and “Could You Please Oblige Us With A Bren Gun?” (a sort of Cowardian sequel to “The Washing On The Siegfried Line”) and defiant morale-boosters, like There Have Been Songs In England and the more enduring “London Pride”.


In the immediate postwar era Coward made a welcome return to the musical theatre with the revue Sigh No More (Piccadilly Theatre, London, 1945) and whereas his satire may have lost some of its former edge, this show, which ran for 213 performances and featured Cyril Ritchard, Graham Payn and Joyce Grenfell, included some fine numbers:  “Du Maurier”, Sigh No More, I Wonder What Happened To Him, Nina (a masterly Cole Porteresque skit on the vagaries of South America and dancing-girls), Matelot, Never Again, Wait A Bit, Joe and a new arrangement of the traditional Scots song Loch Lomond.  His first full-scale postwar musical, Pacific 1860 (Drury Lane, 1946), which ran for only nine-months (129 performances) was a disaster. Starring Mary Martin (who ‘never really felt comfortable as Mme. Salvador’) and Graham Payn, and co-starring Daphne Anderson, Sylvia Cecil, Maria Perilli and Pat McGrath with backing from the Mantovani Orchestra, its spectacle was misplaced in a world of postwar austerity (a Changing World, indeed!)  Drury Lane Theatre was cold and forbidding and several parts were miscast, although several of its wistful numbers are still remembered (in particular, “I Never Knew”, Bright Was The Day, Uncle Harry and His Excellency Regrets).


In July 1950, Ace Of Clubs opened at the Cambridge to another meagre run of just 211 performances.  Its cast included Sylvia Cecil, Raymond Young, Myles Eason, Jean Carson, Pat Kirkwood, Graham Payn, Peter Tuddenham and Norman Warwick and of its ten numbers “Three Juvenile Delinquents” (a re-writing of “Stately Homes Of England” for Teddy Boys in embryo), “I Like America”, Josephine (a fine cabaret-style number about Napoleon’s consort) and Sail Away are still rated by Coward devotees among his best.  The Lyric Revue, which opened at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in May 1951 (featuring Graham Payn, Gerard Bryant, George Benson, Dora Bryan, Irlin Hall and Joan Heal) enjoyed an altogether healthier total run of 454 performances, and was to prove his most successful postwar venture, despite only two numbers:  “The Youth Of The Heart” and Don’t Make Fun Of The Fair.   


Peter Dempsey, 2003

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