Guest Blog: I’m Nothing Without Them: Memories of Creating City of Angels with Cy Coleman and Larry Gelbart
by David Zippel
It’s hard to believe that it has been twenty years since City Of Angels opened on Broadway. And this month it will be twenty years since City of Angels won six Tony® awards including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score. Sadly, with the passing of Cy Coleman and Larry Gelbart, I am the only author left to celebrate the show we were so proud of. City of Angels changed my life but it was really Cy Coleman and Larry Gelbart who did that. It’s still hard for me to believe that Larry and Cy, at the peak of their careers, trusted a total newcomer to write the lyrics to the show that they had such high hopes for. To this day I am grateful for the chance they gave me and in awe of the courage it took for them to give me that chance.
They had been looking for an established Broadway lyricist and had met with several. A few of my early advocates had been pushing Cy for a few years to consider writing with me and one day out of the blue Cy contacted me about a different show. I told him that I had read a few years prior about their film noir/private eye/jazzmusical that was then titled Death Is For Suckers. We loved that title. I told Cy that I was passionate about the idea, and he and Larry decided that I could audition for the job. We agreed that I would write three songs with Cy, after which we would stop, take a breath and decide whether we all wanted to move forward (which is a very nice way of saying whether or not I was fired).
We worked in Cy’s midtown office, which was buried in an avalanche of sheet music and piles of files. It made me think of the Collier brothers and looked like it hadn’t been dusted since the day Elvis got his draft notice. But I loved every second I spent there.
The first lyric I wrote was for a song called “Lost and Found.” Cy and Larry were enthusiastic about it. I met with Cy about the next song slot we had decided to write. It was for a ballad to be sung by a nightclub singer in a flashback. She was the great love of the private detective, and I thought the words she would sing should reflect his feelings for her. This was a melody-first song (although with Cy sometimes the lyrics would come first, or we would write simultaneously, back and forth in the same room). The instant Cy played me the tune he had just completed, I knew if I did my job properly it could be a Cy Coleman standard. I very much wanted the lyric I would write for it to please Cy, as I was very aware that I was still “on approval” and that my future on the project was riding on this lyric. I came up with the title “With Every Breath I Take” on the spot, and Cy said he loved it immediately. After I left our meeting I wrote a lyric that I liked. But then I got a little nervous. During the two weeks leading up to our next scheduled meeting I wrote twelve different lyrics. When we next met I put the pile of lyrics on his piano with the first one I had written (which was still the one I liked best) on top. Cy played and sang it through without pausing and said, “This is wonderful.” I surreptitiously removed the other eleven lyrics as Cy called Larry Gelbart in California to sing our new song for him over the phone. And we never looked back.
Although we opened “cold” on Broadway on a frigid December night, without the advantages of an out-of-town tryout, we had such an extraordinary creative team and cast that we never lost our confidence during what was a somewhat rocky two-and-a-half weeks of previews that were ultimately extended to three-and-a-half weeks. With sets by Robin Wagner, costumes by Florence Klotz, lighting by Paul Gallo, we had a remarkable cast that included James Naughton, Gregg Edelman, Randy Graff, Kay McClelland, Dee Hoty, René Auberjonois and a very young Rachel York, under the direction of Michael Blakemore. Even the understudies were terrific, with an also very young Carolee Carmello as Margaret the maid, covering all of the women. Add to that arguably the “swingingest” band in Broadway history with vocal arrangements by Cy and the Manhattan Transfer’s Yaron Gershofsky, orchestrations by the legendary Billy Byers, led by the phenomenal Gordon Harrell, and it was a complete dream team. I wish them all a happy twentieth anniversary.
– David Zippel
David Zippel’s lyrics have won him the Tony Award®, two Academy Award® nominations, two Grammy nominations and three Golden Globe nominations. He is one of few contemporary lyricists to have achieved success on Broadway, in Hollywood and in the pop music world. Musicals: City of Angels, The Goodbye Girl, The Woman In White, Just So, Princesses, Going Hollywood. Films: Disney’s Hercules, Disney’s Mulan, The Swan Princesses, The Wedding Planner. His songs appear on over 25 million CDs, sung by Stevie Wonder, Christina Aguilera, Barbara Cook, Michael Bolton, Ricky Martin, Cleo Laine, Nancy LaMott, Mel Torme, Sarah Brightman, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli and Elaine Paige.