"Hey, Look Me Over" - Ranking the 10 Best Musicals of Cy Coleman
I have written with great awe about how amazed I am by the eclecticism of Cy Coleman as a Broadway composer. He always finds an original sound for each musical he writes, capturing the perfect tone for the material. Since I am an enormous fan of Coleman and his body of Broadway work, I decided to rank the ten best of his musicals, from my least favorite to my favorite, commenting on some of my favorite songs along the way. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.
10. The Will Rogers Follies
Writing with lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Cy Coleman crafted a lively, follies-style score for The Will Rogers Follies. The musical aimed to tell the story of orator, radio personality, and stage star Will Rogers, treating each scene like an act in a musical revue a la Ziegfeld. The score bursts with energy, occasionally taking a breath for memorable tunes such as “I Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like” and “Presents for Mrs. Rogers.” It was, however, the big chorus numbers, such as “Favorite Son” and “Will-a-Mania” that really dazzled audiences.
9. I Love My Wife
Mostly forgotten but just as wonderful as anything else that Cy wrote, I Love My Wife was a 1977 musical that explored the phenomenon of mate-swapping. Lyricist Michael Stewart created some agreeable and occasionally humorous lyrics to accompany Coleman’s intimate score that even managed to incorporate some country music with the intoxicating “Someone Wonderful I Missed.” The musical’s biggest hit is “Hey There, Good Times.” I Love My Wife suffers from having a terrific score married to a premise and story that both feel dated.
Though it was never a giant hit, as long as its star Lucille Ball was with the show, Wildcat was a success. Ball played oil prospector Wildcat Jackson, a woman who dreamed of striking it rich with a gusher on her property in Texas. The musical produced one big, breakout hit in Coleman’s and Carolyn Leigh’s (lyricist) “Hey, Look Me Over.” The rest of the score is pleasant enough, but the show couldn’t survived without Lucy and folded soon after she took ill and had to part with the production. The score is fun, and perhaps it should be revisited by City Center’s Encores! series.
7. Little Me
A bit of an oddity where musicals are concerned (the show is quite unlike most Broadway shows in structure), Little Me took an episodic look at the life of Belle Poitrine, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who makes it big onstage and onscreen, having crazy adventures along the way. Writing with Carolyn Leigh, Coleman and his partner found a hit in the song “I’ve Got Your Number,” a sassy ditty that caught on with audiences and that has been oft-recorded. Much of the score, though expertly written, doesn’t play well outside the context of the show and this might be why Little Me doesn’t get the play that it deserves. Still, Little Me was a modest hit and certainly built momentum for Coleman’s burgeoning Broadway career.
The 1980 musical Barnum was based on the life of circus and museum showman P.T. Barnum. Setting the act inside of a circus gave Cy Coleman to opportunity to explore the music of the Big Top: the glockenspiel, the music of marching bands, the ballyhoo that evokes red and white tents, clowns, acrobats, and side shows. Though it may be his brassiest and brightest score (“Come Follow the Band” is downright infectious), occasionally he found time for a more subdued song such as “The Colors of My Life” and “I Like Your Style.” Paired with lyricist Michael Stewart, there were some tongue-twisting songs as well, such as the accelerating “Museum Song” and the boastful “There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute.”
5. The Life
Many people scorn and scoff at The Life, but the score pops with both humor, emotion, and catchy melody. The salacious setting of 1980s Times Square, complete with hucksters, whores, and pimps may have been a bit uncomfortable for some, but there is no denying that the songs, particularly “The Oldest Profession,” “Mr. Greed,” and “My Way or the Highway” are all effective. Ira Gasman provided the decidedly bold lyrics that occasionally falter, but that mostly explode with a brutal honesty. Once again, Coleman struck the perfect tone to capture time, place, and character.
Seesaw is one of those musicals that probably should have been an enormous hit, but for one reason or another, never got the love it quite deserved. Writing with lyricist Dorothy Fields, the two whipped up a startlingly vivid score, bringing to life William Gibson’s play Two for the Seesaw that follows the brief affair between a Nebraska lawyer and streetwise dancer. With Michael Bennett at the helm for direction and choreography, the musical is fondly remembered by those who experienced Bennett’s unique staging. But the score is the real treat in Seesaw, with songs like “Nobody Does it Like Me,” “Welcome to Holiday Inn” and “It’s Not Where You Start” standouts among many show-stopping tunes.
3. On the Twentieth Century
The eclectic nature of Cy Coleman’s musicality is perhaps one of the reasons why he was such a successful composer. For On the Twentieth Century, Coleman tackled a musical style that was outside of his usual realm: operetta. With Betty Comden and Adolph Green providing the words to his music, Coleman created delightful pastiche of the form. Set aboard a luxury train bound for New York City, the farcical story follows several kooky characters including a diva actress, a bankrupt theatre producer, a narcissist actor, and a religious zealot. Each was given opportunity to shine in such screwball delights as “Veronique,” “I Rise Again,” “Repent” and “Our Private World.”
2. Sweet Charity
Some of you would probably give this the number one slot, and there would be a good argument for that. Coleman’s score with lyricist Dorothy Fields yielded many hits including “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” “Big Spender,” “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” and “I’m a Brass Band.” The episodic nature of the story based on the Federico Fellini film The Nights of Cabiria, as adapted by Neil Simon, ambles a bit (thus its #2 placement on this list), but each time one of the songs starts, you can feel that Broadway-style razzmatazz grab your soul. Let’s not forget the musical is equally iconic for its Bob Fosse choreography and the indelible performance of Gwen Verdon in the title role.
1. City of Angels
There really is no better jazz/blues/swing score in the history of Broadway than the one that Cy Coleman and David Zippel concocted for City of Angels. Coleman was in his element here, creating a gritty and smoky sound that perfectly captured film noir genre and the Hollywood of the 1940s. From the torchy “With Every Breath I Take” to the sweeping majesty of “Alaura’s Theme,” the music evokes Tinseltown to a tee. Throw in Zippel’s crafty and witty lyrics and City of Angels teems with sophistication.