From Little Me to City of Angels: The Eclectic Brilliance of Composer Cy Coleman
Broadway composers tend to settle into a style that is distinctly their own. We know a Stephen Sondheim score when we hear it. Andrew Lloyd Webber, the same. In fact, many people cling to the familiarity of a Broadway composer’s style, knowing that attending their latest show will hopefully yield something new and familiar at the same time. We can almost count on this result, and why not? Each composer is unique and cultivates their own sound with each new show that they write. There was, however, one musical theatre composer who reinvented his voice several times over throughout his career, so it is much harder to pinpoint what his style exactly is. Working with a variety of musical styles, and a wide-range of writing partners, each score he touched sounded like he reimagined his talents to best capture the musical world at hand. This is the eclectic brilliance of composer Cy Coleman.
Born in 1929 in New York City as Seymour Coleman, Cy Coleman grew up in the Bronx. His parents were of Eastern European descent, leading blue collar lives and working hard to give young Cy opportunities to shape his musical gifts. Learning music and the piano at an early age, Coleman was prodigy. By age ten he had already played many of New York’s most-prestigious venues including Carnegie Hall. Classically trained, but also sporting an undying love and ability for jazz, Coleman would parlay both musical styles into his compositions. In his early career, he founded the Cy Coleman Trio, a popular club act that would also make many successful recordings. Pairing with such lyricists as Joseph Allen McCarthy and Carolyn Leigh, Coleman soon found himself a sought-after composer in Hollywood. Writing for the radio, film, and television, his abilities were put to the test (a test he passed with flying colors). He had two major hits with “The Best is Yet to Come” and “Witchcraft” (both with Leigh).
For his maiden voyage as a Broadway composer, Cy Coleman worked with Carolyn Leigh as lyricist. Their partnership was a stormy one, but Coleman was arguably at his finest when paired with Leigh as a lyricist. Their first outing was Wildcat, a musical tailored to talents of film and TV star Lucille Ball. The show’s success was mostly fueled by Ball’s popularity, and when she fell ill and had to take leaves of absence, the show folded after 171 performances. It did include the extremely popular “Hey, Look Me Over!” in its score, the song having a much longer life than the show ever hoped for. Soldiering on, Coleman and Leigh turned to Patrick Dennis’s novel Little Me (1962). Partnering with playwright Neil Simon, they told the story of Belle Poitrine, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who recounts her amazing life adventures. The musical received several Tony nominations, including one for Best Score. There was one hit song “I’ve Got Your Number” that found popularity in and outside of the show. Both Wildcat and Little Me were traditional Broadway musical scores, but Coleman would eventually evolve into interesting, new sounds for his Broadway scores.
With his partnership with Carolyn Leigh falling apart, Cy Coleman found his next collaborator in Dorothy Fields, a Broadway lyricist who had been around for decades and was one of the first important female voices. In 1966, the duo worked with Neil Simon (again), this time adapting the Frederico Fellini film The Nights of Cabiria for the Broadway stage. The result was Sweet Charity, one of Coleman’s most beloved scores, but decidedly different than what he had produced before. He managed to incorporate both a seediness (“Big Spender”), a desperation (“There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This”), an explosive brass sound (“I’m a Brass Band), and a groovy, beatnik feel (“The Rhythm of Life”). Sweet Charity points to Coleman’s eclecticism and how his sound will continue to grow in varied and ever-changing directions.
1973 brought the next Coleman/Fields collaboration: Seesaw, based on the play Two for the Seesaw by William Gibson. The show had its problems, but managed a decent run. What it did boast was a terrific score, brassy songs like “Holiday Inn”, “Nobody Does It Like Me” and “It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish” are all top-notch Cy Coleman, elevated by Fields’ witty and edgy lyrics. Sadly, this would be his last show with Fields (she died a year later), and Coleman would (once again) be searching for a lyricist to write with.
The 1970s brought out a much-more experimental side to Cy Coleman. In 1977, he experimented with pop and country music for I Love My Wife, an intimate musical comedy about swinging couples. His lyricist and book writer on the project was Michael Stewart. Particularly effective was the song “Someone Wonderful I Missed”, a wonderful blend of old-style country music and traditional musical theatre writing. The show’s most-popular number was “Hey There, Good Times.” In 1978, teaming with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Coleman explored old-fashioned operetta with the musical pastiche On the Twentieth Century. Set almost entirely aboard a luxury train, the piece was based on the popular stage comedy Twentieth Century by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Coleman won a Tony Award for his efforts.
1980 found Coleman bringing the sounds of the circus to Broadway with the musical biography Barnum (about the life of PT Barnum). The sounds of bells, whistles, the calliope and the glockenspiel seemed to fill the theatre as clowns, acrobats, and side show curiosities helped to act out the story of the man who created “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Michael Stewart wrote lyrics once again, and Mark Bramble provided the book. In 1988, Coleman poured his energies into Welcome to the Club, a short-lived musical that he wrote with A.E. Hotchner.
Arguably, Coleman’s finest score was written for the 1989 musical City of Angels. Lyricist David Zippel found the perfect spark and off-beat humor to pair with book writer Larry Gelbart’s dry wit and sarcasm. Coleman, for his part, provided a jazz-blues score that evoked a smoky grittiness indicative of the Old Hollywood, Film Noir setting. Coleman won another Tony Award and City of Angels won Best Musical. Songs such as “What You Don’t Know About Women”, ‘You’re Nothing Without Me”, and “You Can Always Count on Me?” were deliciously melodic, but also edgy and bold. “With Every Breath I Take” was the perfect torch song, mournful and passionate. City of Angels brought out the inevitable Cy Coleman, a Broadway composer who brought his favorite style of music, jazz, to the Broadway stage in a way that truly celebrated the art form. Even though he experienced more-popular scores in his career, it is City of Angels that represents Coleman at his most innovative and talented.
City of Angels marked the pinnacle of Coleman’s career, but certainly not the end of it. In 1991, he was back again with The Will Rogers Follies, a Ziegfeld Follies type revue that celebrated the life of the famous title character. It was very similar to Barnum, but with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and a book by Peter Stone. The score and the musical both won Tonys. Cy Coleman’s final sojourn to Broadway was The Life (1997), a musical about pimps, prostitutes, and hucksters populating Times Square in the 1980s. Written with Ira Gasman and David Newman, The Life had a mixed reception on Broadway, appreciated more for its performances than for its book and music. It was middling Cy Coleman, a few terrific songs and a hodgepodge of mediocre ones.
Cy Coleman passed away from cardiac arrest on November 18, 2004 at the age of 75. He left behind a canon of beloved music that speaks to both Broadway and jazz aficionados and enthusiasts. His expert melding of the Broadway showtune with the sounds of blues, swing, and jazz, his first passion, will always be Coleman’s ultimate legacy and lasting gift to the theatre.