Joseph Coyne (27 March 1867 – 17 February 1941), sometimes billed as Joe Coyne, was an American-born vaudevillian and musical comedy actor whose career spanned nearly 50 years from 1883-1931. A popular performer in the U.S., he achieved major stardom in the role of Prince Danilo in George Edwardes' London adaptation of The Merry Widow, which led to other leading roles in Edwardian musical comedy in London. By no means a strong singer, Coyne is credited with originating the speak-style of singing popularized by Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady.
The son of Irish immigrants James P. Coyne of Queens County, and Margaret Downey of West Meath County, Coyne was born in New York City, the middle of three children. His father worked as a seaman and, later, a waiter, while his mother kept house.
Having shown talent for drawing "and the like," Coyne's parents apprenticed him to a sculptor, but Coyne, having "of his own accord discovered himself as a dancer," instead made his stage debut in New York at 16 as a performer in one of the The Kiralfy Brothers spectacular productions (Excelsior 1983-1985). Coyne spent the next 10 years in Vaudeville honing his comedic skills as half of a duo known as 'Evans and Coyne'.
He first appeared in legitimate theatre in 1895, joining the Rose Lyall Dramatic Company. The ten years that followed were referred to by Coyne as a period of "arduous stock work in drama," playing in several variety farce-comedies beginning with The District Attorney (1985), and The Good Mr. Best (1897). His first starring role was in Charles Hale Hoyt's A Stranger in New York at the Garrick Theatre in NY 1897. A year later Hale wrote a leading role especially for Coyne in 1899's short-lived The Dog in the Manger at the Washington National Theater. This was followed by roles in The Girl in the Barracks (1899), Star and Garter (1900), The Night of the Fourth (1901).
It was in 1901 that Coyne made his first appearance on the London stage, playing opposite Edna May in Charles Frohman's The Girl from Up There. Returning to America he got his Broadway break playing the role of Archie in The Toreador (1902). Following that were a string of roles in which he played the "silly-ass" drunken English gentleman to great effect: The Rogers Brothers in London (1903–04), In Newport (1904–05), Abigail (1905), The Rollicking Girl (1905–06), The Social Whirl (1906), and My Lady's Maid (1906). According to the Biographical Dictionary of Dance (1982), Coyne became known for his drunk act and physical comedy: falling down staircases, over tables, and on top of comic leads. It was a typecasting that obscured his other abilities, but one that brought wide recognition.
In 1906, Coyne returned to England with Edna May for his second London West End show with her, as the comic-aristocrat Billy Rickets in Frohman's Nelly Neil (1907). After seeing Coyne's successful portrayal in the role George Edwardes, the creator of the British musical comedy genre, surprised the musical theater world by casting Coyne as romantic lead Prince Danilo in his enormously successful adaptation of the German operetta The Merry Widow. Written by Franz Lehár, it opened in June 1907 and ran for two years and catapulted Coyne to stardom as a romantic lead. Taking a brief hiatus from The Merry Widow in 1908, Coyne starred in the comic play The Mollusc, by Hubert Henry Davies, at the Garrick Theatre in New York, opposite the English actress Alexandra Carlisle. before returning to London to resume playing Prince Danilo.
Coyne followed this with a succession of leading roles for Edwardes, including Harry Q. Conder in The Dollar Princess (1909), Tony Chute in The Quaker Girl (1910), Teddy Cavanaugh in The Dancing Mistress (1912), and Sandy Blair in The Girl from Utah (1913), all in the West End. Coyne went with The Quaker Girl to Paris, where it played at the Théâtre du Châtelet in June 1911.
In September 1911 Coyne announced his intention to retire at the end of his contract with George Edwardes in order to pursue sculpting or architecture or, failing those, to become a motorman. The 1922 edition of Who's Who in the Theater lists 'Driving' as Coyne's 'recreation,' which perhaps explains his interest in becoming a motorman. Coyne did not, however, retire. After the Paris run of The Girl From Utah, he resumed working on the London stage playing O. Vivian Smith in He Didn't Want To Do It (1915). Following that he appeared in the Irving Berlin revues Watch Your Step (1915), and Follow The Crowd. Other work in that period included Ronald Clibran in The Clock Goes Round, Lawyer Gooch in Step In The Office (all 1916), and a local revue called The Bing Girls Are There(1917). He returned to musical theater in the role of Prince Paul of Perania in Arlette, (both 1917), and Robert Street in Going Up (1918).
In 1920 Coyne was engaged by J. C. Williamson Ltd. to star in three American farcical comedies at The Criterion in Sydney, Australia: "His Lady Friends," "Nightie Nightie," and "Wedding Bells." Back in London, he starred in Charlot's version of the French musical comedy Dédé (1922, André La Huchette), and in the London production of Friml's Katinka (1923, Thaddeus T Hopper). At the age of 58 Coyne received fresh acclaim as the youthful attorney "Jimmy Smith" in No, No, Nanette (1925), and followed this success playing T. Boggs John in Queen High (1926). Coyne's last appearance was in Apron Strings at the Vaudeville Theatre in 1931, in the role of Ezra Hunniwell.
Among his leading ladies, The Times listed Edna May, Gertie Millar, Lily Elsie, Constance Collier, Gertrude Lawrence and Binnie Hale. One critic wrote of him that, like other stars of musical comedy including Millar, "It is no good their pretending to be any one else. We go to see themselves, and all we ask is that the authors and others shall give them every chance of being themselves in the most pronounced and personal fashion".
The Merry Widow
Coyne, respected as a comedic actor, was not known as a singer and did not feel that he could do justice to the role of Danilo because of his limited vocal skills. His solution was to recite lines in rhythm, a full fifty years before Rex Harrison—who is often incorrectly credited with originating the technique—used it in My Fair Lady. Producer Edwardes, who loved the effect, was worried about Lehár's reaction to it and conspired to keep it from him until the final rehearsals by telling Lehár that Coyne was sick, and telling Coyne to "Cut the next number, Joe" or "Save your voice, Joe, recite it!" When Lehár first heard Coyne he was alarmed and accused Edwardes of deception, but Edwardes promised that Coyne would be a sensation. The show ran for two years, with London audiences having no issues with Coyne's delivery, and even Lehár grew to like it.
Of his performance in the part Coyne said, "Prince Danilo was originally played at Carlsbad by an eminent German actor, [Louis] Treumann, as a purely romantic singing-role. At Daly's I presented it as a light, irresponsible young prince, whole love scenes, always sincere, yet possessed a touch of quaint humor."
In August 1898 Joseph married American actress Anna Boyd. A decade later the two divorced amid rumors that Coyne was engaged to actress Alexandra Carlisle. Reports regarding the engagement surfaced as early as March 1908, which is about the time Charles Frohman announced that Coyne and Carlisle would star together in The Mollusc in New York that fall. The situation blew up in November 1908 during the final weeks of The Molllusc's run when reports of an engagement between Coyne and Carlisle reached Anna Boyd, who was compelled to assert herself as Mrs. Joseph Coyne by visiting Carlisle's New York apartment to introduce herself as such. Much denial ensued, with Coyne claiming he was not married to Boyd, and both Carlisle and Coyne denying any engagement. A year later, in September 1909, Coyne announced that he and English actress Alexandra Carlisle had secretly wed on 3 December 1908, issuing a statement that said, "We wished to get along quietly until the event was so far back that nobody would want to throw rice and old shoes at us. We have realized our best hopes and are happy. A quiet wedding saves you a lot of trouble and your friends a lot of rice." Ironically, just two months earlier on 25 July 1909, the Washington Herald reported that Anna Boyd had finalized her divorce from Coyne, who would soon wed Alexandra Carlisle.
The secret marriage between Coyne and Carlisle ended in a secret divorce sometime in 1912, followed quickly by another secret marriage; in Oct 1912 Carlisle married Dr. Albert Pfeiffer, an American dentist living in London.
- Popular Musical Theatre in London and Berlin 1890 to 1939, edited by Len Platt, Tobias Becker, and David Linton, p. 65
- Interview in The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Feb 1921, p. 7
- "1870 US Federal Census" 1870 U.S. census, population schedules. NARA microfilm publication M593, 1,761 rolls. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.
- Tenth Census of the United States, 1880. (NARA microfilm publication T9, 1,454 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C.
- "Obituary", The Times, 21 February 1941, p. 7
- "Welcome for Coyne and Miss Carlisle", The New York Times, 2 September 1908
- Alexandra Carlisle, stagebeauty.net, accessed 31 July 2016
- "To Quit Stage; May Run Car", "Chicago Tribune", 5 September afd1911, p. 10
- "Deaths", The Times, 28 February 1942, p. 6
- "Royal Adelphi Theatre", The Times, 7 November 1910, p. 16
- Popular Musical Theatre in London and Berlin 1890 to 1939, edited by Len Platt, Tobias Becker, and David Linton, p. 9
- "The Magic World of Operetta" by Robin May, Look and Learn Magazine, No 321, 9 Mar 1968, p.14
- "Anna Boyd Gets Divorce Decree From Joe Coyne", "The Evening World" (New York, NY), 20 Feb 1909, p. 1
- "Joseph Coyne to Wed", "Detroit Free Press, 7 Mar 1908", p. 2
- "Beautiful English Actress To Star With American Comedian", "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette", 29 March 1908, p. 16
- "Actor and Actress Who Deny Wedding, and Alleged Wife, Who Says She Will Sue", "The Evening World" (New York, NY), 17 November 1908
- "Saved Their Friends Rice", "The Sun" New York, NY, 20 Sep 1909, p. 1
- The Washington Herald, 25 July 1909, p. 16
- "Alexandra Carlisle Weds", "The Sun" (New York, NY), 23 Oct 1912, p. 3
- "All The News and Gossip of the London Theaters", "Pittsburgh Daily Post", 3 November 1912, p. 19
- "Alexandra Carlisle Married in London", "The Anaconda Standard" 16 November 1912, p. 14