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NOEL COWARD’S SWEET POTATO – Sort Of By Peter Filichia

Fifty years ago this week, it began previews without a record company having
signed on to do the original Broadway cast album.

And considering that NOEL COWARD’S SWEET POTATO lasted all of forty-four
performances, no company was willing to step up to the plate after the fact.

Clive Barnes, then the powerful critic of the Times, called the musical revue “an
act of cruelty.” New York Magazine’s Joan Simon, who didn’t suffer foolish shows
gladly, accused it of “gimmicking up Mr. Coward with mod scenery, a rock beat
and a collection of vaudeville turns that wouldn’t make it at Loew’s Hillside on a
rainy Thursday.” And although Daily News critic John Chapman said that it would
teach “the sooty players in HAIR . . . how the other half lives,” his endorsement
didn’t get enough people to buy tickets.

Did Roderick Cook, who conceived the evening, NOT include Coward’s “Why
Must the Show Go On?” in anticipation of those bad reviews?

You wouldn’t expect that a performer who’d eventually do three Albee plays on
Broadway — as well as one each by Miller, Odets, Shaw and Williams — would
necessarily be in a musical, but George Grizzard indeed was. SWEET POTATO
would be the only one.

Dorothy Loudon had to wait almost a decade before she was fully appreciated,
thanks to Miss Hannigan in ANNIE and subsequently Bea in BALLROOM. You’ve
undoubtedly heard the former, but if you haven’t heard the latter, do make that
happen. There’s a terrific band and a real nice crowd of songs.

Loudon also was the first Broadway Dotty Otley in NOISES OFF; the second was
Carole Shelley, who, coincidentally enough, had co-starred with Loudon in
SWEET POTATO. (How sad that we lost her last week.)

Well, with no cast album, let’s cobble one together from the recordings we DO
have. There’s the 1973 London revue COWARDY CUSTARD and two discs
performed by the master composer-lyricist himself: NOEL COWARD IN LAS
VEGAS, recorded live, and NOEL COWARD IN NEW YORK, which he did in a
studio.

Three songs can be found on both CUSTARD and VEGAS. “Mad Dogs and
Englishmen” shows Coward’s deftness at rhyme. (“Englishmen detest a siesta.”)
“Alice Is at It Again” is the title character’s lament by her parents: “She was ready to hitchhike Cadillac or motor bike. She wasn’t proud or choosy. All she was aiming to be was a pinked-up, minked-up floozy.”

“Let’s Do It” is of course a Cole Porter song, but Coward admired it so much that
he put his own lyrics to it. For the Vegas engagement, he wrote “Each tiny clam
you consume does it. Even Liberace – we assume – does it.”

(Much that has been divulged since the famed pianist’s death suggests Coward
was correct.)

On VEGAS you’ll hear four SWEET POTATO selections. “A Bar on the Piccolo
Marina” has a woman at her husband’s funeral after his premature death saying
“That’s done! My life’s at last begun!” “World Weary” is an ode to rustic living
over city life. That may seem an odd take from the ultra-sophisticated Coward.
But he wrote it for a revue in which Beatrice Lillie, one of his all-time favorites,
sang it.

“Matelot” was written in a hurry for a 1945 revue SIGH NO MORE when a song –
not a Coward one – was found wanting. The story of a seafaring father who
returns only to learn that his now-grown son has become a sailor and has left
town became the show’s biggest hit.

Coward fully admitted that he “unblushingly pinched” the title of “A Room with a
View” from E.M. Forster’s novel. It’s a romantic song originally sung by Sonnie
Hale (a man) and Jessie Matthews, who later proclaimed that they fell in love
while singing it.

(That brought no pleasure to Mrs. Hale).

On both CUSTARD and NEW YORK is “I Wonder What Happened to Him,” as a
veteran of foreign wars recalls ol’ pals. “Whatever became of old Keeling? I hear
that he got back from France and frightened three nuns in a train in Darjeeling.”
SWEET POTATO is best represented on CUSTARD. “Useful Phrases” (from SAIL
AWAY) is a hilarious look at those translation guides you bring to foreign
countries. But how many sentences and questions will you ever really need? And
yet, here’s “This egg is delicious,” “Please bring me some rhubarb” and “I want
thirteen stamps.”

As funny as this might strike you, imagine Patricia Routledge doing it. Routledge
was seen by Broadway audiences only 110 times (and that includes previews) in
three shows. And yet, for DARLING OF THE DAY, she tied (with Leslie Uggams in
HALLELUJAH, BABY!) for a Best Actress in a Musical Tony. Their cast albums
show why.

“I Like America” may remind you of “Ah, Paris!” in that Coward, like Sondheim,
had his character carp about places he doesn’t like (“I don’t care for China;
Japan’s far too small”) before endorsing one. However, Coward wrote this song
more than two decades before Sondheim wrote his (though, to be fair,
Sondheim’s song in FOLLIES was always intended to be pastiche). And could
Coward have had a sensational ‘20s murder trial in mind when he wrote “In
Chicago, Illinois, any girl who meets a boy giggles and shoots him dead”?

“Mrs. Worthington” is the song in which Coward begs a mother “Don’t put your
daughter on the stage.” Although “admitting the fact she’s burning to act,” he
concedes, “that isn’t quite enough.” (You think that he would have been able to
discourage Rose Hovick?)

“Mad about the Boy” originally had four young women pining for a film star. “To
me,” sang one, “he’s the sole man who can kiss as well as Colman.” That’s
Ronald Colman, who was flying high after recently being nominated for not one
but two Oscars in the same year for BULLDOG DRUMMOND and CONDEMNED.
“I never learned to bat or bowl,” sings “The Boy Actor” in the song by that name.
“But I heard the curtain go up.” (Many of us can relate to that.)

“If Love Were All” starts and finishes CUSTARD. Here’s where Coward modestly
expressed his undeniable “talent to amuse.” It’s not only the phrase that can be
found on his memorial tablet on Westminster Abbey, but it’s also a line that is
proved once again from these recordings.

And what does SWEET POTATO have to do with Noel Coward? Damned if I
know. No song by that name shows up in the extensive song lists on
www.noelcoward.com or in Barry Day’s magnificent NOEL COWARD: THE
COMPLETE LYRICS (which sure was a help with this article). Stephen Bowie, a
curatorial assistant for The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, has
written that “sweet potato” refers “to an obscure song about an obscure musical
instrument.” If anyone knows more, I’d love to hear from you.

Let’s close by citing one of the most endearing mistakes I’ve ever found in all my
years of reading. In THE FOOD LOVER’S BOOK OF LISTS, authors Patricia
Altobello and Deirdre Pierce included a page on Food-Oriented Movie Titles (A
CLOCKWORK ORANGE), another on Food-Oriented Book Titles (TORTILLA FLAT)
and another on Food-Oriented Titles of Musicals — in which they listed NORTH
CAROLINA’S SWEET POTATO.

Can’t you picture how it happened? The poor tired souls who knew nothing
about musicals were sitting in the library pouring through Theatre World annuals and came across this title at the end of an exhausting day. They simply abbreviated the title to N.C.’S SWEET POTATO, figuring they’d remember that “N.C.” meant Noel Coward once they got home and began transcribing.

But they didn’t.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com
and each Friday at www.mtishows.com . He can be heard most weeks of the year
on www.broadwayradio.com .