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Coward, Sir Noël (1899-1973)  
 
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During this period of renewed appreciation, on March 26, 1973, Coward succumbed to a stroke. He was buried on the grounds of Firefly, his home in Jamaica. Later a plaque in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner was erected in his honor.

On December 9, 1998, with Graham Payn at her side, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, unveiled a statue of her long-time friend in the foyer of Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London.

Sponsor Message.

Theater Music

Coward's contribution to musical theater is primarily that of songwriter. Although his fully realized musicals seem dated, his songs (often written for revues) have a life beyond their original contexts and continue to charm by virtue of their wit and sophistication.

Songs such as "A Room with a View" (1928), "If Love Were All" (1929), "Someday I'll Find You" (1930), "Twentieth Century Blues" (1931), "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" (1932), "Mad about the Boy" (1932), "Mrs. Worthington, Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage" (1935), "A Marvelous Party" (1939), "Matelot" (1945), and "Sail Away" (1950) have become standards.

Coward's songs are notable for their diversity, ranging as they do from comic patter songs rooted in the English music hall tradition to witty, often sardonic observations on twentieth-century life, to sophisticated, bitter-sweet ballads that express loss and longing and loneliness. Coward's signature as a songwriter is his peculiar balance of humor and pathos.

In an essay entitled, "How I Write My Songs," Coward explained that, although he had very little formal training as a musician, he had "a perfect ear for pleasant sounds." In writing music, he generally worked with a professional musician who wrote down the notes for him.

But what is distinctive about a Coward song is not its melody, but its lyrics. As a lyricist, Coward ranks with such songwriters as Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, and Stephen Sondheim. Since most of his songs were written for characters in musicals or sketches or operettas, they usually express emotions rooted in particular situations or plots, but they often transcend those situations to give voice to universal feelings.

Some of his songs have become particularly identified with Coward's own persona, though they were originally sung by women. For example, "Mad about the Boy," particularly when performed by Coward himself, captures the giddiness and hopelessness of an infatuation with an unobtainable object of desire. "It's pretty funny but I'm mad about the boy, / He has a gay appeal, that makes me feel, / There's maybe something sad about the boy." In songs such as this, Coward both reveals and conceals the desire that cannot be named openly.

Coward began writing songs for his own plays and, having a slight voice, he intentionally made them vocally undemanding. His style of singing--really dialogue with music--exerted considerable influence on American musical theater.

Indeed, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe wrote the part of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (1956) with Coward in mind, tailoring the songs assigned to Higgins to Coward's style. Because Coward refused to make commitments of more than three months to any role, the part actually went to Rex Harrison. However, all of Higgins's songs, such as "Why Can't the English" and "A Hymn to Him" echo earlier Coward classics such as "Mad Dogs and Englishmen."

Ironically, Coward's later musicals, Sail Away (1960) and The Girl Who Came to Supper (1964), were criticized for sounding too much like My Fair Lady.

Cabaret Performer

Coward was a journeyman actor who frequently took roles in his own plays. He sometimes appeared in the works of others, such as a 1953 London revival of Shaw's The Apple Cart and in Carol Reed's 1959 film of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana. But his greatest role was always himself, the suave British sophisticate.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Coward often appeared on American television, usually in specials such as the show Together with Music: Noël and Mary Martin (1955) for which he wrote several new songs. But his paramount success as a performer may have been in his cabaret act.

Developed quickly for what was to have been a four-week booking at London's Café de Paris in 1951, the act was an unexpected success. It was revived many times during the 1950s, most famously in Las Vegas in 1955. For the Las Vegas opening, Frank Sinatra chartered a plane to bring such Hollywood celebrities as Judy Garland, Lauren Bacall, and Joseph Cotten. The cabaret act not only solved Coward's money problems, but also made him known in America as someone who--British sophistication notwithstanding--could entertain ordinary people.

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