ON THE RECORD: Noël Coward's Cowardy Custard and Dorothy Fields Tribute, "Somethin' Real Special"

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17 Nov 2013

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This week's column discusses the original cast album of the hit 1972 London revue Cowardy Custard and "Somethin' Real Special," Philip Chaffin's collection of songs with lyrics by Dorothy Fields.

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Cowardy Custard [Masterworks Broadway]

Noël Coward, destiny's so-called tot, was the most celebrated playwright-actor-composer-filmmaker of the second quarter of the twentieth century. His self-described "talent to amuse" kept him securely in the celebrity spotlight until his death in 1973. Coward's songwriting career was overshadowed by his other endeavors; he seemed to dash off a song or a musical revue now and then, when he had the time. His work is somewhat comparable to that of Cole Porter, although a relatively minor Cole Porter. A thorough man of the theatre, one suspects that Coward aspired to the more musico-dramatic world of Rodgers and Hammerstein. His five book musicals written from 1946-63, though, couldn't begin to compete with the work of Lerner and Loewe, Jule Styne, Bernstein, Bock and Harnick, et al.

In his final years, there were at least three major attempts at a Coward songbook revue. The first and last came in America. Noël Coward's Sweet Potato — from director/choreographer Lee Theodore, starring the unCowardly pair Dorothy Loudon and George Grizzard — opened at the Barrymore in September 1968 and quickly flopped. Another New York revue, Oh, Coward!, a three-character piece devised by and featuring Roderick Cook, opened at the New Theatre on East 54th Street in October, 1972, for a more successful run of nine months. It was briefly revived in 1986 at the (second) Helen Hayes.

In between came Cowardy Custard, a frothy confection which opened July 10, 1972, at London's Mermaid Theatre and enjoyed a year's run. Bernard Miles produced the show, which was devised by Gerard Frow, Alan Strachan and director Wendy Toye. This was brim-full of Coward songs, delivered by a cast of twelve that was headed by the great Patricia Routledge (who was already a Tony Award winner). The two-LP cast album — now reissued by Broadway Masterworks — contains about two dozen individual songs, plus portions of another two dozen included in extended melodies. That's a lot of Coward. Adding interest to the proceedings are spoken snippets taken from Coward's writings, which give more of a sense of the man than a typical anthology revue.



I am not exactly a Coward enthusiast, so I don't think I ever listened to the LPs of either Cowardy Custard or Oh, Coward! more than once. (Sweet Potato went unrecorded, and understandably so.) That said, this new release gives us a wide swath of Coward, those interesting autobiographical sections, and Pat Routledge. If you want an overview of or introduction to Coward-the-songwriter, Cowardy Custard serves as a tasty sampler of the master's voice.

Philip Chaffin: Somethin' Real Special [PS Classics]

Dorothy Fields (1905-74) was not the first woman songwriter to work on Broadway, nor, for that matter, the most successful. Back in the early 1920s, Anne Caldwell was Jerome Kern's main lyricist/librettist after P.G. Wodehouse and before Oscar Hammerstein II. At the same time, Dorothy Donnelly wrote book and lyrics for several hits including the blockbuster Shubert operettas Blossom Time and The Student Prince. Other women (Kay Swift, Ann Ronell, Nancy Hamilton, Alma Sanders) made occasional visits to Broadway.

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