If you are a Noël Coward fan you will enjoy Simon Green’s solo musical show Life is for Living: Conversations With Coward created and compiled by Simon Green and Musical Director David Shrubsole with research by Jason Morell. British actor and performer Simon Green, a classically trained high baritone, lately seen in the tour of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, has performed Coward before, most recently in So, This Then is Life. His appreciation of Sir Noël Peirce Coward (16 December 1899 – 26 March 1973) shines throughout this suave and well-heeled tribute to Coward from start to finish.
Green begins and ends his portrayal of the witty and flamboyant songwriter and playwright by referring to Coward’s legacy. He delivers a quote from Lord Mountbatten who praised Coward’s astounding versatility on the occasion of Coward’s 70th birthday. Mountbatten quipped that there are greater composers, actors, and directors, and implied that the British icon was not “examplaire” in any one of the hats he wore, listing 12 talents including composer, playwright, actor, director, film producer, screenwriter, poet, and cabaret singer. What was incredible about Coward was that this one man succeeded in all those roles.
Present-day youthful audiences most likely are not familiar with Coward’s prodigious talents, unless they have seen Green’s previous homages to Coward in solo musical shows with Shrubsole or revivals of his plays, many of which were made into films during Hollywood’s Golden Era and have seen recent iterations too: Blithe Spirit, Cavalcade, Easy Virtue (film remake in 2008 with Colin Firth), Hay Fever, Relative Values (film remake in 2000 with Julie Andrews and Colin Firth), Present Laughter (look for a Broadway revival starring Kevin Kline this spring), Private Lives, Sail Away, Design for Living and more.
Thus, it is worth getting down to 59E59 Theaters where Green’s show is being performed from 13 December to 1 January. It will introduce you to some of the more personal details of Coward’s life and oeuvre. It is a trip into history, for Coward’s lyrics and songs (i.e. “Something Very Strange,” “Don’t Turn Away From Love,” “Go Slow Johnny” from Sail Away) reflect the gentler values of romantic love and upper-class good taste. The wealthy of that time and place were not necessarily associated with meretriciousness and bombastic gaudy luxury, but rather dignity, sophistication and noblesse oblige. Of course, how well individuals lived up to such standards was a matter of their own personal business, in a strange time before paparazzi, social media, the Kardashians, Brexit and President-elect Donald Trump.
The most interesting aspects of the production include personal letters Coward wrote to his mother and to various friends whom he loved and had relationships with. Coward was gay but never felt comfortable “outing” himself publicly. He upheld the conventions of the time, and even as late as the 1960s, with “free love” and loosening shackles of conventionally accepted sexual identity, he maintained that any sexual revelations were tasteless. He stuck with the notion that elderly ladies in various parts of England should assume he was heterosexual.
Green and Shrubsole mingle Coward’s verse, letters, and diary extracts with Shrubsole’s music in a vibrant and striking way. Shrubsole’s lyrics and music, completely inspired by Coward’s letters, words, and diary extracts, and by songs by Ira and George Gershwin, Jeremy Nichols, Ivor Novello, and Irving Berlin, combine with Green’s vocal interpretations to create a deep, powerful portrait of Coward.
What might have been fine-tuned is the assumption that everyone knows the breadth of Coward’s work, his personal background, his prodigious skills, and the continued impact that he has culturally today, when younger individuals give one a blank look if you mention such British theatrical icons as Sir Lawrence Olivier and Dame Gertrude Lawrence. Sting, Paul McCartney, and Elton John have recorded Coward’s songs. And theatrical producers and filmmakers are still looking to his work for performance and production ideas. For example, Kevin Kline will appear in Coward’s wonderful Present Laughter this spring on Broadway.
How Coward has resonated through the decades, especially in Green’s production which purports to uplift his memory, might have been more grounded, for example, in the time and place when Coward wrote the extracts and letters and when the various Coward songs were written and performed. It would not be an affront to fans who adore Green and his shows on Coward to fill out a tad more of the historical development of Coward’s oeuvre and identity, and even relate it to the more recent present.
Shrubsole’s musical direction is superb. His composition “Everyday A Little More Like Me” is memorable and infuses Coward’s good-natured twitting of his own self-importance. The compositions are Sondheim-like, as in his music to Coward’s “Honeymoon 1905” and “Do I Believe?” The first resonates poignantly in Green’s measured, lovely interpretation; the second mirrors a condition that many will appreciate and identify with. For “Human Family” written by Maya Angelou, with music by Shrubsole, the latter outdoes himself, as does Green. Throughout, Shrubsole proves himself to be an inspired intimate of Coward who has integrated his opinions, witticisms, edginess, and enthusiasm into the musical evocations he has composed to encourage and give substance to Green’s performance.
The staging of Life is for Living: Conversations With Coward is beautifully rendered, with a rich and sumptuous red curtain flowing behind the platform backdropping the piano and performance space, which Green and Shrubsole amply fill. Simon Green’s presence is relaxed and debonair, his dress black suit and sedately patterned vest with no tie are singularly stunning against the red curtain. The cabaret-style setup with matching fringed lighting shades adds to an overall luxurious effect that Coward would have appreciated.
Life is for Living: Conversations With Coward runs 70 minutes with no intermission. It runs at 59E59 Theaters (59E59th Street, NY, NY), until 1 January. (There is no performance on Christmas Day.)
Tickets are $25.00, $17.50 for members. Tickets are available online.