By Robert Heide
The great New York singer Steve Ross—dubbed the “Crown Prince of New York Cabaret”—with the dynamic, amazing KT Sullivan—the artistic director of the Mabel Mercer Foundation—appeared in the past month of August in a show devised and written by Barry Day entitled Love, Noel—The Songs and Letters of Noel Coward. The program for this Irish Repertory cabaret show lists Mr. Ross simply as MAN and KT as WOMAN and the moment this duo appears on stage the magic begins. Barry Day is the literary advisor to the Noel Coward estate and he has published more than a dozen books on Coward as well as Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, P. G. Wodehouse, Johnny Mercer and even Raymond Chandler. His editing for Love, Noel is of course based on selections from the collected letters of Coward, and twenty-two Coward songs including all time standards like If Love Were All, Someday I’ll Find You, I’ll See You Again, World Weary, and I’ll Follow My Secret Heart. Fun oddities include Why Do the Wrong People Travel? and Mrs. Worthington which includes in its lyric “Don’t put your daughter on the stage Mrs. Worthington—she’s a bit of an ugly duckling—please! On my knees—don’t put your daughter on the stage.”
All the letters from Noel or from his friends are elegantly read and the songs are sung either by The Man or The Woman or both of them together. At one point in this delightful evening of song and lively patter between the two they join in singing the plaintive lyrics of the painful tune Mad About the Boy. A rare recording of Noel Coward singing the song caused somewhat of a scandal back in the day in ‘Merrie Olde’ England. To hear a man singing to a young gentleman offended some. Today a gay man singing Mad About the Boy with longing and yearning might not seem odd at all as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion—it must be time to get on with it. Some of the lyrics include “Lord knows I’m not a school girl in the flurry of her first affair” and “this odd diversity of misery and joy..” and “on the silver screen he melts my heart away in every single scene” and finally “I’m going quite insane and yet it’s plain I’m mad about the boy.” I am noting as I write this that I have in my collection of CD’s an album entitled Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man. The selections feature famous crooners who sing standard love songs to men. Bing Crosby recorded a song called Gay Love, and another originally sung by Mae West is The Right Kind of Man. Other titles are He’s So Unusual, The Man I Love, He’s My Secret Passion and Hold Your Man. The producer of this unusual compact disc compiled a series of 78 rpm recordings for Columbia Records on several CD’s and put them out under a banner head entitled Art Deco.
It should be added here that KT Sullivan does marvelous imitations of Noel Coward’s special ‘lady’ friends such as Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Elaine Stritch singing the song Sail Away from the Broadway show of the same name written by Coward. Both Steve and KT sing this one together. Of Coward’s leading ladies on stage it is Gertrude Lawrence who joined him in several plays with music. Love, Noel was brilliantly directed by Charlotte Moore who is also the artistic director of the Irish Rep and has won many distinguished awards during her theater career. As for Steve Ross and KT Sullivan, both of them are cherished treasures in the world of cabaret. Both appear often at Birdland and in past years have worked at famous night clubs such as the famed Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel where Ross held court for fifteen years. After this great evening at the Love, Noel show at the Irish Rep John Gilman and I went out for a drink to talk theater with Steve Ross whom I have considered a friend and colleague for decades. We mentioned to him that at an all male New Year’s Eve party given by Richard Barr and Edward Albee in Greenwich Village that we met Sir Noel Coward and the famed actor Sir John Gielgud sitting together on a fancy upholstered French divan. Noel Coward, who was born in 1899 and died at his home in Jamaica in 1973, was often called ‘The Master’ because of his many talents as a playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, and director. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1970.
Steve Ross will be on stage again at the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s Cabaret Convention on the evening of October 29 in Heart and Soul—the songs of Frank Loesser.
Playwright Robert Heide’s latest publication is Robert Heide 25 Plays available at Amazon.