Marquee for Noël Coward's Sweet Potato (1968) / Dorothy Loudon Papers (Peter DeNicola)
The season of Noël Coward at the NYPL is coming to a close, as we near the end of the Library for the Performing Arts's exhibition Star Quality: The World of Noël Coward, which comprises photographs, scripts, video clips, and other artifacts culled from the Library's own collections as well as the Noël Coward Foundation, the Museum of Performance and Design, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. (This Saturday, August 18, is the last day to see the exhibit, but happily our accompanying website will remain on-line until the end of civilization.) In the interest of synergy, I'm going to take a quick look at the Noël Coward shows in which our star, Dorothy Loudon, appeared.
It was inevitable that they would cross paths. Loudon's rise as a viable musical theater star, with her well-reviewed performances in the Broadway flop Nowhere to Go But Up (1962) and then on television's The Garry Moore Show (1962-1964), concided with a renewed interest in Noël Coward's work in the early 1960s. Coward had fallen out of fashion during the era of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, but the Broadway hit Sail Away (1961-1962), starring Elaine Stritch, and Coward's increased visibility as a roguish character actor in films (Our Man in Havana, Bunny Lake Is Missing, The Italian Job), marked a comeback of sorts.
Brassy and inescapably American, Loudon might have seemed at first glance ill-matched for the sophisticated Englishman. But they had in common a gift for verbal wit, and Loudon had the right kind of strength to play Coward's sharp-tongued female characters.
Loudon's first brush with Coward came in summer stock. If you were in Charlotte, North Carolina, during the summer of 1965, you could see the following at the Ovens Auditorium (not a typo), the "Showplace of the Carolinas": Mary, Mary, starring Barry Nelson and Phyllis Kirk; 110 in the Shade, with Dorothy Collins; Carousel, with Bill Hayes (who had toured with Loudon two years earlier in Anything Goes); A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Phil Foster; Here's Love with Eddie Bracken and Jack Haskell; and, from July 20-26, Dorothy Loudon in High Spirits.
A big hit that ran on Broadway for nearly a year (1964-1965), High Spirits was a musical adaptation of Blithe Spirit, with music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray. Coward warmed to the project and agreed to direct it, but health problems forced him to withdraw and bring in Gower Champion to take over (without credit) during rehearsals. High Spirits starred Beatrice Lillie, a beloved but eccentric comedienne who drove Coward crazy, and a wonderful cast of stage actors including Edward Woodward (later the star of TV's The Equalizer), Tammy Grimes, and Louise Troy.
The Charlotte production, which headlined Loudon in Lillie's role, Madame Arcati – a character that Martin and Gray had enlarged from Blithe Spirit, giving her the numbers "Something Is Coming to Tea" and "Into Your Trance" – was produced and directed by Stanley Waren. Waren, now in his nineties, still lives in New York City; sadly, his wife and sometime collaborator, the dancer Florence Waren, passed away last month, but her story (and theirs together) is a fascinating one.
High Spirits got good reviews from the Charlotte press and probably drew crowds eager to see Loudon, only a year after her star-making stint on The Garry Moore Show had ended. "It's hard to say which was the nuttiest, she or the crazy, mixed-up outfits she wore," wrote Emory Wister in the Charlotte News (July 21, 1965). Carole Love, who played Ruth Condomine in the Charlotte production, recalled Loudon's tap-dance in fuzzy slippers as a high point of the show. In an e-mail this week, Love wrote that Loudon "was not only a lovely and friendly star, she was wonderfully funny in her role as a kooky medium."
(Although Loudon, atypically, did not save her own script from High Spirits, the Library's Beatrice Lillie Papers include the annotated script used by Lillie during the original Broadway production. Lillie's script, and some terrific photos from the Broadway version, are currently on display in the Star Quality exhibit.)
High Spirits was just a seven-day blip in Loudon's career, a likely delightful turn that only a few thousand North Carolinians had the chance to see. But her next Noël Coward show made it to Broadway.
A Coward revue was something of a passion project for actor Roderick Cook, who had performed on Broadway in Coward's 1963-64 musical The Girl Who Came to Supper. (Mainly a stage actor, Cook became a familiar face on television and in movies, including The Great Waldo Pepper and Amadeus, toward the end of his life.) Cook assembled a collage of Coward material and premiered it at the 11th Annual Vancouver Festival in July 1968, under the ungainly title And Now, Noël Coward…: An Agreeable Impertinence.
In Cook's show, Loudon was probably the biggest name amid a diverse ensemble that included Carole Shelley, Bonnie Schon, cabaret performer Tom Kneebone, a young Robert LuPone, and top-billed George Grizzard, who was better known as a dramatic actor than as a song-and-dance man.
Clocking in at a full two and a half hours, And Now, Noël Coward… was definitely a work in progress during its thirty-two performances in Vancouver. The critics were brutal. "[N]ot often agreeable and more of an insult than an impertinence to Coward," declared the Vancouver Sun (July 23, 1968). In her nightclub routine Loudon liked to make self-deprecating references to her earlier work (much like Jack Benny's long-running gags about his flop film The Horn Blows at Midnight), and decades later she would still joke that the headline in Vancouver was "They expect us to pay money to see that?" (See Box 73, Folder 6 of the Dorothy Loudon Papers, which includes a trove of annotated song lists, lyrics, and biographical notes that Loudon used to organize her live act.) The actual headline was, indeed, "You expect people to pay to see that?" (The Province, July 23, 1968). The critic, James Barber, went on to describe the revue as "an un-musical, unsophisticated and unready regurgitation of ill-chosen Coward which, without complete remaking, has no more hope of reaching Broadway than has Uncle Fred, with a lampshade on his head, doing the Charleston." Ouch!
(Adding insult to injury, the Province identified Grizzard in a photo caption as "George Gizzard" and the Sun review referred to costume designer David Toser as "David Tosser." But those were purely accidental errors … uh, right?)
When it re-emerged on Broadway two months later (presumably with dancing Uncle Fred and his lampshade in tow), the Coward revue had the same cast but a new title – Noël Coward's Sweet Potato, referring to an obscure song about an obscure musical instrument – and a new director, sort of. The Vancouver reviews credited Cook as the director but in New York the official credits read: "Devised and supervised by Roderick Cook; directed and choreographed by Lee Theodore." Cook and Theodore (who had played Anybodys in the original production of West Side Story) appear to have been close collaborators, and the changes may have been more of an effort to distance the show from those Vancouver reviews than a sign of behind-the-scenes turmoil.
Sweet Potato received respectful reviews, if not raves. There was carping about some of the liberties Cook had taken, such as the introduction of music by himself, Fred Werner (who had been an arranger or musical director on Sail Away and High Spirits), and Cole Porter to underscore Coward's words, and especially the decision to stage of the balcony scene from Private Lives on roller skates. Clive Barnes, the most powerful theater critic of the day, thought it "an act of cruelty" to revive Coward before a presumably uncomprehending modern audience (New York Times, September 30, 1968). The flip side of that reaction was a kind of relieved nostalgia for Coward's classiness. John Chapman sniffed that Sweet Potato would teach "the sooty players in Hair . . . how the other half lives" (New York Daily News, September 30,1968). Raw-ther!
As for Dorothy Loudon, some critics argued that she and the other American actors were all wrong for the veddy British material. Jack O'Brian complained that her "nightclub personality and manner" were ill-suited to the sensibility of Coward (New York Daily Column, October 2, 1968). But most of Loudon's notices were complimentary and, as with all of her Broadway work prior to Annie, one got the sense that Loudon was triumphing over flawed material. Barnes wrote that Loudon "has just that quality of sweet, motherly bitchery that Coward so often needs" and praised her for "keep[ing] up" with "one of the world's finest dancers." The latter remark referred to Loudon's "graceful tap dance" (George Oppenheimer, Newsday, September 30, 1968) with Arthur Mitchell of the New York City Ballet, evidently one of the highlights of Sweet Potato.
Richard P. Cooke elaborated, writing that
Dorothy Loudon handles the more serious and some of the lighter songs and sketches with a sure touch. The one really serious number, "If Love Were All," is sung in the old torch tradition, and sung beautifully by Miss Loudon. She also does a comic bit in singing "A Room with a View," where she is locked out on her balcony with nothing but the view.
Roderick Cook (left), Jamie Ross, and Barbara Cason in Oh, Coward! (1972) / Friedman-AbelesAlas, Sweet Potato logged only 44 performances and closed before the end of the year, no match for those dirty hippies of Hair, who trod the boards until 1972. It was another near-miss in an epic string of them for Loudon and sort of a false start for Cook, who reshaped the material into Oh, Coward!, a more successful Off-Broadway hit that ran for 294 performances in 1972-1973.
If nothing else, Sweet Potato tempted copy editors into leaving us a legacy of cringe-inducing headline puns, many of which are compiled in Loudon's scrapbook (Box 33 of the Dorothy Loudon Papers). There was "Sweet Potato yields some good bites" (unidentified publication, September 30, 1968); "'Sweet Potato' lacks meat" (Daily Home News, October 1, 1968); and my personal favorite, "Noël's Sweet Potato loaded with cream" (New York Daily News, September 30, 1968). The Daily News seemed to be confusing sweet potatoes with baked potatoes, but never mind: now I'm hungry. While you're browsing the Library's Noël Coward archive, I think I'll be joining the search for the best sweet potato fries in town.