Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Letters from The Master

Just finished devouring The Letters of Noel Coward, edited by Barry Day; easily the most enjoyable read I've had in years. Not only do we get a life's worth of The Master's private correspondence to friends and colleagues, but in many cases we get letters these extraordinary people wrote to Noel. The result is a literal -- and literary -- treasure trove. What Coward fan could fail to enjoy an inside look at his relationships with Marlene Dietrich, Lunt & Fontanne, Gertrude Lawrence, Clifton Webb, and more? I for one reveled in getting the long-awaited scoop on his infamous feud with Mary Martin, which began when she starred in Coward's 1946 London production of Pacific 1860 and ended in time for the duo to co-star in the landmark 1955 American television special Together With Music.

More than one friend of mine has commented on Coward's frequent use of politically incorrect obscenities in these letters. Frankly, this didn't bother me. These letters were never intended for public reading. Noel used strong language, partly to make his letters more amusing, and partly because it can take strong language to express strong feelings.

I think the real issue for some readers is Noel's affection for "the C Word," the one that rhymes with "runt," "stunt" and "bunt"? He uses it rather freely, but not in a particularly misogynistic way. Yes, on occasion it refers to difficult women (such as Beatrice Lillie) but it is also used to refer to men, situations and places, including in one unlikely instance Mexico City. Of course it is one of the rudest words in the language, one my mother condems. I fully understand why many women find this word unacceptable under any circumstances, but truth be told, I have heard more women use that word than men -- and usually in reference to other women. That may not "justify" Coward's use of it, but then who says he needs justification? A rapier tongue was part of the Coward persona; those who don't like it are welcome to read something less potentially controversial. But if you can stand the vocabulary, this book is a rare joy ride.

Actually, I reveled in seeing fresh examples of Coward's linguistic dexterity. He describes the often troublesome Tallulah Bankhead as a "conceited slut" -- a phrase I have never seen before, and one that fits a frightening number of people (of all sexes) that I've contended with over the decades.

Noel's fans and scholars will delight in The Letters of Noel Coward, but I won't be the least surprised if a sequel eventually appears. We get the Master at his best and worst in this book. My one regret is that no correspondence with his longtime companion Graham Payne is included. Mr. Day explains that certain aspects of Noel's private life should remain private. While I certainly respect that position, I can't help hoping that time will lead to the publication of more of Coward's letters, including the occasional love note.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


I make a policy of not reviewing amateur productions on Musicals101. Mind you, I have tremendous respect for such productions -- heck, I can literally say that I wrote the book on them (The Complete Idiot's Guide to Amateur Theatricals). But student and community theatre groups have far different goals than professional theatres, and the pressure of facing reviewers could warp that process. However, every now and then I see an amateur production so stunning that I can't help posting a comment -- and Musicals101's new blog seems the perfect place to do that.

Because I currently teach musical theatre history at NYU's Steinhardt School, I make a point of catching as many of their productions as possible. Last night, I saw their staging of Floyd Collins, a show which has inspired a great deal of analysis since it debuted off-Broadway in 1995. Many were amazed that the true story of the 1925 media circus surrounding a trapped cave explorer could be turned into an effective musical. Composer-lyricist Adem Guettel's score is often beautiful but extremely challenging, both to performers and audiences. It must be performed with precision and style, and few amateur groups can muster the kind of singing actors required to make this material shine.

Well, the Steinhardt production set the stage aglow from first to last. While the entire production (under the gifted direction of John Simpkins) was laudable, three cast members in particular made this a riveting experience. Jeremy Morse brought extraordinary passion to the role of reporter Skeets Miller, Nic Rouleau played Homer Collins with real vocal and dramatic power, and Jay Armstrong Johnson was not merely good in the title role -- he held an audience's attention even while essentially motionless. His singing made the Stravinsky-esque twists of the score sound effortless, and overall displayed genuine star quality. Keep an eye out for all three of these men in years to come -- and you can say you first read about them here.

(Hey, don't laugh -- the last time I wrote a comment like that, it was for an unknown kid named John Lloyd Young, who was acting out in the wilds of New Jersey. As I recall, he picked up a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical a few years later. )

Am I partial because I teach at Steinhardt? Perhaps. But I think I know when I see great talent in action, and that's exactly what I saw last night.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Make Them Hear You (What Was That?)

Caught a preview performance of Passing Strange at the Belasco this past week. Now, I don't believe in reviewing a production before it opens, and am not about to do so here, but I do think it is fair to comment on a trend that seems to be gaining steam on Broadway -- the use of heavy duty amplification. My theatre-going life only stretches back to the 1970s, when Broadway musical casts were already routinely miked, so as much as my heart belongs with such events as Scott Siegel's glorious Broadway Unplugged concerts (long may they reign!), I have to confess that every main stem musical I have ever seen was electronically amplified. So there is no way to call me an old-school reactionary. I like hearing clearly from the last row of the balcony just as much as anyone else does -- an easy thing to do in smaller houses, but heaven help you in the Gershwin, the Minskoff, or the far larger houses on the national touring circuit these days.

However, I fail to see why any Broadway audience should be subjected to amplification that literally makes their clothing vibrate. Several days after seeing Passing Strange, my ear is still ringing -- yeeowch! Some numbers were so over-amplified that the lyrics became unintelligible. This may be an attempt to make rock concert-goers feel more at home in theatres, but I found the effect repelling. And that's a real pity, because (much as I refuse to review the show here) there is much in Passing Strange to enjoy. Like many others, I first noticed the volume increase in Rent, arguably the first Broadway musical where the sound system took up more square footage (and far more budget) than the scenery. Other shows have added more woofer and tweeter power. It certainly kicked up a few decibels higher last year with Spring Awakening, but Passing Strange is far, far louder. We're talking volume for the sake of volume. I wish Stew and company would turn down the racket so the real power of this show can come through.

I was not alone in my reaction, but to be fair, there were clearly many in the house who adored every ear-splitting vibe. If others feel differently about louder sound on Broadway, I invite them to post here. My hearing is still a bit off, but I can still read you loud and clear.

Welcome to Musicals101's New Blog! enters the era of Web 2.0 with this, our new interactive blog. I've long included editorials and opinion pieces on Musicals101, but the only means of reply was via e-mail. Now we're really opening up the discussion. Disagreement is encouraged, so long as it is constructive. Abusive or vulgar posts will be subject to deletion -- this is a family friendly site.

Hope you like the blog, and that you will take the time to add your two cents to the discussions here.
Return to