Public Domain Day advent calendar #28: Parisian Pierrot by Noël Coward

One of the hits of the 1923 London theater season was the musical revue London Calling!  It was the first publicly performed musical by Noël Coward, who starred in the 1923 production alongside Gertrude Lawrence, and who continued to write and perform theatrically for nearly 50 years afterwards.  With additional scripting by Ronald Jeans, additional music by Philip Braham and others, and some tap-dance choreography by a young Fred Astaire, the revue strung together a couple of dozen songs, dance routines, and sketches.  One innovative segment involved a stereoscopic shadowgraph, a then-new form of three-dimensional display that audiences viewed through special glasses.

I’d like to be able to say that the show will be in the US public domain a few days from now, like the other 1923 works I’ve been featuring in the calendar.  But I’m afraid it won’t be– at least, not in its entirety.  The problem is that performing a work in public doesn’t actually start its copyright term under US copyright law.  Up until 1977, registering a work or publishing it did start the term, but public performance of a dramatic or musical work doesn’t itself count as publication for the purposes of US copyright.  That’s why, for instance, the play Peter Pan is still under copyright in the US; even though it opened in 1904, its script wasn’t published until 1928, and that’s when its 95-year copyright term started.

It’s not clear exactly when the US copyright clock started running for London Calling! as a complete show.  It does not appear to have been registered as a play in 1923, and I haven’t found a book in the WorldCat catalog that consists of the entire show, other than some very recent publications.  Various parts of the show have been published separately over time, though.  Collections of Coward’s sketches have been published at various times, some of which include the sketch scripts from the show.  The individual songs have also been published as sheet music at different times since 1923.

One of the better-known songs of the production is “Parisian Pierrot”, written by Coward for Lawrence to sing in a “Pierrot” clown costume. The singer laments that while you may be “society’s hero” on the outside, on the inside you can have “spirits at zero”, knowing that even though “the rue de la Paix is under your sway” at present, “your star will be falling as soon as the clock goes ’round”.  Written in second-person, the song was one of Coward’s first hits, performable with a variety of singers and contexts.  Coward himself sung the song on a 1936 recording, and Julie Andrews also performed it in Star!, a 1968 film on the life of Lawrence.

With a 1923 copyright registration that was renewed in 1950, “Parisian Pierrot” joins the public domain in the US four days from now, along with some, but not all, of the other songs from London Calling!  For instance, the copyright term for “You Were Meant For Me”, another hit song from the show, appears to begin in 1924, so that song joins the public domain here one year after “Parisian Pierrot” does.

Because musical revues tend to be loose assemblages, we’re not missing out as much getting the show into the public domain piecewise as we would if it were the sort of tightly integrated dramatic production that more recent musicals tend to be. Still, I could see value in a knowledge base containing publishing history and copyright data of theatrical productions generally, so that we could determine more readily when such works join the public domain in whole or in part.

I’m a bit busy myself with a serials copyright knowledge base to take on drama as well. But if anyone else is doing it or plans to take it on, I’d love to hear about it.


2019 update: Link to piano-vocal sheet music for “Parisian Pierrot”, now in the US public domain, courtesy of the Lester H. Levy Sheet Music Collection at Johns Hopkins University.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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