"sail away"

Published October 1, 1961





In 1999, Andre Bishop, Artistic Director of Lincoln Center Theater, who has become a Patron of the Noël Coward Foundation, had the idea that there should be a revival of Sail Away, Noël Coward’s 1961 musical starring Elaine Stritch. Bishop had seen the closing night of Sail Away, and said that Stritch gave “the single greatest musical comedy performance I have ever seen in my life – and I never forgot it.”

A concert version of the show was revived for two weeks at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall in November 1999, as part of Noël Coward’s centennial celebrations. New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote: “When Elaine Stritch sings Mimi's baffled ode to the surprising powers of passion, the lovely ‘Something Very Strange,’ it is with a sea-breeze-fresh vulnerability that should melt the iciest hearts. When she performed the same number 38 years ago, Coward wrote in his diary that Ms. Stritch sang ‘so movingly that I almost cried.’ He went on to say about making her the show's star: ‘There is no doubt about it. I made the right decision.’ The years have not proved him a liar.”

The show that became Sail Away went through many transformations. Initially conceived as a film for Noël and Marlene Dietrich, it was later modified as a possible vehicle for Kay Thompson or Rosalind Russell. Even when, as Sail Away, it finally opened on tour, it was to undergo further surgery. It was the last musical for which Noël Coward would have almost total responsibility, as author, composer, lyricist, and director. Though critical reaction was mixed, it made a huge star of Elaine Stritch and featured a score graced by many of Noël’s best songs, including “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?”

In Elaine Stritch at Liberty, her one-woman show, Stritch talked about her friendship with Noël Coward: “On the opening night of Sail Away, just before the curtain went up, Mr. Coward came to my dressing room. ‘Stritchie, Alfred and Lynn want us for a weekend in the Berkshires.’ I suddenly thought to myself, not only is this kid from Michigan about to open on Broadway in a Noël Coward musical, she has also just been invited by Noël Coward to weekend in the country with the Lunts. Another thought suddenly grabbed me: ‘Mr. Coward, if I don’t get good notices tomorrow can I still go to the Lunts?’ (Elaine as Coward): ‘No.’”

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