Cabaret


Noël Coward and His Ladies
At the 92nd Street Y on June 2, 2007

by Rob Lester

It's coming on June and it's getting hot, which reminds me of a Noël Coward song:

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
The Japanese don't care to, the Chinese wouldn't dare to.
Hindus and Argentines sleep firmly from twelve till one.
But Englishmen detest a Siesta.

Steve Ross
Steve Ross
The first week of June will spotlight the first gentleman of British musical theater, Sir Noël Coward (1899-1973). The 92nd Street Y's long-running concert series celebrating and exploring Lyrics and Lyricists - it began in 1970 - turns to the witty Coward who, of course, was also his own composer. In fact, being that he was also a playwright, author, actor, singer and director, he was truly a multi-tasking man of the theater, sometimes taking on a few jobs for one production. Coordinating the event and one of its stars is Steve Ross.

When I first called Steve for some details, he asked me to hold on a moment. "I'm just having my tea." And then he laughed, "Which is a very Noël Coward thing to be doing." Steve's enthusiasm for Coward's work is evident but nothing new. He calls him a "musical genius." Steve has been playing and singing the repertoire for years and seems an ideal choice as host and guide - and the sole male singer in the show entitled Noël Coward And His Ladies.

The hand-picked ladies in question know their Noël. There's Maude Maggart, who proudly admits to being a card-carrying member of the Noël Coward Appreciation Society. Maude is known for recapturing the flavor of material from decades long before she was born. The same can be said for Nancy Anderson, who starred in the York Theatre's Musicals In Mufti presentation of Coward's musical from the 1960s, The Girl Who Came to Supper, and a production of his Pacific 1860; and Patricia Hodge, who English-channeled Gertrude Lawrence in the stage production Noël and Gertie about 20 years ago. Miss Lawrence, Coward's longtime friend and sometime co-star, appeared with him in such shows as London Calling and Tonight at 8:30. Others who have starred in Coward's musicals include Elaine Stritch (Sail Away), Beatrice Lillie (This Year of Grace) and Mary Martin (Pacific 1860).

The Y concert will be mostly songs, "arranged thematically, not chronologically" - it's not a "and then he wrote ..." kind of thing. But there will be tidbits of information and the songs will be put into context. Steve says, "We'll be explaining the motivation for his songs, and there's a wonderful speech from him that's very touching."

The idea came out of a Coward show Steve did at the Algonquin about a decade ago with Jeanne Lehman. But his love for Noël Coward's work was already part of his life, and he tells of the long-ago moment when it began. "I was working in a ragtime piano bar. Someone played, 'I'll See You Again' - and I've remained enchanted for 45 years. And I find it just as moving today."

I'll see you again
Whenever Spring breaks through again,
Time may lie heavy between
But what has been
Is past forgetting.
This sweet memory
Across the years
Will come to me.
Though the world may go awry
In my heart will ever lie
Just the echo of a sigh
Goodbye.

Steve is also quite familiar with the Y's series. In fact, he was on stage back when E.Y. (Yip) Harburg did his second appearance at Lyrics and Lyricists. What can audiences expect in this show? "A wide range of things, in addition to the operettas which we'll be doing a lot of." Steve will be hosting from the piano and there will be stories to put things in perspective. Additionally, "We have the eminent Barry Day as co-writer. Because Barry's on board, he kept on promulgating stories." (Barry, a Trustee of the Coward Foundation, is the author and/or editor of numerous books on Coward and has developed concert versions of Coward musicals.)

Some famous Coward songs, of course, will be heard. (He's the writer of such evergreens as "A Room with a View," "If Love Were All," "Mad About the Boy" and "I'll Follow My Secret Heart." But there will be rarer material, too, a couple of things that might not ring a bell with even those who've long loved Coward. "Yes, there will be surprising material ... we love the rarities," says Steve with relish. "There's one called 'There's Life in the Old Girl Yet' - wait 'til you hear that." Steve's scholarly fondness and familiarity is impressive as he rattles off lesser-known song titles like "Three Theatrical Dames" (which he describes as something sung "desultorily") and "When My Ship Comes Home" (which he hinted is a heart-tugger that Maude Maggart will turn into a beauty of a highlight). He seems to know these like the back of his piano-playing hands.

It's easy to make a case for Coward as Mr. Versatility, with songs that skewer society, tell a detailed story, adopt the bouncy music hall style, parade a brittle wit with clever rhymes, or embrace sentiment with simplicity. But anyone who has seen homegrown London shows over the years or collected cast albums from British writers knows there were other writers between Gilbert & Sullivan and Andrew Lloyd Webber. I ask Steve why none of the others broke through to most American musical theater fans and those who might import their work to American stages. "The others were a little ... sweet. Even in his sweetness, Coward remained astringent. But there's such longing in his ballads." That's his theory. And later he adds, "It's the strength of his melodies. Those melodies are iron-clad."

For iron-clad melodies, astringency and longing, come to the 92nd Street Y on the evening of Saturday June 2nd, or the afternoon or evenings of June 3rd or 4th and be showered with Coward. For more information and tickets, see www.92Y.org.


Photo: Mike Martin