Making Previously Private Lives Accessible

There is a reason why some playwrights are able to transcend the boundaries of time and remain accessible to audiences well after their time. And Melbourne Theatre Company’s latest production, Private Lives, is proving why Noël Coward easily earned his place among these writers.

Private Lives

Noël Coward is known for two things. His impressive catalogue of plays and his incredibly popular songs . . . of which he wrote more than 300! As a result, you would think when one of his plays calls for the use of an off-stage band performing a romantic song or a character playing an on-stage piano he would be rather prescriptive about which song was to be played. He was a celebrated song writer after all!

But actually he did quite the opposite. The musical stage directions are open to interpretation.

Elyot looks at her, then goes over to the piano. He begins to play idly . . . He starts to sing softly to her, never taking his eyes off her.

After a moment, Elyot pensively begins to hum the tune the band is playing. It is a sentimental, romantic little tune.’

Not every production of Private Lives takes full advantage of this special feature, often returning to the songs of Noël Coward to fill in the musical breaks. Melbourne Theatre Company, on the other hand, have used this opportunity to the fullest to engage with an incredibly wide audience.

Polling the cast and creatives involved with the project on their favourite romantic songs, they came up with a list of songs from across the last 50 years. The brilliant musical director Matthew Frank then arranged these songs to sound like the belonged in the 1930s when Private Lives is set and they were included in the musical scenes.

So instead of featuring a set of songs which appealed to people familiar with the work of Noël Coward, they introduced a huge range of songs with which a modern audience could relate. But at the same time didn’t draw the audience out of the 1930s atmosphere because of the special arrangements.

The variety of musical repertoire featured favourites such as ‘Burn for You’, ‘Blame it on the Boogie’, ‘We’ve got Tonight’ and the Richard Marx classic ‘Right Here Waiting’. Okay, all are songs released between 1976 and 1990 but don’t think that the current charts were forgotten.

The performance opened with an incredible rendition of last year’s skyrocketing John Legend single ‘All of Me’ bringing the show into context for younger generations who can relate with the musical aspects. But as if that wasn’t enough, the set – which consisted of two neighbouring hotel rooms and their balconies featuring a grand piano in each – revolved at a rather significant speed as the actors performed the song from all sides of the revolving stage.

By leaving his musical scenes open to interpretation, Noël Coward has opened his play up to audiences well beyond his time. But by taking full advantage of these scenes and using contemporary music, Melbourne Theatre Company has created a performance which truly allows Noël Coward’s universal themes to resonate with these new audiences keeping his play accessible.