Noel Coward was among the most innovative and influential figures to emerge from the theatrical world during the 20th century. A playwright, director, and actor as well as a songwriter, filmmaker, and novelist, his witty, urbane stage productions forever altered the perceptions long inherent in theater dialogue by shifting away from declamatory tones to a more natural, conversational approach, making them ideal for later film adaptations. Born December 16, 1899, in Middlesex, England, Coward was the product of a musical family; his grandfather was the organist at the Crystal Palace, while his father was a piano tuner. He began his professional career as a child actor, and in 1913, while traveling with a production of Hannele, he met a girl named Gertrude Lawrence who would continue to exert a profound influence over his life and career, becoming both the inspiration behind and the star of many of his greatest works. After appearing in 1918 in the D.W. Griffith film Hearts of the World, Coward began writing plays and eventually turned to songwriting. In 1923, his "Parisian Pierrot" was performed by Lawrence in the revue London Calling!, becoming his first hit, and a year later his drug-addiction drama The Vortex was a controversial smash before moving to Broadway.
Within a year, Coward had another revue, On With the Dance, running in London simultaneously with a pair of comedies, Hay Fever and Fallen Angels. His record of three concurrent productions was not broken until half a century later by Andrew Lloyd Webber. With his sudden rise to success came immense pressure, however, and at the age of 27, Coward suffered a nervous breakdown; to make matters worse, neither critics nor audiences reacted favorably to productions of his Home Chat and Sirocco. For the duration of the 1920s, his career continued to see-saw between bouquets and brickbats, but in 1929 Coward mounted his most mature production yet with Bitter Sweet, a quasi-Viennese operetta which launched the song "I'll See You Again." The 1930 Private Lives, a romantic comedy written in honor of Lawrence, further established his newfound mastery, and with the 1931 historical epic Cavalcade and its song "Twentieth Century Blues", his position as a talent of international renown was assured.