OK, this one’s gonna be easy. Who was the most important popular song writer in England in the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, right up until the emergence of John Lennon and Paul McCartney?
Answer: Noel Coward. (Those who guessed Ivor Novello or Ray Noble receive honorable mention.)
If you didn’t get it, you will definitely recognize some of the songs in “Coward’s Women,” a new musical revue that will play a week’s run at the Guthrie Theater starting Tuesday (March 30).
On the one hand, Coward’s plays seem to be everywhere these days. You may already have seen the touring production of “Brief Encounter” at the Guthrie, or perhaps you caught “Blythe Spirit,” which continues at the Jungle, or you might be giving some thought to seeing Skylark Opera’s production of “Bitter Sweet,” Coward’s first musical, when it plays at Concordia University in June. Coward’s best plays — and he published more than 50 of them — have achieved a kind of immortality, whereas only a few of the hundreds of songs he wrote remain with us, among them “Someday I’ll Find You,” “If Love Were All” and “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.”
Dense, rich lyrics
Michael Todaro, the actor and director who conceived “Coward’s Women” and is staging it, thinks the density and richness of Coward’s lyrics, as compared with the simpler pop music of today, make them under-appreciated. “They require a certain amount of engagement from the audience,” he said during a recent rehearsal break.
Erin Schwab, one of the two singers in the show, the other being Maud Hixson, said Coward’s songs are hard to sing. “They don’t have simple melodies carrying them along,” she said, “and they’re topical. With all his references in the lyrics, Coward was the Kathy Griffin of his time.” Rick Carlson, the show’s pianist, notes that the songs are unpredictable. “Coward’s like Billy Strayhorn that way, and Harold Arlen,” he said. “The music is intended to serve the lyric.”
Coward, who died in 1973 at Firefly, his home in Jamaica, seems more of an enigma today than he was during his lifetime, when his sparkling, droll, carefully cultivated public personality charmed the world into accepting his amazing gifts as something almost natural. For one thing, it’s hard to conceive of how popular Coward was in his day. He was a mere 25, with four plays running simultaneously in London’s West End, one of which he was starring in, when a newspaper named him the most famous man in England.
It’s even harder to conceive of someone with such an abundance of talents: playwright, songwriter (both lyrics and music), actor, screenwriter, singer, director, producer, novelist, short-story writer. (Coward’s later film roles are all available on DVD. “Our Man in Havana,” “Paris, When It Sizzles” and “The Italian Job” are among the best.)
Four strong women in his life
Todaro, Hixson and Carlson had been tossing around ideas for a Coward show for several years and then finally came up with “Coward’s Women.” As a framework for 14 songs — some familiar, some less so — the show uses the words of four strong women in Coward’s life: his mother, Violet; his secretary, Lorn Loraine; his frequent co-star, Gertrude Lawrence, and his great friend Marlene Dietrich.
“When I started studying Coward’s life, I thought I would find someone between Oscar Wilde and Tennessee Williams,” Todaro said. “But he wasn’t this tortured homosexual artist. I found someone who lived his life not in-your-face as far as sexuality but who also didn’t go to great lengths to hide things. So, rather than tackle that, I thought, ‘We have two performers with very distinct personalities, Erin and Maud, who I think represent the dichotomy of Coward’s personality — Erin as the brassy, fun, social entity and Maud as the quiet, introspective tactician.’ ”
Despite his productivity, Coward was untrained as a musician. Tunes came to him, as he said, “unbidden,” and at all times of the day. The famous waltz from “Bitter Sweet,” “I’ll See You Again,” appeared in his head, in its entirety, while Coward was riding in a New York City taxi. He had an excellent ear, and he could play the piano moderately well in three keys (E-Flat, B-flat and A-flat) but, because he never learned notation, he couldn’t write the songs down. Instead, he dictated what he heard in his head to an assistant, Elsie April, whose contributions have long been thought to be considerable.
Lyricist for ‘Let’s Do It’
Only one of the songs in the show boasts a shared pedigree: “Let’s Do it,” a Cole Porter number for which Coward wrote his own — rather famously naughty — lyrics as part of his nightclub act in the ‘50s. Schwab and Hixson do it as a duet: “In Texas some of the men do it/Others drill a hole and then do it/Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.”
And surely Coward would have appreciated the show’s ending. After the women sing “I’ll See You Again,” the members of the band slowly exit the stage, leaving Carlson alone at the piano. He turns to the audience and repeats Coward’s famous, self-deprecating line from “Private Lives”: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”
“Coward’s Women,” March 30 to April 3. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; 7:30 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Dowling Studio, Guthrie Theater, 818 2nd St., Minneapolis. Tickets $22-$30. 612-377-2224.