June 14, 1922– Cy Coleman
He was the jazziest of the great Broadway composers, but he worked easily and superbly when writing scores suggesting other genres.
My non-show tune loving friends will still know the music of Cy Coleman. He did rousing tunes that crossed-over to pop tunes (musical theatre and pop music used to blend) like Big Spender and If My Friends Could See Me Now, which are both from the Tony Award-winning Sweet Charity (1966). With a five decades-long career as a songwriter, his classical training and that jazz influence shook up American popular music. He contributed standards such as The Best Is Yet To Come and Witchcraft.
He was born Seymour Kaufman in the Bronx. When he was just four-years-old he began playing a piano abandoned in his tenement apartment. At seven-years-old, he played Carnegie Hall. Coleman:
”My mom owned four tenements in the Bronx and that’s where I grew up. When some tenants skipped out without paying the rent they left an upright piano, my parents moved it down to our apartment and that’s when I started to play.”
Trained at the New York College of Music, he learned jazz while playing in servicemen’s clubs. Despite his considerable success, he always loved playing in small clubs, because, according to cabaret singer Bobby Short: “This was where he sprang from“.
He became a piano accompanist for classical, pop and jazz singers. He accompanied a former Broadway singer whose husband was producer. They sent him to music publisher Jack Robbins who wanted to bill Coleman as the new Gershwin. It was Robbins who decided that he had ta more commercial-sounding name. Coleman:
“Nobody liked the name Seymour, it was so nebishy, so I was glad to change that to Cy, and he said the change of last name wasn’t too extreme: ‘It’s close, and it’s not like you’re trying to escape Jewish.”
His first writing partner was Joe McCarthy, Jr., whose father wrote I’m Always Chasing Rainbows. He had a song Why Try To Change Me Now on the B-side of Frank Sinatra‘s Birth Of The Blues, his last hit for Columbia before the label dropped him. It did better than the A-side. Then Nat King Cole recorded I’m Going To Laugh You Right Out Of My Life, which was another hit.
In 1955, Coleman and former copywriter Carolyn Leigh began to collaborate. The dynamics of their collaboration were magical, but their relationship was volatile. Their first show was Wildcat (1960), specifically tailored to suit the talents of its star Lucille Ball in the role of a woman seeking oil rights in a hick town. It included a hit tune, Hey, Look Me Over, recorded by just about everyone.
Valerie Harper, who was in the chorus of Wildcat, told a story of how all the dancers were backstage, dressed in white and waiting to go on, when a little dog in the show pooped on the stage. Before the ensemble went on, Ball left the stage and then came back on with a dustpan that she used to scoop the poop. Ball then turned out to the audience and deadpanned: ”Next time, I’ll read the fine print in my contract.”
According to Coleman, Ball was not much of a singer and after the show opened, the director and the songwriters cut two of her six songs. Wildcat was a vehicle for Ball’s comic talents and when she left, the show was doomed. Coleman:
”She met Gary Morton and fell in love with him. Shortly after that, Ball collapsed on stage, or pretended to, and said she needed to take time off. What she did was take time to marry Morton in London. She was gone nine weeks and didn’t pay the musicians while she was gone. She was the producer, too, in charge of the finances. The union wanted to be paid and I said to them if you charge her for the nine weeks she’ll say she can’t afford to re-open the show and none of us will get anything. But the union didn’t listen to me, they demanded that she pay them, and so she closed the show.”
Little Me (1962) was a terrific star vehicle with a show-stopping solo I’ve Got Your Number, one of the sexiest songs ever written. It is based on the novel by Patrick Dennis (Auntie Mame) succinctly titled Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs Of That Great Star Of Stage, Screen And Television, Belle Poitrine (1961), a campy illustrated autobiography of an imaginary diva. In his memoir, Rewrites: A Memoir (1996), Book writer Neil Simon says that he tailored the musical’s book to the talents of star Sid Caesar. Little Me is a terrific show that did not run for as long as it deserved, but it has a cult following and has been revived twice on Broadway.
The Coleman-Leigh collaboration dissolved after Little Me, and in 1966, Coleman asked another female lyricist, the underrated Dorothy Fields, to work with him. Their first collaboration was Sweet Charity, with a book by Neil Simon based on the Fellini flick, Nights Of Cabiria (1957) about a wistful whore. It was soggier than most Simon shows and needed both Bob Fosse’s dances and the score’s strong songs to make it a hit.
The best song from that show was in fact added for the 1969 film version, starring Shirley MacLaine. It’s a hymn to New York City, My Personal Property. Coleman’s other work with Fields was the bittersweet romantic musical Seesaw (1974), another story of love in Manhattan, noted for the great optimistic anthem It’s Not Where You Start (It’s Where You Finish). I saw the original production on Broadway with Michele Lee, Ken Howard and Tommy Tune. I loved it and I consider this musical criminally underrated.
Revived in 2015 to good reviews and Tony Award nominations, On The Twentieth Century (1978), from Ben Hecht‘s play and film of the same name, brought Coleman and lyricists, the legendary Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and won Coleman a Tony Award for Best Score.
“An expectation of a 1920s-style pastiche score didn’t excite me musically. We hit upon the idea of writing it as a comic opera. Our work sessions were so exhilarating that I found myself composing music on the spot. I doubt if we could have written the score if they hadn’t invented tape machines.”
I saw the original production with Madeline Kahn and Kevin Kline. It remains one of my favorite musicals.
I was also crazy for Coleman’s sexy chamber musical I Love My Wife with a book and lyrics by Michael Stewart.
Barnum (1980) is based on the life of circus impresario P. T. Barnum. It was well received and enjoyed a respectable run on Broadway and London. Barnum had the luck to have Jim Dale in the title role and featured a young actor named Glenn Close.
But, Coleman’s next show, Welcome To The Club (1989), set in a prison, flopped big time. However, the same season featured his very best musical City Of Angels, a book driven show from Larry Gelbart, with lyrics by David Zippel. It is a brilliant musical about the perils of adapting a hard-boiled novel to a Hollywood film. It was an unlikely popular success and had some of Coleman’s most thrilling music. Coleman won his second Tony for this one.
He wrote the charming The Will Rogers Follies (1991) with Comden and Green, proving that country music was also his thing. The cast featured the second Mrs. Trump, and I don’t mean Ivanka.
Coleman also brought funk and jazz to his score for the underrated 1970s look at NYC’s 42nd Street with The Life (1990).
Coleman lived for work, tackling Broadway musical, film scores, popular songs and television specials for Shirley MacLaine.
I met Coleman when I worked at ASCAP in the 1970s. He was as jazzy as his songs. His shows are from the same classic fabric as Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin, yet not quite. Would they ever compose a song titled Don’t Fuck Around With Your Mother-In-Law? Coleman demonstrated that he could mix tradition with flip modernity.
Coleman’s personal life, too, was full of surprises. He married for the first time when he was 68-years-old and had a child when he was 70.
He took his final bow in 2004, taken by a heart attack at 75-years-old. Sad, really, the prolific Coleman had so much more to do.