Sunday, May 08, 2005

Noel Coward: Not Funny

Recently, on a message board, I expressed the somewhat quirky opinion that Noel Coward was at his best as a writer of sentimental operettas. His nonmusical plays have, I think, dated rather badly; his serious plays, like Cavalcade, are kind of appalling, and his comedies, while cleverly written to provide an effective vehicle for the right performers (usually himself and Gertrude Lawrence) come off to me as thin. His favorite trick, having characters talk about trivial things while trying to conceal the way they really feel (a trick brilliantly parodied by Nichols and May in the English segment of their "Adultery" routine), is repeated way too often, and he can be unpleasantly mean-spirited and cruel toward any character not played by himself or Gertrude Lawrence, e.g. Victor and Sybil in Private Lives, nearly everybody in Blithe Spirit.

As a songwriter, Coward was most celebrated for his comedy songs; he became a successful cabaret performer in the '50s by performing his comedy songs to happy, chuckling audiences. But here's the thing -- in my opinion, Coward's comedy songs aren't very funny. At all. I know this is personal taste, and that a lot of people find his songs funny; the audience on the above-linked album certainly seems to find them hilarious. But in comparison to the best comedy songs, Coward's always strike me as very thin on jokes. Even "Don't Put Your Daughter On the Stage, Mrs. Worthington" has almost no real jokes between its initial premise and the last, often-omitted refrain where the singer completely loses it ("In addition to which/The son of a bitch/Can neither sing nor dance"). Aside from that it just repeats the premise over and over again. Same with "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," which features intricate rhymes and some clever images, but keeps saying the same thing over again. If you compare "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun," by Irving Berlin -- a writer not normally considered a laugh riot -- you're on a different level of comedy songwriting entirely; every section introduces a new, complete joke that builds on the premise, and every refrain leads up to a final big, boffo laugh ("You can't shoot a male/in the tail/like a quail"). Compared to that, I don't see why the Vegas audience goes into hysterics when Coward sings the words "Goosed her."

Now, there are some Coward songs that I do find genuinely funny. He was funniest when he stopped trying to be witty and just settled for being nasty; Coward had a mean, bitter streak, and that bitterness served him well in such truly funny songs as "There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner," "Don't Let's Be Beastly To the Germans," and "Regency Rakes" (CONVERSATION PIECE), an enjoyably revisionist look at the popular figure of the "dashing" Regency rake: "Though we wonder, as we blunder/Into this or that bordel,/Whom we know there, why we go there,/But we're far too drunk to tell."

But Coward's sentimental songs are generally much better, as far as I'm concerned: when he was openly emotional, without the layer of reticence that attaches to most of his prose and songwriting, he could be very touching and even thrilling: "Tokay" from Bitter Sweet is as good an operetta drinking song as any ever written, and "If Love Were All," from the same show, is Coward in sincere mode, without the fake small talk, and communicating in a direct way that his usual style does not. Other favorite Coward songs:

- "Half-Caste Woman" (COCHRAN'S REVUE OF 1931). One of the most un-PC songs around, but also a wonderful, bluesy mixture of sadness and irony.

- "Play, Orchestra, Play" (TONIGHT AT 8:30)

- "Where Are the Songs We Sung?" (OPERETTE). I'm still trying to figure out whether or not the title is grammatically correct, but it's one of Coward's most beautiful waltz songs--a lovely, melancholy, reflective piece.

- "Sail Away" (ACE OF CLUBS, but such a good song that Coward used it in another, epynomous musical ten years later).

- "Mad About the Boy" (WORDS AND MUSIC). Especially in the original version, which presented the viewpoints of four different characters--a society lady, a little girl, a cockney, and a prostitute--on the "boy" of the title (a film star).

So my hope is that instead of another revival of Private Lives, someone might stage a revival of some of Coward's lesser-known operettas, like Pacific 1860 and his operetta version of Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, which he called After the Ball. Both these shows suffered from the lack of public taste for operetta in the post-WWII era, from a dearth of really first-rate "legit" singers in the casts, and from Coward's insistence in casting Graham Payn in everything. (Pacific 1860 starred Mary Martin, who, while a wonderful singer, was the wrong singer for music that needed a really operatic voice.) After the Ball got a concert performance around 1999 for the Coward centenary, but I don't think it was recorded.

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