Born in Teddington, Middlesex on 16 December 1899, Noel Pierce Coward was a star pupil of the Itala Conti stage school and was recalled by fellow pupil and contemporary Gertrude Lawrence as "...a thin, unusually shy boy with a slight lisp". Little could either teenager have foreseen the years of world fame that would follow and the times when they would work as a team and enthrall their audiences. Although moderately successful as a young actor, Noel's first big break came in 1923 in the Andre Charlot revue London Calling where he appeared with his soul mate Gertrude Lawrence. As librettist and composer, his Parisian Pierrot as performed by Gertrude was the hit of the show.
The following year saw Coward's career really begin to snowball. He had written a meaty part for himself in a play called 'The Vortex', which created a sensation with its frank depiction of drug taking.
With the revue On With The Dance in 1925 Noel began a nine year partnership with leading impresario C B Cochran. Unsure of Noel's composing abilities, Cochran refused to entrust the music to him, conceding only on the book and lyrics. Philip Braham was commissioned for the music but the wily Coward ensured that much of the music (his) was inexorably entwined with his sketches. In the event, Coward's own Poor Little Rich Girl, as sung by Alice Delysia, was the best remembered song of the revue. Cochran had wanted it removed but Coward insisted; his point was proven.
In June of 1925 Marie Tempest opened in one of Coward's most enduring plays, the comedy 'Hay Fever' (which he had dashed off in just three days the previous year!). Two months later he visited the recording studios for the first time but his efforts were rejected and don't appear, alas, to have survived. Later the same month he sailed for America where he triumphed in 'The Vortex' in New York after a shaky try-out in Washington.
More plays followed where Coward was writer and performer, save for a short foray as an actor in Margaret Kennedy's 'The Constant Nymph'. But he was taking on too much and suffered a nervous breakdown.
Late in 1927 Coward was contracted by C B Cochran to write a new revue - this time he was to write all the music as well as the book and the lyrics. This Year Of Grace opened on 22 March 1928 at the London Pavilion and scored a bull's-eye. The cast included Jessie Matthews and Sonnie Hale, who introduced the show-stopping number A Room With A View (Coward unashamedly admitted to pinching the song's title from E M Forster's novel). At the time, Jessie's marriage to Harry Lytton was on the rocks and Sonnie felt overshadowed by the fame of his wife, Evelyn Laye. Night after night as they held hands and gazed out of the window in the quaint stage setting and sang "A room with a view and you...We'll be so happy and contented as birds upon a tree...", it was perhaps not surprising that they should begin to fall in love in real life and to marry in January 1931. Sonnie sang the other hit song from the show, Dance, Little Lady to Lauri Devine. Noel himself, in the Sonnie Hale role, starred in the New York production of This Year Of Grace which opened in October 1928 and ran well into the following year. Billy Milton replaced Coward when the latter returned to London. Noel had penned a new number for the American production, World Weary- introduced by Beatrice Lillie. Later he recalled that she sang it "...while munching an apple realistically, sometimes at the expense of the lyric". The line "I'm so sick of their God-damned faces" had to be changed to "...damn-fool faces" for broadcast (and apparently recording) purposes, much to Noel's chagrin.
Whilst still in New York, Coward completed his score for the operetta Bitter-Sweet, set in Vienna and London between 1875 and 1929. Early on he realised that Gertrude Lawrence's voice was not operatic enough for the demanding role so he asked C B Cochran to sound out Evelyn Laye. Evelyn however, naturally upset with the shenanigans going on between her estranged husband and Jessie Matthews, rejected Noel's proposal out of hand. Unwise, as she herself admitted later. Instead the leading role went to the American Peggy Wood who opened alongside George Metaxa and others at His Majesty's Theatre, London on 18 July 1929. It ran in London for an exceedingly healthy 21 months. Coward later wrote that his waltz song I'll See You Again "...has proved over the years to be the greatest song hit I have ever had or am likely to have...Brass bands have blared it, string orchestras have swooned it, Palm Court quartettes have murdered it, barrel organs have ground it out in London squares and swing bands have tortured it beyond recognition." Evelyn Laye, having come to her senses after turning down the role of Sari in the London production of Bitter-Sweet, triumphed in the New York opening.
By way of consolation for Gertrude Lawrence missing out on Bitter-Sweet, Noel wrote one of his most durable light comedies, Private Lives, for her. The London opening of this 'comedy with music' was at the Phoenix Theatre on 24 September 1930 and centered round Noel Coward as Elyot Chase and Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda Prynne. Amanda's new husband, Victor, was played by the young Laurence Olivier in an early and untypical role. Gertrude recalled that "Private Lives ran three months in London, even though it could have run much longer. Noel does not like long runs." In January 1931 Noel and Gertie repeated their success on Broadway for a further three months and in May Noel sailed back to London to begin work on Cavalcade.
Meantime, after the London run of Private Lives, Noel had found time to write four numbers for Cochran's 1931 Revue and recorded two of them, Any Little Fish and Half-Caste Woman early in the New Year.
Always intensely patriotic, Coward was inspired to write Cavalcade after poring over some old copies of the 'Illustrated London News'. The play or 'musical spectacle' which transpired concentrated on one family and their servants in a thirty year slice of their lives, encompassing triumphs and tragedies, from New Year's Eve 1899. The play, in two acts, was an epic on a grand scale with 32 scenes and touched on the Boer War, the Titanic disaster and World War I along the way. Cast and technicians numbered over 400 and despite first night jitters, when one of the lifts jammed and held up the action for what seemed an interminable four and a half minutes, it ran for 405 performances at the Drury Lane Theatre from 13 October 1931. Most of the music comprised popular songs of the period but Noel contributed four songs, two of which he recorded, Lover Of My Dreams and (as part of his medley) Twentieth Century Blues. The Toast was spoken by Mary Clare, towards the end of the play, in the original production. To date, the last British revival was staged at Sadler's Wells Theatre in August 1995.
Words And Music was a revue made up of songs and sketches that Noel had been stockpiling since This Year Of Grace four years earlier. The cast included John Mills, Ivy St Helier, Joyce Barbour and Romney Brent in its ranks and they opened at the Adelphi on 16 September 1932. Notices were good but ticket sales began to fall away so that it ran for barely twenty weeks. Although Noel and Gertie didn't appear in Words And Music, there was nothing to stop them making records of songs from it. We've three from Noel, including the celebrated Mad Dogs And Englishmen, and two from Gertrude.
In 1933 Noel opened in New York in his new play 'Design For Living' with husband-and-wife team Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Again, the reviews were good but as America was still suffering the after effects of the slump it didn't run as long as it might have done and closed on Broadway in late May. Back in England, Coward worked on 'Conversation Piece', an operetta set in Brighton in 1811 which he had in mind for the French actress and singer Yvonne Printemps. At the eleventh hour, one of Yvonne's co-stars, the American comedian Romney Brent got cold feet and demanded his release. Noel himself replaced him. Thanks mainly to Yvonne, the operetta, which had opened at His Majesty's Theatre in London on 16 February 1934, was a triumph. After a couple of months, Noel took a break from his role and was replaced by Pierre Fresnay who soon married the leading lady. It was at this time too that Noel terminated his nine year association with the impresario C B Cochran.
Coward's next foray into revue was a series of nine short plays under the umbrella title of Tonight At 8.30. Reunited with his beloved Gertrude Lawrence, the full company opened at the Manchester Opera House in October 1935 before embarking on a 9-week provincial tour. The London opening was at the Phoenix Theatre on 9 January 1936. The sequence of the plays was frequently altered, perhaps to discourage staleness setting in; only three of the plays were acted at any one time. Essentially, there were three different triple bills. Of the nine, Red Peppers, which centred round the none-too-happily married, bickering music hall turn of George and Lily Pepper was the most popular. Shadow Play brought two mismatched lovers together and Family Album (or family quarrels) was set in the Victorian era. Noel alone sings We Were Dancing, the title number from another of the plays. 'Still Life', from the third cycle, enjoyed wider fame in 1946 when it appeared in extended form as the great British film 'Brief Encounter'. Tonight At 8.30 finished its run in England in late June 1936. In October Noel and Gertie opened in the revue in the USA, initially in Boston and Washington DC before the New York run. Noel collapsed through strain in March of 1937 and consequently the run of the revue finished abruptly and prematurely.
The musical play Operette proved to be one of Coward's least successful musicals. It contained just one show-stopper, The Stately Homes Of England, introduced by four male members of the cast. Dearest Love and Where Are The Songs We Sung? were performed by Peggy Wood. The Viennese singer Fritzi Massary came out of retirement to take the role of Liesl. One of her songs was Gipsy Melody, but it had a short life as it was dropped from the show before the London opening, at His Majesty's, on 16 March 1938. Noel's recording is something of a rarity inasmuch as the original 78rpm disc was only available for a few weeks. All was not lost, however, as the song re-emerged (with a couple of minor changes) over eight years later in Pacific 1860. Coward connoisseurs will note the fuller version of Noel's scarce recording of Dearest Love with orchestra, the flipside of the aforementioned Gipsy Melody. Noel re-did Dearest Love with Carroll Gibbons at the piano seven weeks later at a more leisurely tempo but sacrificed the opening verse.
Now, why the seven year gap? Noel Coward put it succinctly thus: ""When the Second World War began in 1939 I decided, with tight-lipped patriotism, to renounce all creative impulse for the duration and devote myself hook, line and sinker to the service of my country. This gesture, admirable as it appeared to me at the time, turned out on more mature consideration to be a rather silly one.""
Noel had a busy war, giving innumerable troop concerts all over the world. Along the way he wrote the comedy 'Blithe Spirit' (later filmed) and a handful of songs including 'London Pride', inspired by his admiration at the way Londoners were determinedly going about their lives even during the Blitz. The film 'In Which We Serve' (1942) starred Noel as a ship's captain. He also wrote the script, music and acted as producer and co-director. In contrast to much of his work, this was real drama - a salute to the navy in wartime - and it won Coward a special Oscar for 'outstanding production achievement' early in 1943.
Come peacetime, Coward's first revue in over seven years, Sigh No More opened at the Piccadilly Theatre in London on 28 August 1945. It boasted a strong cast which included Joyce Grenfell and Cyril Ritchard. The reviews were not ecstatic however, though it continued to run into 1946. I Wonder What Happened To Him? had been inspired by the still-prevalent Colonel Blimp types that Coward was amazed to come across in India in 1944. Nina was another typical self-explanatory comedy number whilst the contrasting Matelot was written especially for Graham Payn. Coward himself frequently used these last two numbers in his cabaret turns, notably in performance at Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn at Las Vegas in 1955.
If Sigh No More was not an unqualified success, then Pacific 1860 was a disaster. It opened at Drury Lane on 19 December 1946 during one of the coldest winters in living memory. Exacerbated by the post-war fuel crisis and weak notices, the star Mary Martin did her best but to no avail; the musical comedy closed in April and the whole production sustained heavy losses. This was a pity, with numbers like His Excellency Regrets and, particularly, Uncle Harry - among the best of Coward's comedy songs and staple fare for future cabaret dates.
From this time on, effectively until the National Theatre's revival of 'Hay Fever' in 1964, Coward's reputation went into something of an eclipse. Many regarded him as a relic from a distant and halcyon pre-war era. This was not so; he had simply gone out of fashion. Fortunately, his renaissance began well within his lifetime, and a knighthood in 1970, just a couple of weeks after his seventieth birthday (and not before time) was the icing on the cake - the official seal of approval if you like. His last years were leisurely; he had earned his retirement and he died at his home in Jamaica on 26 March 1973.
Sir John Betjeman, the Poet Laureate, read Noel's last completed work at his memorial service:
When I have fears, as Keats had fears,
Of the moment I'll cease to be;
I console myself with vanished years,
Remembered laughter, remembered tears,
And the peace of the changing sea.
When I feel sad, as Keats felt sad,
That my life is so nearly done;
It gives me comfort to dwell upon
Remembered friends who are dead and gone,
And the jokes we had and the fun.
How happy they are I cannot know,
But happy am I who loved them so.
1999 HUGH PALMER