March 21, 2012
The best new show in town right now is at Lincoln Center. But I’m not talking about the mighty War Horse, which even after a year is still packing them in at the Vivian Beaumont, or even 4000 Miles, the endearing Amy Herzog play now in previews at the Mitzi Newhouse.
No, the show I’m talking about is next door to the theater, in the first-floor gallery space in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where the new exhibition “Star Quality: the World of Noël Coward” is running through Aug. 18.
Coward is, of course, the artistic polymath who dominated British theater from the 1920s through the ‘40s with the plays and musicals that he wrote, composed, directed, produced and usually starred in. In his spare time, he made movies, performed cabaret, partied with café society, painted and wrote poetry and, for a brief period, served as a secret agent, gathering information for the British government before World War II. All of it is on brilliant display in the new exhibit.
In the past, I’ve had problems with some of the Library’s shows. The subjects have almost always been fascinating but the execution has sometimes been overzealous so that too much is stuffed into the space—and sometimes so willy-nilly—that it’s hard to absorb it all or even sort it out. But this time the Library has got it right.
The exhibit is as full as Coward’s life was and yet it’s so well laid out and nicely annotated that even Coward neophytes will be entertained. “Wow,” I can imagine them saying, “I didn’t know he was the one who did that.” Coward made his professional stage debut at 11 and he quickly developed the personae of a latter-day Oscar Wilde—sophisticated, self-consciously debonair and quick with just the right smart quip.
As one might expect, there are photos galore. Coward seems to have never seen a camera for which he didn’t want to pose. He was born a week before Christmas in 1899 and there are shots of him from the time he was a toddler straight through to just days before he died in 1973 from heart failure at his beloved home Firefly in Jamaica.
The stuff in between dazzles for if you’ve ever longed for the glamor and the glory of the good old theatrical days, you’ve been fantasizing about Coward's life. Friends called him “The Master” and this exhibit makes it easy to see why.
Coward's 1924 breakthrough play, The Vortex, was a drama but he made his reputation with comedies such as Hay Fever, Present Laughter, Private Lives, which he wrote for himself and his childhood and life-long friend Gertrude Lawrence, Design for Living, a daring-for-the-time ménage à trois written for himself and his great pals Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and Blithe Spirit.
Four of those now-classic plays have been revived on Broadway just since 2001. Meanwhile, the latest production of Hay Fever with Lindsay Duncan as the not-quite-retired actress Judith Bliss is currently a hit in London. And Coward could be serious too, as evidenced by such works as the unrequited romance Brief Encounter, which got its own Broadway revival during last year’s season.
One of the things that’s been most annoying about past Library shows is that the noise from the various sound and video recordings created an unpleasant din, making it difficult to hear the selection you wanted. But this show has listening stations with earphones and even small stools where people can sit. Occasionally, there’s an outbreak of laughter from some listener who’s just encountered some of Coward's witty lyrics.
And speaking of lyrics, there are handwritten copies of a few of the over 300 songs Coward wrote, including the jocular “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and the romantic “Mad About the Boy” (they’re written in pencil but there don’t seem to be many cross outs or erasures—he was a famously fast and assured writer).
There are scrapbooks of reviews and stories, mainly put together by his pal Gertie Lawrence, and lots of show posters, including the one Coward himself designed for the show Sail Away, which featured a young Elaine Stritch, who became another dear and life-long friend.
It’s hard to resist making a list of Coward's close friends because the names are so glitzy but it would almost be easier to tote up the famous people who weren’t his friends because his chums included Charlie Chaplin, Beatrice Lillie, David Niven, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Maggie Smith, Lauren Bacall, Winston Churchill, Ian Fleming, Lawrence of Arabia, Lord Mountbatten and the Queen Mother.
Coward was a dedicated letter writer and the exhibit includes several between him and friends. There’s a particularly poignant one from Leigh, expressing her gratitude for his allowing her to spend the Christmas holidays with him after her marriage to Olivier fell apart.
In fact, it’s the glimpses of the personal Coward—the piano from one of his homes, the typewriter he traveled with, the dressing gowns he wore, his favorite tuxedo, his battered makeup kit, his shiny cigarette cases (he was almost never without a smoke) the home movies of a vacation in St. Moritz, the unfinished painting he was working on the day he died, the copy of the book that was opened by his bedside that final night—that help make the exhibit so special.
Like many self-invented men, Coward worried that his achievements would fade after he was gone. That day may come but this superb tribute to his work and his life, almost 40 years after his death, should allow him to rest in peace for a while yet. Go pay homage.