Conversation Piece (Studio Cast Recording)
Noel Coward, Lily Pons, Cathleen Nesbitt & Ricard Burton
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The 1951 studio cast recording of Noël Coward's 1934 operetta Conversation Piece, made by Columbia Records and released as a two-LP box set, went out of print, and, in Europe, it went out of copyright by the early 2000s, allowing the British label Must Close by Saturday Records to release this unlicensed version on a single 79-minute CD. The musical was not one of Coward's more successful. He wrote it for the French star Yvonne Printemps, and, set in England in 1811, it told the story of a penniless French nobleman attempting to marry off his ward to a wealthy British marquis, even though she is secretly in love with him (the penniless French nobleman, that is). Coward himself took the part of the nobleman in the London production that opened on February 16, 1934, and ran 177 performances. (A subsequent Broadway production without him ran 55.) Although there was no formal "original cast" album, HMV Records had members of the cast cut five singles of the songs and dialogue, and those singles were later put together on an LP by the Monmouth Evergreen label. Also, a 1936 radio production has been issued as an album by AEI Records. But the Columbia album is the most complete rendering of the show on record. In fact, it might as well have been a radio play, too, since Coward adapted it to the aural medium, writing explanatory remarks — in verse, no less — in between the acted scenes. He recites those remarks himself, and he also again takes the role of the nobleman, speaking in a French accent. And he appropriates to himself a couple of songs originally sung by others; in the stage production, the nobleman did not sing. If Coward doesn't quite dominate this recording, it's because of Metropolitan Opera star Lily Pons, who plays the ward and steals nearly every scene she's in, in addition to singing beautifully, especially the show's standout number, "I'll Follow My Secret Heart." Cathleen Nesbitt and a young Richard Burton (neither of whom sing) are also impressive. Musical theater fans owe a debt of gratitude to Must Close by Saturday Records for bringing the album back into print, even in this form, with a few typos here and there and Adrian Wright's surprisingly hostile liner notes.
Born: December 16, 1899 in Teddington, Middlesex, England
Years Active: '10s, '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s