Considering he’s been dead for 41 years, Noel Coward is very popular.
To wit, the witty playwright, author, composer, actor and showman has two revivals in London’s West End (“Blythe Spirit,” with Angela Lansbury, and “Relative Values,” directed by Trevor Nunn). Two shows, “Brief Encounter” and “Love, Noel,” recently opened the new Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles.
“Love, Noel,” a revue that weaves Coward’s music and letters, was written by Palm Beach snowbird and British author Barry Day, who has organized the inaugural Noel Coward Festival Palm Beach, taking place March 18-22. The five days of screenings, discussions and musical performances will be staged at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach. For a complete schedule, go to Kravis.org.
“These are the busiest times for Coward,” says Day, who, while working with the Coward estate for 30 years, has written 10 books on the raconteur. “The [plays] are funny and witty and touching. I think a lot of directors are discovering that there is more to the plays than they thought.”
The festival will open with a March 18 luncheon at which video clips of TV performances and interviews will be shown. On March 19, a discussion of Coward in film will be followed by a screening of the movie “Brief Encounter.”
The events will continue with two musical performances. On March 20, cabaret star Steve Ross will join operatic soprano Amanda Squitieri in a concert of songs Coward made famous. And a revue of song, verse and excerpts from plays titled “Curtain Up …On Noel Coward” will be staged March 21 and March 22.
“The seed of all of this appeared a long time ago,” recalls Lee Bell, senior director of programming for the Kravis Center. “Back in 2008, we did ‘Letters of Noel Coward’ with Barry, and it was very successful. I said it would be great if we could do a festival. It just popped up in conversation, but neither of us took it seriously.”
But then, audiences kept responding to Coward’s material. Revues such as “Temple of Dreams — Theatre Songs From the West End to Broadway” in 2011, “He Loves, She Loves” in 2012, and “Broadway Babies” in 2013 all relied on Coward’s compositions.
“We have a very sophisticated audience,” Bell says. “We noticed that these performances with a similar theme … provided sold-out shows.”
Day is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Trustee of the Noel Coward Foundation, and was awarded the Order of the British Empire “for services to British culture in the U.S.A.” He has also written books on Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse, Dorothy Parker and Sherlock Holmes/Arthur Conan Doyle. He lives in New York, London and Palm Beach.
Day says of his career chronicling Coward: “It was all quite by chance. My wife and I were in Kingston, Jamaica, and we decided to go up and see Firefly, his estate there. And there was this chap giving a tour and saying about a vase or something other, ‘Would you like this?’ It was appalling. For a couple of bucks, I could have bought anything.”
Seeking to correct that led Day to Graham Payn, who was Coward’s partner, literary executor and chronicler until he died in 2005 at the age of 86.
“He showed me everything Coward had done, all of it stashed away in a box,” Day recalls. “And there was everything he had written since age 6, and that’s a lot of stuff. I never got to meet him, but I feel I got to know him.”
Day went on to explain that before the advent of television that Coward was a big star on the stage, on radio and through records.
“He was omnipresent. He was a big person in our lives. You know, he was one of the very first celebrities — someone famous for being famous. He was actually a very nice man, very kind and considerate; not at all brittle.”
And his influence still rings through today in the dialogue of, say, Harold Pinter argues Day. “[Theater critic Kenneth] Tynan once wrote something like: in 50 years time we will all still know what is mean to be a Noel Coward kind of person.”
IF YOU GO:
“Noel Coward Festival Palm Beach”
When: Various times, March 18-22
Where: Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach
Cost: Event prices range from $28 to $50.
Contact: 800-572-8471 or Kravis.org.