When, midway through his career, he was dubbed “the Master,” Noël Coward would deflect the compliment with the pseudo-modest explanation “Oh, you know, jack-of-all-trades … master of none.”
He was a writer, actor, director, composer, lyricist, poet, celebrity, and what critic Kenneth Tynan would call “a very Noël Coward kind of person.” And yet it could be argued that perhaps his most influential talent was: Noël Coward, Singer. It was a talent that didn’t just amuse but corrected the trajectory of his career at several key points.
At the age of six, Coward made his debut at a school talent show, where he sang “a piping little song about the Spring for which I accompanied myself on the piano,” he would write. When he did not receive a prize, since they were given for hard work during the term, “I was led away weeping.”
Sometime later, on vacation in Bognor, in southern England, he appeared on the beach in a talent competition with Uncle George’s Concert Party. “When my turn came,” Coward wrote, “I sang ‘Come Along with Me to the Zoo, Dear.’ … I also danced violently.” This time he left a winner with a large box of chocolates, “which, when opened in our lodgings, proved to be three parts [wood] shavings.” A life lesson?
Then there was the audition for the Chapel Royal choir. “I was set to go into the Chapel Royal choir, because I had a perfectly beautiful voice,” Coward wrote. “I suppose the inherent acting in me headed its ugly rear, because I made Callas look like an amateur. And the poor organist fell back in horror. I gave it the expression. I did the whole crucifixion but. And they turned me down because I was over-dramatic.” The raw emotion was too much for the judges, and Master Coward took early retirement.
When he did not receive a prize for his singing, Coward “was led away weeping.”
He popped up again in his late teens as a would-be professional dancer, partnering with a Ms. Eileen Dennis in “a slow waltz, a tango and a rather untidy one-step” at the Elysée Restaurant. Always anxious to push the boundaries, Coward decided to add a song to their program. Unfortunately, after one chorus, he forgot the words and, murmuring a series of “la-la-la”s, made an ignominious exit.
A bewildered Colonel Blimp–type diner was heard to say, “What an extraordinary young man. Nothing but ‘la-la-la.’ Can’t get over it!”
To be fair, Coward evened the score some years later when he appeared at the restaurant again. By then it was called the Café de Paris. In context, it can be seen that the breakthrough was incidental.
Among Coward’s duties in World War II was to travel to war zones in Europe and Africa to entertain the troops. (“I occasionally hurtle up to the front and sing firmly to the troops who are so sunk in mud that they can’t escape,” he wrote at the time.)
The job also created in Coward the need to compose a number of new songs to complement the material he had written for various pre-war revues. Although he didn’t realize it at the time, he was preparing and rehearsing for an important new stage in his career.
After one chorus, he forgot the words and, murmuring a series of “la-la-la”s, made an ignominious exit.
Nineteen forty-five. Victory in Europe is achieved. Before the bells had stopped pealing, Britain held an election and rejected Churchill, the man who had done so much to ensure that victory. In doing so, the country was also turning its back on so many other aspects of pre-war class strife and the people who symbolized it.
Including people such as Coward.
Did this Brave New equal-opportunity World really need someone who wrote plays about people who seemed to do nothing for a living but make witty remarks? These were years of relative wilderness for Coward. But, as he was fond of saying, “I have always prided myself on my capacity for being just one jump ahead of what everybody expects of me.”
The jump came in 1951, when he was booked to appear in a cabaret at the Café de Paris. With all the material he had rehearsed with the wartime forces, he was ready. Kenneth Tynan recalled how “he padded down the celebrated stairs, halted before the microphone on black suede-clad-feet and, upraising both hands in a gesture of benediction, set about demonstrating how these things should be done.”
“I have always prided myself on my capacity for being just one jump ahead of what everybody expects of me.”
He went on demonstrating how things should be done for the next three seasons. Then, one evening, the American agent Joe Glaser showed up in the audience. Glaser had a problem. He’d been commissioned to book Liberace for the Desert Inn in Las Vegas and had failed to do so. He needed a substitute. He didn’t get this Englishman Coward, but audiences clearly did.
So Glaser booked him for Vegas.
Meanwhile, the London applause continued. Tynan described Coward as “cooing like a baritone turtle dove.” One rare negative review accused him of “massacring his own material.” Coward wrote in his diary, “If so, it was the most profitable massacre since the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.”
Then another happenstance—or was it?
Coward assumed he would take Norman Hackforth, the accompanist he had traveled with throughout the war, to Las Vegas. But he couldn’t secure an American work visa for him. His friend Marlene Dietrich came to the rescue. She introduced him to her own accompanist, a young man named Peter Matz. When Coward arrived, he handed over his show’s sheet music to Matz.
After skimming through the papers, Matz turned to him and asked, “You’re not going to use these, are you?” “These” being the arrangements Coward had been using for years. Coward thought fast enough to airily respond, “No, no. I’d like you to redo them all.” And Matz did.
The show at the Desert Inn was a triumph, and show-business celebrities descended on Las Vegas to attend. The compliment that touched Coward most of all came from Frank Sinatra, who publicly said that anyone who wanted to hear how a song should be sung must “get the hell over to the Desert Inn!”
This was a turning point in Coward’s career. Profitable TV deals followed, and he soon moved to America to sing (and avoid British taxes). The title of his first TV special, which he performed with Mary Martin, was symbolic and summed up this aspect of the story. It was called “Together with Music.”
Barry Day’s Noël Coward on (and in) Theatre will be published on November 2 from Knopf