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An article wriiten on the occasion of the American production of Sail Away in Theatre Arts magazine, dated September 1961
Noël Coward danced into New York early this summer carrying the manuscript of Sail Away, a new musical comedy with music, lyrics, book and direction by Noël Coward, which after tryouts (three weeks each in Boston and Philadelphia) will open in New York on October 3, presented by Bonard Productions, and starring Elaine Stritch and Jean Fenn.
Coward's last New York appearance was in 1957,when he played in his own Nude with Violin. Since then, the sixty-one year old legend has been carrying on business as usual. He adapted Georges Feydeau's Occupe-toid 'Amélie, renamed it Look After Lulu, and saw it staged in London with Vivien Leigh and Anthony Quayle, and in New York with Tammy Grimes and Roddy McDowall. It was not well received here, which did not bother him in the least.
Waiting in the Wings, another play, this one with Dame Sybil Thorndike, was produced in London in the1960-61 season. He also wrote his first original score for a ballet, London Morning, produced by Anton Dolin's Festival Ballet in London; he wrote his first novel, Pomp and Circumstance, which became a best seller.
This has been the pattern of the lively, indefatigable, irrepressible Coward since the time, at three, he was carried to church by his mother and flabbergasted her and the congregation by leaping out of her arms to dance with gay abandon in the aisles. That was around 1901; he was born in suburban London on December 16, 1899.
He made his debut in 1907 at a public hall in Sutton, 'singing a song called "Cool" In 1911, after answering an advertisement and auditioning, he appeared in a pantomime called The Goldfish. Additional juvenile roles preceded his service in the Army. Gilbert Miller became interested in him in 1918, and produced Coward's I'll Leave It to You in 1920. That launched him, but it was not until 1925that he took American audiences into his slender, bony hands and shook them until they thundered their applause for The Vortex.
That same year he had five plays running simultaneously in London. No other playwright ever has equalled that record. No one could, for nobody writes as fast as Coward; even William Saroyan, when he was turning out plays at the rate of two per month, could not match his speed. He wrote Hay Fever in three days. Blithe Spirit took longer: six days. Age must be slowing him down. He spent two full weeks on the book for the new Sail Away. If indeed he is no longer as swift as he once was, that fact is not at once apparent to the visitor.
His lithe step is as purposefully, springy as ever, as he showed audiences in Our Man in Havana, one of two films he made since he appeared in New York in Nude with Violin (the other was Surprise Package). His hair is thin on top, but no thinner than it was twenty years ago. And there is still that air of overpowering sophistication, of never ending irony and wit, of champagne-bubbling joie (actually, Coward drinks sparingly) that always has characterized him and made him the darling of the international set from the time in 1920 when Elsa Maxwell discovered him and said to him impulsively, “Come along with me to Paris." Neither had any money to speak of, but Elsa knew people who did. She introduced Coward to them, and the Coward legend began.
If F. Scott Fitzgerald was the symbol of life in the United States during the twenties, or at least the high life, Coward was the same in England. More than that, he soon came to be known as the symbol of the international set, no catalogue of which was complete without a mention of Noël, usually called “Dear Noël. “He personified urbanity, good manners and, above all, restless creativeness. The last-named is concealed. behind a manner that is as imperturbable as Jeeves', if a trifle less upper class than the butler's. The first word that describes him is "faultless." The second: "impeccable." Was it not the beloved American journalist Richard Gehman who in 1958 wrote that Noël Coward was one of the few living organisms who could be impeccable even when wearing bathing shorts? Indeed it was, and today I again report that Noël Coward also is one of the few living humans who can be impeccable even while wearing an old red-white-gray striped bathrobe and lounging slippers (red), monogrammed "NC." He was in this informal ensemble when I visited him during the summer in his New York sublet.
The living room was dominated by a concert grand piano, seemingly swelling, like that huge green apple bursting in a room in René Magritte's surrealist painting. There were books and manuscripts everywhere, and a tight schedule for Sail Away staring down sternly from the mantel. In came the legend. Down sat the spare, slender frame. Up hunched the tanned knees, the dressing gown dropping away. Out came the filter cigarettes. Soon smoke swirled around the vaguely Oriental face. On went the resonant, specific, gently emphatic voice. Coward always has allowed his ideas to remain in the back of his mind for a long time before he plunges into their execution, which is why he can write with such inordinate speed.
Thus it was with Sail Away, he said. “Two years ago I had the idea of doing a musical, and I wrote the whole first act of one, and it wasn't any good. I scrapped that. But bits of it still remained in my mind, and last November I had a new idea. At Christmas-time I went down to Jamaica and suddenly found I was in a musical phase. Tunes kept on appearing every time I went to the piano. I began to write a score, not complete, but rather rough. I wrote several numbers, and then I began to think of the connecting stories to go with them. When I had done about twelve numbers, I came to New York in February and gave some auditions. At that moment I'd had the ideas of the characters I wanted to write. When I'd heard some people sing, and seen some people dance, and decided which to engage and which not to engage, I then went back to Jamaica, this time with Oliver Smith, who came to stay with me, and he planned all the sets and I did the book, more or less simultaneously. Meanwhile some more numbers appeared. Then we came back to New York and held several more auditions. And got everything under way for the production. And that's the way it stands now. It's finished. Obviously, there may have to be some changes when we get out of town, but perhaps there won't be so many. The major part of the work is now done, except for the actual rehearsing and the putting on the stage.
When Coward said "it wasn't any good “about the first act he had written, his voice was so positive, I asked him how a talent such as his decided that. He lighted a cigarette, but did not, hesitate further. “I’m very self-critical, and also I’m surrounded by friends who are very critical,“ he said. "For instance, if anybody who’s near me sees a scene and says it doesn’t sound convincing, even if I think it does I have another look at it to see what’s worrying them, and then very often - practically always - find they’re right. When one's doing something at the moment, of course, one doesn't know. It’s only a little bit later, when you turn on the critical appliance afterward, and look back, and - but of course, I'm very experienced, and I've found that if I can get it to satisfy me at this point, then the next step is to try it with an audience. I can tell at the first performance whether a scene drags or whether it's too sharp, or too quick, or if a joke that I thought was funny doesn't go over. And I give it two or three performances, and if it doesn’t work, I scrap it. I’ve generally found that things I specially like myself do come off all right, but things I'm dubious about, I think, Well, we’ll give it a trial.' Sometimes one is surprised. Sometimes the audience likes something that you really don't think they’re going to like at all. And even then you've got to be careful, because it might be the audience of that one particular time.
It's all very fascinating. “What is perhaps more fascinating to the outsider is how the glittering, ultra sophisticated world in which Coward always has lived can be transmitted in a manner that can evoke a response from the vast multitudes who do not know Elsa, the Duke and other tenants of international café society. Coward told me that he does not consider himself a man who lives exclusively in a rarefied atmosphere: "The phrase ‘rarefied life’ is not quite accurate. I don't lead a rarefied life - I lead a very simple life. True, I know a lot of very prominent people, a lot of very grand people, and a lot of very ordinary people. In fact, I've always been interested in people of allsorts. Therefore, my acquaintanceship is not limited to the eminent and the sophisticated and the grand. For instance, here I am in New York, concentrating almost entirely on conferences about the show, and I see very few people except quite ordinary ones, those who surround me, those concerned with the show. After all, I've appeared before the public since1910, and I've generally found that if I write something that amuses me, that I think is funny, or touching, or moving, or whatever it is I think I've done, generally the public agree. The critics don't alway sagree.
Obviously, like all actors, performers and writers, I’ve had some nasty surprises, things that flopped, but I think the public will accept what you give them, provided you give them something within their understanding. I hate obscurity. I try to be clear. Not always easy...”He paused, smoking in deep inhalations, reflecting, the blue-pupiled eyes squinting through the smoke. "I lead a far simpler life than most people suppose. I generally go to bed early, and I do my best work early in the morning. In Jamaica I getup at about six - first light and work steadily until lunch. In a warm climate I can do that. In Switzerland, where it’s dark early in the morning, I get up later. Here in New York I awaken about seven and can usually get two or three hours’ work done before the business of the day begins." Some months before our meeting, Coward had loosed a blast against the new wave of playwrights and directors and actors in a series of articles carried in the British press.
Among other things, he had said the new people of the atre, with their protesting penchant for writing of sordid matters, seemed definitely old-fashioned to him. They reminded him of the experimental theatre in Berlin of forty years before, he said. "It is natural enough that I should not be deeply impressed with the ‘new’ values for which our present-day young authors severally stand. To me these ‘new’ values are as familiar as a maid and butler opening a first act with a brisk exposition of the characters about to appear.” “In spite of much intellectual wishful thinking," he wrote, "the theatre is now, dance, or both. Therefore, you have to go after those who have the quality you want. There are even so many talented children. We have six in this. During the auditions, they seemed not to have a nerve in their bodies. They just came on and, uh, belted it out. They're about seven years old. But you know, I remember when I was a little boy actor, I never had a nerve. It was only later, when I became more mature, that I began to be nervous." "Are you more nervous now?" I ventured to ask. "Everybody's more nervous now," he said. "The older you get, the more nervous you get. You know the hazards. But it also gets better as you get older, for over the years you've developed the experience - you know how to do it, which you didn't at first. In the beginning, your talent dictated to you. Later, you dictate to your talent."
Now he obviously was on one of his favorite themes. "Talent is the important thing. I've seen so many people who could sing, dance - very nice voices, move very charmingly, but they have no talent. And this is something special. Then you get someone who dances infinitely less well, and whose voice is lightweight, whose voice is infinitely less rich and resonant - but there's a talent for projection, which is a God-given gift. It's some way of communicating. You go to the theatre, to cabarets, and you see any number of adequate performers, but it's only very rarely that you see someone who [he rapped his knuckles three times on the table before him] knocks you for a loop. Gertrude Lawrence was not a great dancer. All she had to do was walk across the stage. There was drama. You forgave the fact that she couldn't do fifty-nine turns to one second, and settled for her rather than somebody who could. Nothing in the world excites me so much as talent. Many years ago - 1927, I think - I wrote a play for one of our greatest actresses, Marie Tempest. I wrote it over here in America, sent it back to England, and she liked it and went into rehearsal with it. I got back to England the night after it had opened. I hadn't been at one rehearsal. And I sat in the box and watched her, and everything I had written was exactly as I had visualized it. The Marquise. Later Billie Burke played it over here. But in the Really a lovely voice - warm, lyrical and rich. Exactly right. "Then, the young man opposite her, James Hurst, was stand-by for Harve Presnell in Molly Brown. Also a lovely
There was a little girl, Patricia Harty, understudy for Pat Stanley in Fiorello!, and when Pat Stanley left she played the part. I went to see the show before I began thinking of the musical, and thought she was simply charming. And when I began doing the musical I
went to see her again, and thought she had great style - and so I engaged her Then my choreographer, Joe Layton who had done the dances for the television show The Gershwin Years, in which there were two sensational ballets told me about a young man named Grover
Dale who danced marvelously. This boy was appearing in Paris in West Side Story; Joe Layton was very keen that I should have him, and so went to Paris and saw him and engaged him.
So, I've got four comparatively newcomers - four new discoveries, I hope. In addition to which there are Stritch and Alice Pearce, and Margalo Gillmore I think I'm pretty well covered from the point of view of the performers."
That Coward has not written a part for himself into Sail Away does not mean that he is no longer interested in performing. "I'm very interested in appearing, but for the past so many
years, I have only done limited seasons." In Nude with Violin, he played here only for three months, A longer run would keep him from concentrating on his writing. "I would begin to feel trapped," he said. "Not from boredom. Never that but I have certain things I want to express,
and there would be no time for them. Playing a star part is a fulltime job." He is not especially interested in returning to Las Vegas, where he scored a personal triumph in 1956 at the Desert Inn. "They want me to go back, but I was so pleasantly surprised that I made such a success
there, and I really did enjoy that month there, that I have a curious feeling that I don't want to try to top it. It might be an anticlimax, after the warmth I got there before, and the excitement of being there for the first time. Anyway, literally, I haven't had very much time."
For the moment, Coward returned to casting Sail Away. "You know, there is an enormous amount of talent in this country," he said. "We sat through auditions month after month, and it seemed to me that nearly everybody can sing, or always has been and, I devoutly hope,
always will be primarily a place of entertainment."
It was with this in mind, he told me, that he wrote Sail Away. It is an American-style musical comedy, whatever that is, "planned entirely for entertainment." It has no "significant social message," Coward told me. It concerns a ship that leaves New York for a cruise of the Mediterranean and return. There are three stories in the book-two love stories, and the problems of the hostess, who is in constant trouble with all the tourists. "It was difficult to do because it's rather like a jigsaw puzzle," Coward said. "It was a very tricky job to keep the three stories balanced." He sighed. "The danger of writing musicals, often, is that the
book gets in the way. I've tried to keep the dialogue down to a minimum. That's the trick for a writer, which I am primarily. I have no time in this to develop çharacters. I've got to get the dialogue right,down to the bone. This is a very interesting challenge, and I hope I've got away with it. We shall see." He spoke of the casting. "Elaine Stritch is in it," he said with satisfaction.
"A marvelous talent. I'd known Stritch's work well. I'd seen her in Bus Stop, in Goldilocks; I'd known her a long time, admired her enormously. I think - I do hope - that in this show she will get what she deserves. Her part's very good, I think; she's got some very good numbers. I called her up in California and asked if she would be interested, and it all depended upon whether her television series was going on again. Well, they canceled it off. She said she'd let me know. About ten days later she called me up and said she thought the coast was clear. I told her the book wasn't written yet, and she would have to trust me. She said, 'Have you ever written a play before?' I said, 'Well, one or two . . .'
She said, 'Well, are you insane?' And I said, 'Not particularly.' She took it on trust, and I hope her trust will be justified." Coward paused, lighted another cigarette, and went on with his catalogue. "Jean Fenn I'd had no personal knowledge of, except that I'd heard that she was very beautiful to look at and had a beautiful voice. I called her, also on the Coast, and asked her to fly to New York and sing to me. She came. I was enchanted with her appearance and,
above all, with her voice and her quality. London production, that was a case of really being rewarded." The rewards, he was indicating, come not only after the piece has opened, but long before. That he already was being rewarded was evident from the excitement in his tone as he went on talking about his Sail Away people. "The thing that's been so good about this so far is that I have people with me who are so enthusiastic about the material. Joe Layton, Oliver Smith, and Pete Matz, who is my musical director. They're all contributing something to it. This always makes for professional happiness. I had the same kind of thing in my original production of Bitter Sweet, in England.
I knew from the word Go, from the very first rehearsal, everybody was with it. Peggy Wood was wonderful; all the people who played it - all made up a wonderful team. Doesn't always work that way. Sometimes you can get two or three people in the cast who upset the balance, and it goes but when it works the way Bitter Sweet did, it's heaven." There is no way of telling, of course, how Sail Away will fare. Yet, even if it is a failure, Coward will take it in his light stepping, eternally jaunty stride. He has other plans. He hopes to go out to the Far East, which he has not visited since 1936: "Just to have another look at it." En route - he will in all probability go by boat - he may have a go at his second novel, plans for which already have begun to take shape in his mind. "There are several other things I'd like to do," he said. "I should like to do a movie; I should like to do another play for a limited season in London and New York; I have a book of essays I'd like to write; I have the third volume of my autobiography that I've got to get on with sometime. . ." The first volume was called Present Indicative; the second Future Indefinite; the third will be called Past Perfect.” That it has been all but perfect, by his lights, was indicated in a remark he made as I was leaving. The Coward of today is not substantially different from the Coward who danced in the aisles of churches when carried there by his mother when he was three. "After fifty years of it, I'm still stage-struck," he said. Impeccably so.
Noël Coward as Henry Gow
in Fumed Oak