He was a jack of all trades artistic and master of them all. Trendsetter and admired cultural icon, Noel Coward was a British actor, playwright, dancer, composer and lyricist of songs, musicals and operettas, screenwriter and director, painter, novelist, and diarist, whose style, rapier wit, and intellect dominated the worlds of British theater and entertainment throughout the 1930’s, ’40s, and ’50s. Coward is the larger-than-life subject of Simon Green and David Shrubsole’s intimate evening Life Is for Living: Conversations with Coward at 59E59 Theaters. The presentation, the newest in a series of this British team’s collaborations devoted to Coward, uses Coward’s songs with excerpts from his diaries, verse, and letters, to offer us a glimpse into the breadth, artistry, life, and wit of the Master.
When did this bon vivant have the time to complete 50 plays, 400 songs, many beloved and enduring, among so much else he wrote and did? During World War II, his song “London Pride” ranked next to the British national anthem in popularity.
The show is an artistic collaboration and co-creation of love. Dapper in a gray fitted suit and funky vest, Green is a British actor who has instant heart connection with his audience and a pleasing voice. The talented (and British) Shrubsole, musical director, contributed original music and lyrics as well as piano accompaniment to Green’s declamations and song. It is lovely to sit at small tables, cabaret style, the performers and piano framed by long, red velvet drapery that warms and gives ambiance to the theater.
The wonder of the show is in its perfectly pitched performance and thoughtful selections of Coward songs and text to bring us Coward the man, Coward the wicked observer of his class and of the human condition, as well as the deeper reflective mind of Coward that is the true engine and genius behind all the other Cowards. And, whatever the guise, Coward is always fun. In one excerpt, Coward addresses his mother, to whom he was devoted throughout his life, “Dear Old Snig,” informing her, in self-parody, of a publisher interested in diary material. “Here is the opportunity I had been waiting for…to deliver a smattering of fact and a good deal of fantasy.”
In a diary note, he recommends the Time Square subway station “for a really jolly evening” and suggests that “the great thing is to keep calm and at all costs to avoid expresses.” In another, he recounts an episode of gangsters who turn out to be autograph seekers who then feast and regale Coward and his friends the following night at the Algonquin.
Sounding a different note, the day after the death of his mother in 1954, Coward wrote concisely of “Fifty-four years of love and tenderness and crossness and devotion and unswerving loyalty.” Coward the man was known in the world of the theater for his kindness and for often paying the debt of colleagues in need—unasked.
Best, of course, are the songs, which include old favorites as well as little-known gems. There are a good number of songs about love as well as songs of pure fun (“I Went to a Marvelous Party”). There are songs that take a stern look at aging (“Later Than Spring”), and one that ruminates over God’s existence (“Do I Believe in God,” with musical setting by Shrubsole). In “What’s Going to Happen to the Tots,” Coward catalogues the injections, drinking, benzadrine, dexamil, sleeping pills, dieting, and face-lifts, that occupied middle-aged parents in the 1950s and still seem relevant today.
Although all of the text is either Coward or from letters addressed to Coward, only eight out of 18 songs are pure Coward (music and lyrics); another two feature the writing of Coward put to the piano arrangement of Shrubsole. The rest of the songs are by Coward’s friends and contemporaries, such as Ivor Novello, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin.
Coward once wrote a description of his great friend Novello’s “glamorous life” and the “magic atmosphere in which he moved and breathed with such nonchalance.” He might have been describing himself. But Coward’s remarkable output, iron discipline and devotion to his craft belie the image he carefully cultivated. Instead, this show reminds of the sensibility, depth and linguistic virtuosity that have ravished us for nearly a century.
Life Is for Living–Conversations with Coward runs through Jan. 1 at 59 East 59th St. Theaters (between Park and Madison). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; and at 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Matinees are at 2:30 and 5:30 p.m. Saturday, 5:30 p.m. Friday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday, with additional performances at 3:30 p.m. Dec. 29 and at 7:30 p.m. on New Year’s Day. (There is no performance Dec. 25.) Tickets are $25 and may be obtained by calling (646) 892-7999 or visiting www.59e59.org.