Yes, that is an animated Christopher Walken singing Noel Coward. Sort of don’t need a post to follow that one, do I? But you’ll get one anyway.
Although I’ve loved showtunes for as long as I can remember, certain composers turned out to be an acquired taste for me. Despite having fallen whole-heartedly for Stephen Sondheim by the time I reached the fifth grade, I found other high brow writers of musicals to be inaccessible. In particular, I never really understood Noel Coward and Kurt Weill. Maybe there was a cultural gap, with Coward being so veddy British and Weill so German. It didn’t help that my father didn’t care for either of them, and much of my early taste was shaped by what my dad had in his record collection. Still, outside of “Mack the Knife” and “The Story of Jenny” from Weill, and… well, I don’t think I could even have named a single Noel Coward song until my college years. (Maybe “If Love Were All”, since Judy sang it at Carnegie Hall, but I think I’m retrojecting.)
It’s probably accurate to say that my first exposure to Noel Coward was not Coward at all, but the spot-on Monty Python parody of his style, from The Meaning of Life:
My actual first exposure to Coward was the summer I interned at Varèse Sarabande. I arrived at the job just as Bruce Kimmel was putting the finishing touches on the cast album of If Love Were All, an American version of Noel and Gertie that played off-Broadway in 1999. Harry Groener played Coward, with Twiggy as Gertrude Lawrence. If you only know Twiggy from her modeling career or her appearances on America’s Next Top Model, you might be surprised to discover she has considerable musical theater chops. The album, which chronicled the deep friendship and collaboration between these two giants of the theater using songs they made famous, got me hooked on Coward.
His lyrical wit was unmatched, the perfect balance of Cole Porter sophistication with Oscar Wilde entendre (or is that Oscar Wilde sophistication and Cole Porter entendre?). His melodies ideal for their task, be they catchy and hummable or lushly romantic. But most of the shows for which his songs were written haven’t withstood the test of time, which is odd given how frequently his non-musical plays are produced all over the world.
I wonder if Coward — and those like him — is too rooted in the twentieth century. Wit and sophistication aren’t adjectives one hears applied to contemporary music these days, are they? I’m not only talking about rock and roll — can you name a witty, sophisticated showtune or aria from the last decade? I like much of what’s come from Broadway in the past ten years, but witty and sophisticated it’s not. The closest might be The Drowsy Chaperone, but I have a hard time considering parody and pastiche in the same category.
But really, what can I say about Coward that hasn’t been said before? Not much. So instead, I’ll give you a handful of my favorite Coward songs to enjoy.