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Remembering Cy Coleman in Book and Song

By Peter Filichia

How do I know if a book on musical theater is worthwhile? If it gets me to play the cast albums that it cites in its pages. Listen to the Cy Coleman Songbook while you read along here.

Andy Propst’s You Fascinate Me So: The Life and Times of Cy Coleman did just that.

Reading in chronological order dictated my eventually playing them in chronological order. Thus, first up was Wildcat (1960), the musical to which Carolyn Leigh wrote lyrics to his music, was first. Propst tells us that Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen were originally scheduled to write it, but thank the Lord they didn’t: their scores for Skyscraper and Walking Happy proved that as expert as they were in writing theme songs for films, they couldn’t write a dramatic score.

Kermit Bloomgarden was producing for a while, but the honors eventually went to N. Richard Nash (who wrote the book) and Michael Kidd (who directed and choreographed, too). This had to be the easiest money-raising in the history of Broadway, for the entire $400,000 was put up by one Lucille Ball, who, of course, would star in the show as well.

No, it wasn’t a show for the ages, and Ball knew that. Propst reveals that “Miss Ball had some pungent points on how to enliven the play.” Spurred by many of them, Coleman and Leigh wrote one of the most enduring show songs of all time: “Hey, Look Me Over,” which is as good an introductory song as any star has ever had.

So many shows get their titles once everyone realizes during money-raising or rehearsals that a certain song is going to be a standout — “Hello, Dolly!” – but Propst tells us that Wildcat only got its title song in Philadelphia.

It was another song in which Ball would participate, making eight in all. No wonder the legend was exhausted. And how did she spend her first day off? Propst quotes her: “I have all the money in the goddamn world and I have to get up at eight a.m. to make an album.”

But aren’t we glad she did? Too many people have told us that Wildcat wasn’t a good musical for us to rebut it, but you’d never know it from the superb cast album. Sales were extraordinary, too. It peaked at #10 on the charts – the entire charts, not the show music charts. Yes, believe it or not, there was a week when only nine albums in the entire country were selling better than Wildcat.

The show was still selling out when Ball fainted during a performance, starting her on the road to abandoning the vehicle. Propst lets us know that it happened during “Tippy, Tippy Toes,” which will make for bittersweet listening from now on.

Virtually all musical adaptations are made from popular successes, but producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin (of Guys and Dolls, The Boy Friend, Silk Stockings and How to Succeed fame) bought the rights to Patrick Dennis’ novel Little Me before it was even published.

Neil Simon wrote Little Me (1962) for Sid Caesar, but what about the musical sequences? The beloved TV star originally agreed to do the show on the condition that he only sing three songs. Management did get him up to five, but only by having him do limited participation in “Deep Down Inside” and a minute-long “Real Live Girl.”

Because Caesar couldn’t dance as well, choreographer Bob Fosse put him in a wheelchair in “Deep Down Inside.” It’s so wonderfully infectious that you’ll probably dance in your living room while listening to it. The song is easily one of Little Me’s many highlights, as proved by its being selected to represent the musical on The Ed Sullivan Show.

When you hear the opening number “The Truth,” understand that you’re not listening to some mere throwaway. Carolyn Leigh revised the number twenty-five times before she was satisfied with it.

Such finicky perfectionism is not what drove Coleman and Leigh apart; Propst goes into that before telling us how relative newcomer Coleman hooked up with Dorothy Fields, almost a quarter-century his senior. Putting that into perspective: Fields had already been represented on Broadway three times and had written the lyrics to one standard (“I Can’t Give You Anything but Love”) before Coleman was even born. By the time Coleman had made his Broadway debut with Wildcat, Fields had provided lyrics (and sometimes had co-written the book) on twenty shows.

So how was comparative upstart Coleman able to pair with this legend? Propst relates that Coleman was at a party, saw her, and simply asked her to work with him. The first result was Sweet Charity (1966).

During the show’s tryout, director-choreographer Fosse resisted “The Rhythm of Life,” the new Bach-inspired second-act opener. Propst’s quoting Coleman shows the composer was no pussycat. Aren’t we glad he prevailed? It’s a terrific number.

For better or worse, Sweet Charity goes down in musical theater history as the first show to use a synthesizer both in “Rich Man’s Frug” and “The Rhythm of Life.” Coleman was proud of it: “I brought electric into the pit for the first time.”

On the Twentieth Century (1978) has a demanding score. Up-and-comer Meryl Streep auditioned to play Lily Garland, but her voice was found wanting. The killer score is one reason why Madeline Kahn bolted after two months on Broadway. Propst quotes the famed story that on opening night, director Hal Prince was delighted with the way that Kahn had attacked the part. He went backstage and gushed “You finally gave me the performance I wanted!” – to which she coolly replied “I hope you don’t think that I can do that every night.”

Kahn sounds great on the original cast album, so we have every right to believe that she gave it her opening night performance, knowing that it would be the permanent record of her Lily Garland.

Mark Bramble had originally conceived Barnum (1980) as a one-act musical. Fine, but Barnum does have one of the most delightful songs to ever open a second act: “Come Follow the Band,” by Coleman and lyricist Michael Stewart. There are very few songs that would make me say “If you don’t respond to this one, you may already be dead,” but this is one. It will either set your pulses racing or it will be time to check to see if you have a pulse.

For City of Angels (1989), Coleman demanded that “Angel City 4,” the not-so-Greek chorus who’d comment on the action, would be studio singers as opposed to musical theater university graduates. “They know how to sing from a dissonance to a consonance on sight (dealing with) intricate harmonies and lyrics (and) singing scat along with a hot twenty-two piece orchestra.”

Hot indeed. Precious few cast albums give us “out music” – meaning what the orchestra plays as the audience leaves the theater – but City of Angels clearly has the best out music ever. That the recording made room for it speaks for itself.

Propst teaches us that while the refrain of “You Can Always Count on Me” was in place when rehearsals started, its verse was added later. Randy Graff says that Coleman himself tirelessly worked with her on the song, and look what happened: Graff got a Tony.

Hard as it may be to believe now, some City of Angels producers didn’t believe in the show. On opening night they were heard on the sidewalk half-joking “Anyone want to rent a theater?” If anyone did, he’d have to wait two years until City of Angels vacated the Virginia, partly in thanks to Frank Rich’s calling it “a delicious celebration of jazz and pop styles.” (And that’s putting it mildly.)

Rich’s review was not irrelevant. When RCA Victor made up its contract to record City of Angels, it included a clause that allowed the company to welsh on the deal if Rich didn’t like the show. This infuriated Coleman, who demanded that the clause be stricken. RCA refused, so Coleman took his future hit to Columbia. (Of course, with the eventual merger between the two companies, this turned out to not matter at all.)

We’re lucky that John Denver – yes, that John Denver – didn’t keep to his plans to 1) write the music; 2) write the lyrics; 3) and star in The Will Rogers Follies (1991). Had he come through, we wouldn’t have Coleman’s music for the 1991 Tony-winner.

Next up was the gritty pimp-and-prostitute laden The Life (1997). Reflecting on the frank societal differences that thirty-one years had made, Coleman said that “The Life was the show that we couldn’t do with Sweet Charity.” That nearly a third-of-a-century had passed meant another change: shows were taking longer to get to Broadway. Seven years of workshops had to happen before the musical took residence at the Barrymore. Said Chuck Cooper about his long involvement with the show and Pamela Isaac’s too, “Cy was loyal to us beyond anything I’ve ever seen or heard.” Coleman’s faith was obviously not misplaced, for Cooper won a Best Featured Actor in a Musical Tony.

In Douglas Watt’s review of City of Angels, he proclaimed that “David Zippel is Coleman’s smartest lyricist since his work with Dorothy Fields and Carolyn Leigh.” And that brings up a good point. Has any male composer ever worked with as many different women? In addition to the two Watt named, there were Betty Comden (On the Twentieth Century, The Will Rogers Follies) and Barbara Fried (Home Again, Home Again). Seven of Coleman’s twelve produced musicals had female lyricists.

I remember a Barnes & Noble panel that I was moderating some years back. Referring to Coleman’s willingness to work with women, I jokingly used the phrase that he was “an equal opportunity employer.” But Lynn Ahrens, giving the situation the seriousness it deserved, put it much better: “No — Cy Coleman was an equal opportunity collaborator.” It’s just one of the ways he still fascinates us so.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.