Paying tribute to playwright legend Coward

BY TOMMY MORGAN JR. | APRIL 12, 2010 7:30 AM

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To pay tribute to a legend, sometimes you must become that legend.

UI visiting Associate Professor Gary Briggle will do just that tonight when he takes on the role of late British playwright, lyricist, and composer Noël Coward for a tribute to his work.

Briggle and accompanist Jamie Johns will present “An Evening with Noël Coward” at 7:30 p.m. today in 1670 University Capitol Centre. Admission is free.

Coward first rose to popularity in the ’20s and ’30s as a playwright. During his career he wrote more than 40 plays, several revues (shows that may combine music, dance, and acting) and musicals, and more than 300 songs.

“He’s a classic. He endures because his work is of such a unique quality,” Briggle said. “No one else can do what Noël Coward can do.”

The writer was also a renowned actor and starred in many of his own plays. Through this, Coward developed an iconic image of himself as a posh, upper-crust type always carrying a cigarette holder and wearing a fancy dressing gown around the house — an image that also carried through to his personal life.

“He is such an exotic bird,” Briggle said. “He’s so unlike me. I’m a sort of jeans and T-shirt guy.”

He and Johns first arranged and performed the show five years ago, and Briggle, trained in opera, has been performing Coward’s music since 1980.

“Coward’s work is very funny stuff. It’s witty, [and] it’s a little wicked in his observations and his sarcasm,” Briggle said.

For “An Evening with Noël Coward,” he adopts this persona of the playwright, taking on the many intricacies of the his actions and speech.

“I’ve studied his gestures and his dialect, his mannerisms, and even his delivery of these songs,” Briggle said. “It’s fun and transformational. It’s a complex assignment as an actor.”

The show’s beginning is centered on a 1955 cabaret act in Las Vegas that the professor said jump-started Coward’s flagging career, and he also discusses his love of world travel.

“It was risky for him, because he was a man of the legitimate theater,” Briggle said about the Vegas act. “What he discovered was fantastic. People did remember him from his radio broadcasts in the Second World War.”

In composing the tribute, Briggle and Johns bring out Coward’s character by using only songs and quotations from Coward himself, Briggle said, and they added no outside material to the pieces.
Johns said this presented a unique element to his accompaniment that isn’t seen with other works.

As Coward was primarily a playwright, his songs are text-driven, putting more emphasis on the words than on the music. This means taking a restrained approach to the songs.

“Here, you’re trying to do the most minimal amount of playing [to let the words tell the story],” Johns said. “The piano has to [be] commentating, as opposed to accompanying.”

The second half of the show focuses on a more personal side of Coward, including many nods to and songs about friends the playwright made throughout his life.

Even so, the flashy, outspoken Coward is still present.

“[He was] a solitary guy who was also a great celebrity and loved to be the center of attention,” Briggle said. “He was not shy about telling people what he thought.”

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