Backstory – Love Noel: The Songs and Letters of Noel Coward

Barry Day (OBE/M.A. Vice President Coward Archive Trust/Literary Advisor Noel Coward Estate) has been involved with Noel Coward since he and his wife visited the icon’s Jamaican estate, Firefly, 38 years ago and found it a shambles. Appalled, he contacted legatee and former partner, Graham Payn. For some reason regularly sent funds had not been utilized. Payn couldn’t bear to go back after his partner’s death.

Day and Payn began to meet, becoming friends. Payn told wonderful stories. “One afternoon I said to him, Graham, you’ve got to write a book. You’re the only one left who knew him properly. He goes, I can’t write a book!” Without thinking, Day said he knew enough about Coward to ask the questions and volunteered to collaborate. The result: My Life with Noel Coward – 2000 by Graham Payn; Barry Day (Collaborator). It was the first of 30 books Day would author, 15 on Noel Coward.

“Graham was thrilled. He said, Go through the stuff. I haven’t got the heart and I don’t know what I’d do with it if I did. I looked at everything at the chalet, everything in bank vaults.” An archive was temporarily established in London at the office of the estate lawyer. Day plans to put together a committee to establish a Noel Coward Center properly housing and making available the wealth of material. 

The idea for Love, Noel occurred when he was editing Coward’s letters about ten years ago. “You suddenly realize you have the whole story of his life through other people. His secretaries saved both sides of correspondence. I think they realized they were working with a remarkable man. It’s the whole story of his relationships, chapter and verse.” The Letters of Noel Coward– Edited by Barry Day

“…You have a strange effect on me-every time I see you and talk to you. I somehow immediately go on the wagon…(Unless, of course, I’m working for you in which case I double my intake.)” Elaine Stritch

Earlier this year the piece’s second incarnation successfully played The Kravis Center in Palm Beach, Florida, at which Day produces an annual show. It now featured KT Sullivan and Steve Ross. Two characters talk about Coward from youthful experience to shows and relationships, stepping into roles, singing songs.

Noel Coward in Switzerland Courtesy of The Coward Archive Trust

“…I take the opportunity to ask if you would be my little bride – (It’s leap year, you know.) Don’t accept, please, I would have to come and get you right away…” Greta Garbo

The two performers are enthusiastic about inclusion of theatrical aspects. “It’s quite clear they have chemistry and both want to expand beyond cabaret.” Sullivan enacts a wide range of the women in Coward’s life, while Ross inhabits the man himself at various stages. And, of course, there are those inimitable songs.

“The two things I’ve always admired most about Coward are his theatrical agility in writing true character and his human facility in cultivating  friendships with  legendary women. In this entertainment, I get to recite letters written by his array of eccentric friends, such as Elaine Stritch, Edna Ferber, Marlene Dietrich, and even Garbo. He wrote gorgeous melodies, but it’s with his  lyrics, such as those for ”If Love Were All,” “Why Do the Wrong People Travel,” “World Weary,” and “Mad About the Boy,” where I often find myself slipping into character so easily without a change of costume or even a jot of make-up.” KT Sullivan

When it was time for a run through, Ciaran O’Reilly of The Irish Repertory, offered their rehearsal room. Day has had a relationship with the theater since they produced his adaptation of Coward’s  After the Ball (a musical of Lady Windermere’s Fan). O’Reilly liked the show and offered it a home. I asked whether Day is directing. “No, you give it to talented people and keep an eye on them, but don’t get involved unless they get it wrong.” Charlotte Moore of Irish Rep will direct.

Anglophile that I am, I discovered Noel Coward around the same time I discovered those wonderfully funny, mid-twentieth English film comedies. Here was an Englishman who wasn’t afraid to be brilliantly waspish and tell very amusing tales about a host of other characters, e.g. Mrs. Wentworth Brewster and Uncle Harry. I so admired this audacity as well as his dazzling verbal dexterity. And then I discovered that he could write lilting charm songs, deeply touching romantic songs, and stirring patriotic ballads. I’ve been in one of his plays, I’ve read his verses and have enjoyed performing so many of his songs for all of my professional career. He’s been my musical boon companion for a very long time and, may I say, I couldn’t be liking it more! Steve Ross

Opening: KT Sullivan, Noel Coward, Steve Ross – Artists photos by Stacy Sullivan; Noel Coward’s photo Courtesy of The Coward Archive Trust

Love Noel: The Songs and Letters of Noel Coward  July 26-August 25. Tickets available on the website.

About Alix Cohen (1751 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.