Noel Coward

Somewhat incredibly, the song “Mad About The Boy” is now nearly a century old. It was first performed in 1932 in the musical revue Words and Music by the British playwright and songwriter Noel Coward.

It’s a testament to the song’s power that it has endured over the decades, reworked by numerous artists and taken to heart by millions of listeners.

In its first incarnation, in Words and Music, “Mad About The Boy” was sung by several women in the queue for a cinema. They are all besotted with the matinee idol they are queuing to see.

“On the silver screen, he melts my foolish heart in every single scene.”

The theme of unrequited love resonated with many. This included gay listeners at the time, so many of whom were used to pining for people to whom they could never reveal their feelings.

“I’m mad about the boy, I know it’s stupid to be mad about the boy, I’m so ashamed of it but must admit, the sleepless nights I’ve had about the boy.”

A cultivated image

Noel Coward was born in 1899. He became internationally known as a suave, debonair, British composer and songwriter. However, the aristocratic persona was something he worked hard to create. Coward actually came from humble beginnings, born to a piano salesman father and his wife in a suburban corner of London.

Coward showed a talent for performing when young, appearing in amateur productions from the age of seven and soon after enrolling in a dance academy. He first appeared in the West End at 12 years old.

At 20, he wrote and starred in his first West End play, the lighthearted comedy I’ll Leave It to You. Coward excelled at farce, which proved particularly popular at the time. A man of many talents, he could act, sing, write, and direct.

“Mad About The Boy” could have been just another camp, lighthearted revue song, but something about the unrequited feelings expressed by the singer, and its poignant chord progression, tugged at something deeper. Coward was gay. At the time, it was impossible to be out. However, his sexuality was an open secret in the theater world and something he did little to hide.

When Words and Music transferred to Broadway, Coward added verses for a male character.

“When I told my wife, she said ‘I’ve never heard such nonsense in my life!’”

However, the management of the theater considered the amended lyrics too risque and barred them from being used. It’s an example of how Coward was prepared to challenge audiences.

Coward was reportedly inspired to write “Mad About The Boy” by a real-life crush on a Hollywood star. Rumored suspects include Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Tyrone Power.

Dinah Washington

It became one of his best-known songs and has been covered countless times. Arguably its most defining version came from the legendary Dinah Washington.

She recorded a soulful, orchestra-backed version in 1952, and then again in 1961, this time with Quincy Jones as producer. She recorded around 40 songs with Jones, which were released on two albums. Washington died in 1963, aged just 39.

Washington’s “Mad About The Boy” didn’t make a huge impression at the time it was recorded. However, in 1992, it was used as the soundtrack to a classic Levi’s commercial, “The Swimmer.” Washington’s haunting version was embraced by a generation who knew little of the song’s history.

Many other artists have released their own take on the track, often adding to its queer sensibility.

Here, amazingly, is Yul Bryner performing it in drag in the 1969 movie The Magic Christian.

Other versions have been recorded by camp disco icon Amanda Lear, Eartha Kitt, Jessica Biel, Marianne Faithfull, Miss Piggy (as “Mad About the Frog”) and Tom Robinson.

90 years after its debut, Adam Lambert recorded a version in 2022. He performed it on the BBC show Strictly Come Dancing (the UK’s version of Dancing With The Stars), as two male dancers twirled in front of him.

We like to think Coward (who died in 1973) would smile approvingly at his classic song receiving the kind of performance he could only dream of staging.

Learn more about Coward in the 2023 documentary Mad About The Boy.

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