Performers from at least two generations, two countries and various realms of showbiz came together at Carnegie Hall Wednesday night to wish Noel Coward a happy 100th birthday. It was an admirably thorough tribute, stylishly sung, musically diverse and occasionally endearingly ragged, and it sailed blithely past the three-hour mark with an aplomb that the honoree would have appreciated. The cast of performers constituted an aptly eclectic cavalcade of faces and voices from legit and cabaret, celebrating in style the life and career of a man who succeeded at virtually every aspect of entertainment he turned his hand to.
Coward the playwright, actor and raconteur necessarily took a back seat on the concert stage. Edward Albee opened the evening by reading Coward’s reminiscence of his days as a child actor. Helen Hunt and Hank Azaria read selections from his oft-waspish observations on actors and acting (a no-nonsense performer, he was no friend of the Method). Other autobiographical readings were gracefully supplied by Celeste Holm and co-hosts Sheridan Morley and Diana Rigg, while a pricelessly funny portrait of Coward directing Maggie Smith, Edith Evans and Lynn Redgrave in a revival of “Hay Fever” was offered by Redgrave herself.
But neither Coward’s dramatic oeuvre nor his ample autobiographical writings were the focus of the evening. His prolific musical output was in the spotlight, and it was surveyed by a virtual who’s who of the cabaret world, where Coward’s prickly, urbane lyrics and subtle melodies continue to be both carefully cherished and imaginatively reinterpreted. The evening was organized by Mabel Mercer Foundation topper Donald Smith and co-director Marian Seldes.
Coward songs come in several flavors. Some varieties taste as fresh as ever, while others bring us the perfume of another era. “Bitter Sweet” was the name of one of his now rarely revived operettas (it was remembered here with a long excerpt featuring KT Sullivan and Michael DeVries), but it might also describe the tone of many of his most durable songs. Andrea Marcovicci mined this vein early in the evening, with an ardent rendition of “The Dream Is Over,” followed shortly by an equally dry-eyed song of self-sufficiency, “I Travel Alone,” performed by the splendidly self-sufficient Bobby Short. From “Bitter Sweet” itself comes one of Coward’s most famous and most astringently lovely melodies, “If Love Were All,” here given a mellow sweetness by the softly soaring voice of Barbara Cook. And Paula West performed a bewitched and bewitching rendition of another aching Coward classic, “Mad About the Boy.”
Coward was fond of America, as Morley’s reading of Coward’s appreciation of New York’s jazzy magic duly attested. But he was English to the tip of his cigarette holder. A warm nostalgia for a semi-imaginary England was a strong strain in his oeuvre, and it was honored by exceptional performances of his patriotic tunes of both the pure and the parodic variety. Mary Cleere Haran brought her elegant voice and sophistication to “This Is a Changing World,” a song from Coward’s now-forgotten “Pacific 1860.” Marti Stevens rang out “London Pride” with apt forcefulness and emotion-tinged vibrato. Cultured English tenor Simon Green seconded the emotion with “There Have Been Songs in England” (“Our nation’s songs are its pride and its grace …”)
Coward could also send up his earnest affection for his hometown. The first act of the evening concluded with the marvelously loopy, fearless Marcia Lewis, dressed in a ludicrous frock, leading the evening’s game corps of chorus boys and girls in a music hall medley from one of Coward’s last Broadway efforts, “The Girl Who Came to Supper.” Dorothy Loudon brought a similarly broad, brassy style to “World Weary,” a lament for the rural life that she delivered with tongue firmly in cheek.
Coward’s humor supplies the grit in his art that guarantees its endurance. Although they are capsule portraits of specifically evoked people and places, his lyrically dazzling satirical songs are still supremely appealing. Julie Wilson’s pixie charm and tasty phrasing were just the ticket to bring out all the ageless wit in “A Bar on the Piccola Marina,” the memorable tale of a merry English widow who warms to life as soon as her husband cools.
And Steve Ross may be as close as we will get to the man himself. His authoritative Coward technique was a highlight of an evening that, even at 3-1/2 hours, had few longueurs. His nimble take on the famous “Mrs. Worthington,” she of the aspiring daughter, was perfectly spiced, as was the flamboyant romp along the Riviera, “I’ve Been to a Marvellous Party.” Patrons leaving Carnegie Hall as the clock struck 11, following a sparkling final salvo from Elaine Stritch, were likely to be thinking along the same lines.