The Top-Ten Cy Coleman Songs Written for Broadway Musicals

The Top-Ten Cy Coleman Songs Written for Broadway Musicals

Never has a composer been more eclectic in style and worked with such a variety of lyricists than the late-great Cy Coleman. Coleman had a long career in musical theatre, spanning decades, with a wide range of successes, almost hits, and flops: Wildcat (1960), Little Me (1962), Sweet Charity (1966), Seesaw (1973), I Love My Wife (1977), On the Twentieth Century (1978), Barnum (1980), City of Angels (1989), The Will Rogers Follies (1991), and The Life (1997).

What is always indicative of a Cy Coleman melody is its infectiousness. As each song concludes, your mind keeps playing it until it is begrudgingly put to rest by the next intoxicating installment in what is almost always a captivating score. It is difficult to pick a "Top-Ten" from his vast array of styles since I truly admire most of his music. This top-ten will have to be an assessment of the songs that burrow inside me, take me to the emotional moment of the musical, and refuse to let go.      

Top-Ten Cy Coleman Songs
 

10. "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This"

Sweet Charity

Lyrics by Dorothy Fields

Three women, working as dance hall hostesses (merely sanitized prostitutes), long for a better life and "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" from Sweet Charity is one of best theatre songs to capture the everyman's personal longing to improve his or her situation. The song radiates an electrified, boundless fury, underscoring an equally passionate dance sequence. Musically, Coleman commands the desperation in the situation and interprets it with a fiery melody that crackles and sparks with indignation and determination.   

9. "Someone Wonderful I Missed"

I Love My Wife

Lyrics by Michael Stewart

Who listens to I Love My Wife anymore? I happen to be one of the musical theatre enthusiasts who finds great joy in this score and pulls the CD off my shelf now and again. Sure the themes are dated, but it doesn't make the music any less wonderful. Nowhere is a Coleman melody more earnest and reflective than in the country-flavored "Someone Wonderful I Missed," sung from the point of view of two women who love their husbands deeply, but muse over what they may have passed on by settling down with their spouses. Stewart's lyric "the choice I made I wouldn't trade for all the Sonys in Japan" may be a little corny, but that just adds to the hokey flavor of the song.     

Pamela Issacs and Lillias White in The Life.

Pamela Issacs and Lillias White in The Life.

8. "The Oldest Profession"

The Life

Lyrics by Ira Gasman

When a hooker starts to age, her body and mind grow tired. In the musical The Life, Coleman and lyricist Ira Gasman explore the underbelly of Times Square in the 1980s, complete with hustlers, pimps, charlatans, and yes, ladies of the night. "The Oldest Profession" is sung by the hooker Sonja, who is eyeing her retirement and the song becomes a comedic math equation that culminates in Sonja realizing she has slept with over 15,000 men. What really makes the song work, however, is its juxtaposition between a bluesy, sleepy melody that captures Sonja's exhaustion, and a jaunty melody that accompanies her while she does the math that leads to her conclusion.   

7. "Veronique"

On the Twentieth Century

Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Operetta is a hard pill to swallow for contemporary audiences, and I have a hard time figuring out why. Composers such as Sigmund Romberg, Rudolf Friml, and Victor Herbert crafted some of the catchiest melodies of the 20th Century in the operetta medium. The recent success of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder gives one hope that modern audiences are a little more flexible on operetta than initially perceived. An upcoming Broadway revival of the Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green operetta On the Twentieth Century due this spring is banking on that flexibility. Audiences will be pleasantly surprised. On the Twentieth Century features a mock operetta score that is lush, memorable and dripping with humor. Set entirely aboard the 20th Century, Limited, a cross-country luxury train, the musical follows the complicated relationship between ex-lovers: egomaniacal director Oscar Jaffee and tempestuous movie star, Lily Garland. "Veronique" is a brilliant comedic set piece. The song is a  flashback to when Lily Garland is merely Mildred Plotka, a rehearsal accompanist that Oscar coaxes into reading for, and then starring in, am operetta about a French street singer who wouldn't sleep with Otto Von Bismarck, resulting in the start of the Franco-Prussian War. Mildred's shy nature melts away, the more she auditions for and immerses herself into the role, even as the plot of Veronique's story grows more and more ludicrous. "Veronique" is an arresting example of how comedy, musical pastiche, melodrama, and absurdity can all come together to ignite an entire musical scene.        

Paula Stewart and Lucille Ball in Wildcat.

Paula Stewart and Lucille Ball in Wildcat.

6. "Hey!, Look Me Over"

Wildcat

Lyrics by Carolyn Leigh

Not long after coming off their radio hits "Witchcraft" and "The Best Is Yet to Come," Coleman and lyricist Carolyn Leigh set their sights on creating a musical for Lucille Ball which would eventually become the also-ran Wildcat. The story about a rugged female oil prospector was absurd, and when the star left the show, it quickly closed. Wildcat did, however, yield one bonafide hit in the ebullient "Hey!, Look me Over." The optimistic tune and motivational lyrics could inspire the most down-and-out amongst us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and keep forging ahead. The song has been oft recorded and it is easy to see why. The Coleman melody is so simple and so repetitious that it usurps all other sound and your ears can't help but surrender.

5. "Holiday Inn"

Seesaw

Lyrics by Dorothy Fields

Saucy and sassy, "Holiday Inn" from Seesaw may not be Coleman's best song, but it certainly is one of his most unforgettable and titillating. Chocked full of sly wit and sexual innuendo (who doesn't love that pairing?) married to a sultry melody that provides its own implications of suggested venality, the song is absolutely perfect within the framework of this peculiar love story. The dancer Gittel and the conservative, Nebraskan lawyer Jerry have a brief fling when he visits New York City. "Holiday Inn" is Gittel's seductive invitation to stay at her place, complete with all of the comforts (and then some) that one has come to associate with the popular, titular hotel chain. Pure fun.

4. "With Every Breath I Take"

City of Angels

Lyrics by David Zippel

I must confess: I could populate this entire list with songs from City of Angels, a musical that I feel exemplifies Coleman at his very best. The jazz-blues score finds the composer in his element, and certainly at his most evocative. City of Angels tries to capture the tone and flavor of the Film Noire genre, and winningly does so. Coleman's smoky melody for "With Every Breath I Take" conjures a dark loneliness that can only be found in the worlds of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, brought to life in such films as The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. Just listen to this song (with lyrics by David Zippel) and revel in one of the most achingly beautiful torch songs ever written for the musical stage and try not to imagine yourself in the world of the flatfoots and private dicks.   

Randy Graff in City of Angels.

Randy Graff in City of Angels.

3. "You Can Always Count On Me"

City of Angels

Lyrics by David Zippel

Another standout song from City of Angels is the anthem of every human whipping post in the world: "You Can Always Count On Me." Self-deprecating and infused with comedic punch line after comedic punch line, the song relates the trials of the "Gal Friday" Oolie who has a track record for being taken advantage of by men. The piece is both enlightening on character and serves as a humorous tension-breaker in the middle of Act II, falling just short of being an eleven o'clock number by about fifteen-minutes. Each note of Coleman's insistent music captures the dry wit and exasperation of this loyal woman who "woke up only slightly shocked that she defrocked a priest." If you are looking for a song to sing for cabaret night, this is a guaranteed crowd pleaser.     

John McMartin and Gwen Verdon in Sweet Charity

John McMartin and Gwen Verdon in Sweet Charity

2. "If My Friends Could See Me Now"

Sweet Charity

Lyrics by Dorothy Fields

If I adore the score of City of Angels in its entirety, I appreciate and respect the score of Sweet Charity in its entirety. The years have not been kind to "Charity" (the story was always a little flimsy to begin with) and it is hard to find attractive points about many of the dated character stereotypes. The story of a dance hall hostess who is trying to find love, but always seems to make bad choices, Sweet Charity becomes predictable and repetitive about halfway through. It does, however, feature a string of energetic, memorable songs and exhilarating dance sequences that keep the material afloat when its story can't. The best of the best is "If My Friends Could See Me Now," which features the title character landing herself in the apartment of a rich gentleman, a situation she knows her friends will never believe. The song is a musical theatre confection: light and airy, full of the optimism that makes Charity a lovable character despite her constant errors in judgment.

1. "The Colors of My Life"

Barnum

Lyrics by Michael Stewart

The musical biography of circus impresario P.T. Barnum, told as a three-ring circus, is a joyous musical romp full of many larger-than-life, in-your-face songs. How wonderful it is, then, that Cy Coleman and lyricist Michael Stewart built into Barnum the gently simplistic "The Colors of My Life." P.T. Barnum and his wife Charity are as different as night and day, finding balance in their marriage from their opposing styles. Charity is conservative, practical, and comes from a subdued world of colors such as amber, browns, and hazels, while Phineas hales from the brash and bold world of cherry reds, Kelly greens, and glimmering golds. Each character sings "The Colors of My Life" separately, making a case for their approach to life. The song concludes with the two singing together, underscoring how both their palates come together to paint the landscape of their loving marriage. It's such a simple song and a simpler concept, but it works with a sincerity and heart seldom found in musical theatre. This makes "The Colors of My Life" a slice of musical theatre perfection and my favorite Cy Coleman number among a color wheel of wonders.  

PIPPIN - The Extinguishing of "One Perfect Flame"

PIPPIN - The Extinguishing of "One Perfect Flame"

Stage to Screen - The Original Annie Film

Stage to Screen - The Original Annie Film