In the September 1961 issue of Theatre Arts magazine, Noël Coward was quoted as follows:
“Two years ago I had the idea of doing a musical, and I wrote the whole first act of one, and it wasn’t any good. I scrapped that. But bits of it still remained in my mind, and last November I had a new idea. At Christmas-time I went down to Jamaica, and suddenly found I was in a musical phase. Tunes kept on appearing every time I went to the piano. I began to write a score, not complete, but rather rough. I wrote several numbers, and then began to think of the connecting stories to go with them. When I had done about twelve numbers, I came to New York in February and gave some auditions. At that moment I’d had the ideas of the characters I wanted to write. When I’d heard some people sing, and seen some people dance, and decided which to engage and which not to engage, I then went back to Jamaica, this time with Oliver Smith, who came to stay with me, and he planned all the sets and I did the book, more or less simultaneously. Meanwhile some more numbers appeared. Then we came back to New York and held some more auditions. And got everything under way for the production. And that’s the way it stands now. It’s finished. Obviously, there may have to be some changes when we get out of town, but perhaps there won’t be so many. The major part of the work is now done, except for the actual rehearsing and the putting on stage.” (The complete article may be found on this page at the Noél Coward Society website.)
As it turned out, there were some major changes out of town. As recounted in the booklet for the Broadway Angel CD release of the Broadway cast recording, the version of the show that opened in Boston had Elaine Stritch as cruise director Mimi Paragon “presiding over the shipboard comedy—bratty children, spoiled dogs, insufferable tourists—with a pair of romantic subplots swirling around her.” One of the subplots was primarily serious, while the other was comic and lighthearted. The more serious subplot involved Verity Craig (played by opera singer Jean Fenn), an unhappily married woman contemplating divorce from her husband (William Hutt), who has a shipboard with a handsome, younger man named John Van Mier (James Hurst). The other subplot involved Barnaby Slade and Nancy Foyle, two youngish people who meet and become romantically involved. More time and more songs were devoted to the tale of Verity and John.
By the time of the show’s next pre-Broadway engagement, in Philadelphia, it was clear that the Verity-Johnny plot was draining the show of energy every time the couple appeared. As recounted in the Broadway Angel CD booklet, the show’s choreographer, Joe Layton, “suggested a radical move — eliminating the role of Verity and having Johnny fall in love with Mimi. Coward agreed, though he regretted cutting the score.”
The specific cuts involved two songs — “This Is a Changing World” and “This Is a Night for Lovers” — that Coward had interpolated from his unsuccessful operetta Pacific 1860, which had played London in 1946 but had not been produced on Broadway, and one new song, “I Am No Good at Love.” One of the new songs that Fenn had been singing, “Something Very Strange,” remained in the show, sung most effectively by Stritch.
The title song for the show was also interpolated from a previous Coward musical, Ace of Clubs, though the lyrics were revised for Sail Away.
In his 2005 book Noël Coward, Sheridan Morley writes misleadingly of this history. Morley writes that Elaine Stritch "started rehearsals with a relatively minor role and was only promoted over the title and given virtually all the best songs when it was reckoned that the original leading lady, Jean Fenn, although excellent, was rather too operatic for a musical comedy." Stritch's role was always considered one of the two leading roles. In press releases, Stritch and Fenn were referred to as the show's co-stars. In ads for the show and in the playbills and on posters for the first pre-Broadway run in Boston, they were billed together under the title, with Stritch's name on the left, preceding Fenn's.