and pianist Cy Coleman had a "fondness for autumn, my strong
feeling that September is when exciting things start to happen".
Alas, then, he died, at 75, on Thursday, taken ill at a party for
the Broadway opening of Michael Frayn's Democracy. After five decades
in the business, with another revival of Sweet
Charity in rehearsal, Coleman's mind percolated with new
songs and shows. Perhaps best known for the music to the rousing
Big Spender and If
My Friends Could See Me Now, his talent was far more varied
His classical rigour and jazz flair shook up American popular
song. Born Seymour Kaufman in 1929, in the Bronx, to Russian immigrants,
May and Ida, he encountered, aged four, the piano left by a family
which flit from a property run by his mother. He readily picked
out tunes, and by seven played at Carnegie Hall. Trained at the
New York College of Music, he learnt jazz while playing in servicemen's
clubs. By the early Fifties he had a trio in various Manhattan boîtes,
and began to write with Juilliard student Joseph McCarthy as lyricist.
Some were recorded by Mabel Mercer, including Isn't
He Adorable? and The Riviera
("where matrons draped in Paris fashions
/ Prolong the twilight of their passions"). If these
brought him the cachet for which every songwriter hungered, any
hunger itself was alleviated by the plangent I'm
Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life - a big hit for Nat
King Cole. Coleman and copywriter Carolyn Leigh had chanced upon
each other, there and then deciding to work together, immediately,
producing, fittingly, A Moment of Madness,
soon followed by Witchcraft for Sinatra
("those fingers in my hair, / That sly,
come-hither stare / That strips my conscience bare").
at many styles, Coleman's calypso and Latin rhythms were never synthetic,
but with a percussive, almost marching beat, brought out the lyrics'
intricately sassy wit . As columnist Rogers Whitaker remarked, "pepper
and salt and Tabasco sauce are the customary ingredients of a Coleman
ballad... whether the words that go with these songs are the effect
of the Coleman music or whether it is the other way round doesn't
matter; the end product is the entertaining spectacle of the American
swain bragging about his magnificence to his damsel and then conceding
that perhaps she is just as smart as he is".
The collaboration was certainly fraught. Their first show, Wildcat
(1960) was lumbered with a flash book, its star Lucille Ball, who
seeks oil rights in a hick town. The well-known Hey,
Look Me Over came into its own years later with a mellowed,
Sinatra version. Little Me (1962)
was another star vehicle, seven times over: adapted from Patrick
Dennis's book by Neil Simon, staged by Bob Fosse, it featured Sid
Caesar as the seven men in the heroine's life. Reviewers praised
it, and hoped that his singing voice would improve; fact was, Caesar,
hitting the hard stuff, was triumphant against the odds, resentful
of Sven Svenson's showstopping solo, the finger-clicking I've
Got Your Number, one of the sexiest songs ever written. If
Little Me did not last as long as
it deserved, it is more than a cult.
The great collaboration broke up. Among those who think it a creative
high is cabaret singer Bobby Short who made a classic, 1963 LP of
Coleman's work, and, on Saturday, recalled a man who was "very
genial, very kind and always encouraging while extremely private:
somebody who, paradoxically perhaps, came alive on stage. People
might not realize what a wonderful pianist he was - only six weeks
ago he played at my eightieth birthday party - and, in fact, for
all his Broadway success, he loved playing in small clubs. This
was where he sprang from, he was always kept his ears open."
In 1966, Coleman asked lyricist Dorothy Fields to work with him.
She had begun in the Twenties but knew modern ways. Sweet
Charity , based by Neil Simon on a Fellini movie about being
on the make, grew into a full-length, over-long, Fosse staging with
Gwen Verdon. Soggier than Simon's comedies, it needed the dancing
and such songs as Big Spender; best
is that hymn to New York My Personal Property,
added for the Shirley Maclaine movie. Coleman's only other work
with Dorothy Fields was the romantic comedy Seesaw
(1974), another view of love in Manhattan, notable for It's
Not Where You Start (It's Where You Finish).
If the adaptation, with Michael Stewart, of the wife-swapping
I Love My Wife (1975) seems a period
piece, it endures, not least for the title-song. On
The Twentieth Century (1978), from Ben Hecht's train-set
play and movie, linked him with lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph
Green. "An expectation of a 20's-style pastiche score didn't
excite me musically," Coleman recalled. "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." Coleman worked with lyricist Christopher Gore
on several notable songs in the Seventies, including one about Atlantic
City, around which Fosse wanted to build a show, but this faded
with Gore's sudden death. As extravagant as On
The Twentieth Century, again with Stewart as lyricist, was
the circus-set Barnum (1980), who
Jim Dale made his own in the visionary Colors
of My Life.
Set in a prison ward, Welcome to the Club
(1989) sadly flopped, but that same year came City
of Angels. Driven by a book from Larry Gelbart, he of M*A*S*H,
and David Zippel's lyrics, this brilliant witty musical concerns
the perils of adapting a hard-boiled novel for Hollywood; an unlikely
popular success, it contains some of Coleman's most exhilarating
contrast, back with Comden and Green, was The
Will Rogers Follies (1991) and country music proved equally
Coleman's thing. Songs were being written up to its opening: "The
only place left to put a piano was in the ladies' room lounge...
These gorgeous chorus girls of the Follies had to go past us as
we created new songs, and we had to write our new material to the
accompaniment of flushing toilets." By contrast, The
Life was a funky recreation of Seventies 42nd Street. It
began as a disc with, among others, Bobby Short and Liza Minnelli,
while, of all people, Lesley Gore declared, It's
My Body, and My Body's Nobody's Business but Mine: it reached
Broadway in 1997, Lillias White stopping the show with The
Coleman lived for work, taking in such things as the 1984 movie
Blame It on Rio and television specials
for Shirley Maclaine. It was perhaps some surprise, worthy of any
musical's plot, that in 1997 he married Shelby Brown, with whom
he had a daughter Lily Cye, now aged four, upon whom he doted, and
who will surely relish one of his last works, Pamela's
First Musical, again with lyrics by Zippel, based on a children's
book by playwright Wendy Wasserstein.
As Bobby Short says, Coleman himself could write lyrics, too few
of then, and, inevitably one now thinks of "will
summer's end be the start / or will autumn break your heart?"
The prolific Coleman had so much more to do.
© Christopher Hawtree 2004