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

By Steven Suskin
November 17, 2013

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.

Cover art

From 1928 on, though, Fields was the only consistent female contributor until Betty Comden came along 15 years later. The first lyricist who appeared to be Fields' equal in style and perhaps talent was Carolyn Leigh, who reached Broadway in 1954. When personality problems made Leigh impossible to work with, composer Cy Coleman replaced her — at the urging of Bob Fosse — with Fields.

In any event, Fields is the only woman lyricist to turn out standard after standard with the top composers of her time. I don't imagine that said top composers considered her a woman lyricist, mind you; just a brilliant lyricist. Consider the immortal 1928 hit "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," the immortal 1936 Oscar-winner "The Way You Look Tonight," and the flavorful "Big Spender" from 1966. They all feature impeccably-written lyrics, and they are all remarkably different.

Fields had a decided advantage, coming in: Her father was renowned Broadway actor/producer Lew Fields, and her brother Herb was the librettist to the up-and-coming Rodgers and Hart. Dorothy got her start, as it was, as a teenaged performer in Rodgers/Hart/Fields amateur shows. It's not every lyricist who gets to make her Broadway book musical debut with a show starring and produced by her father (and yes, it was called Hello, Daddy!). But nepotism had little to do with Fields' career. Just good lyric writing.

By this point, Dorothy had started writing songs for the Cotton Club in Harlem, working with composer Jimmy McHugh. When a producer named Lew Leslie decided to do an all-black revue on Broadway, he not unnaturally called on performers and songwriters from the Cotton Club. Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1928 pulled in crowds for over a year and instantly put McHugh and Fields on the musical map thanks not only to "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" but such winners as "Diga Diga Do" and "Doin' the New Low-Down." The Depression sent Fields to Hollywood, where she fell into a collaboration with the great and demanding Kern. Their work included the hit-filled Astaire-Rogers film "Swing Time," which contains what might be the quintessential Fields lyric: "Pick yourself up, brush yourself off, start all over again."

Fields returned to Broadway in 1939 with the first of three musicals with composer Arthur Schwartz, which was also the first of her three musicals for Ethel Merman. (Fields devised Annie Get Your Gun for Merman as a Kern-Fields musical. When Kern suddenly died, Fields relinquished the lyric assignment to make way for Irving Berlin, although she wrote the libretto with brother Herb.) Over the years, she also worked with composers like Arlen, Romberg and Burton Lane. At 63, when most songwriters of the time were sitting around collecting their ASCAP residuals, she started a new collaboration with the 35-year-old Coleman. This resulted in two contemporary musicals, Sweet Charity and Seesaw, both with lyrics as refreshingly contemporary as can be.

While not as celebrated as her professional brethren — a stellar group in which I'd include Ira Gershwin, Harburg, Mercer and Dietz — I would imagine that they considered her very much in their class. And the songs speak for themselves.

PS Classics, the theatre-savvy independent label that has given us dozens of theatre-related CDs since 2000, has now turned their attention to Fields. The label started when Tommy Krasker — an established record producer for Nonesuch and other labels — decided to make an album with his partner (now husband) Philip Chaffin, a little-known, big-and-friendly voiced baritone from Louisiana. "Where Do I Go from You?" turned out to be a delight, if slightly homemade; I recall that they didn't even know to assign it a catalogue number. Other singers came along — Jessica Molaskey was an early member of the PS team, with four wonderful solo CDs — and the label grew into one of our most reliable places to get quality theatre music.

Chaffin has run the label with Krasker all along, serving as A&R director. (That's "artists and repertoire," kind of a combination artistic director, casting director and song picker.) He has remained a sometime-singer for the label, with two additional solo albums and occasional participation in PS studio recordings. Dorothy Fields is a perfect match for Chaffin; his strong-but-flavorful voice does justice to the music — (Fields brought out the best in her composers) — while serving up the songs with the twinkle-in-the-eye that Dorothy must have had when she sat writing them.

As is typical with PS, they don't just go for the song hits; Chaffin gives us "I'm in the Mood for Love" and "The Way You Look Tonight" but eschews Fields' other biggest titles in favor of delving more deeply into her work. We also get some virtually unknown songs like the previously unrecorded "Somethin' Real Special" (with Arlen, from the 1953 film version of The Farmer Takes a Wife) and a 1933 non-production song written with McHugh, "Then You Went and Changed Your Mind."

McHugh, Fields' first and perhaps friskiest collaborator, can't compete with her later partners; Dorothy soon started writing with real composers, as opposed to Jimmy-the-songwriter. But the sheer insouciance of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street" is unmatchable. These two aren't on the recording, but the pair's "I'm in the Mood for Love," "Exactly Like You" and the delightful "Don't Blame Me" are.

PS has splurged on a 28-piece orchestra, led by Jason Moore, and an assortment of nine orchestrators. Among the special treats are Doug Besterman's "Somethin' Real Special," Jason Carr's "Then You Went and Changed Your Mind" and "Diga Diga Doo," and "I'll Buy You a Star" from Jonathan Tunick (who plays the clarinet solo therein).

"Somethin' Real Special" is an all-round delight featuring Dorothy Fields' knowing lyrics, canny tune selection from an assortment of composers, fittingly fine work from the music department and Chaffin's singing.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)