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Summary Article: Noël Coward
from The Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music

In addition to being one of the most influential figures of the British theatre as playwright and actor, Coward was an important songwriter. Indeed his own songs are both proof of the truth of his often quoted remark, 'Extraordinary how potent cheap music is', and examples of 'cheap music' at its most graceful and witty.

His first stage appearance was at the age of twelve and his first notable song, 'Parisian Pierrot', appeared in the 1923 show, London Calling, where it was introduced by Gertrude Lawrence. Coward became the young genius of the English stage and by the outbreak of the Second World War had written nine hit musicals. His first success as a lyricist came with 'Poor Little Rich Girl', sung by Alice Delysia in On with the Dance (1925), for which Philip Braham (composer of 'Limehouse Blues') wrote the music.

Coward frequently starred in his own plays and This Year of Grace (1928), with Beatrice Lillie, was his first Broadway hit. It contained two of his most popular songs, the brisk 'A Room with a View' and 'Dance Little Lady'. Bitter Sweet (1929) was Coward's attempt to construct a Viennese operetta, while his 'straight' play Private Lives featured only one song - 'Someday I'll Find You', a dramatic ballad sung on the London stage by Gertrude Lawrence.

The 1931 production Cavalcade (Coward's musical picture of the First World War) contained many songs of that period, including Irving Berlin's 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' and Ivor Novello's 'Keep the Home Fires Burning'. A Hollywood film (1933) of the play starred Clive Brook and Diana Wyngard. The best of his songs of the thirties include the comic numbers 'The Stately Homes of England', 'I Went to a Marvellous Party' and 'Mrs Worthington', with its immortal advice 'Don't put your daughter on the stage'; the romantic 'Mad About the Boy' and 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen', an urbane skit on the Empire mentality which was said to have been composed on a car trip from Hanoi to Saigon in 1930, and is probably the clearest example of the influence of Gilbert and Sullivan on him.

Coward spent much of the Second World War entertaining the troops and contributed songs for the war effort. 'London Pride', one of his best compositions, was saved from mawkishness by the precision of his imagery, while 'Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans' found him at his satirical best. The satire, however, was lost on both the BBC and EMI, who refused to broadcast or record it on the grounds that it was pro-German. In Which We Serve (1944), which won him an Oscar and was co-directed with David Lean, though propagandist in aim, remains Coward's most affecting portrait of the British.

After 1945 his career never recovered its momentum. In an age of austerity with the American cultural invasion in full swing, Coward's sophistication and languid Englishness were out of time. His own disillusion was expressed in the jaunty-sounding 'There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner' (1952). Of the seven shows mounted by the mid-sixties, only Sail Away (1961) made a real impact, with Elaine Strich starring in the Broadway production.

Increasingly Coward turned to film acting, starring in ten movies, from satires like Our Man in Havana (1960) to comedy thrillers such as The Italian Job (1969). His live shows placed him among the highest paid entertainers on the night-club circuit. His act is best captured on the 1955 live recording Noël Coward in Las Vegas (Columbia), which includes his risqué variation on Cole Porter's 'Let's Do It', containing throwaway lines like 'Ernest Hemingway could . . . just do it'. In his pre-war heyday Coward recorded for EMI's His Master's Voice label and a selection of his most successful songs (The Golden Age of Noël Coward) remains in catalogue, along with several other collections, including The Shows and The Revues on EMI. In 1992 EMI released the definitive retrospective, the four-CD box set The Master's Voice. This was followed in 1998 by Twentieth Century Blues, in which the likes of Sting, Robbie Williams, the Pet Shop Boys and Elton John attempted to give a modern edge to Coward but to little effect.

The Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music, © Phil Hardy 2001

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