Broadway's Last Good Time

Cy Coleman (1929-2004)

These are glum times on Broadway if you're looking for a musical. Unless it's a revival, chances are you'll find yourself either facing a barrage of portentous, overwrought, overorchestrated bombast that sounds like it made the lower end of the shortlist for Track 19 on Celine Dion's new CD, or stuck in a semi-operatic twilight zone in which some tasteful Sondheim clone twiddles about with a lot of pseudo-recitative for a couple of hours without ever breaking into song.

In this barren soil Cy Coleman was Broadway's last good time, a musical-comedy man in an age when the American musical was no laughing matter. He liked funny scripts by Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart, with lotsa laffs. Example: In Coleman's Little Me (1962) the luxuriously endowed heroine is called Belle Poitrine. After she saves a Mitteleuropean duchy from bankruptcy, the grateful Prince Cherny raises her to the peerage as the Countess Zaftig.

Coleman could match the funny lines with funny songs, but he also knew when not to: when the job of the composer was to provide a respite from the nonstop gag fest and offer something rueful or charming or romantic. He liked showstoppers, too—numbers you could whack to the back of the second balcony, like "Hey, Look Me Over!" for Lucille Ball, and "If My Friends Could See Me Now" for Gwen Verdon, and "It's Not Where You Start (It's Where You Finish)" for Tommy Tune—songs that came with built-in exclamation points:

It's not where you start
It's where you finish
And you're gonna finish
On top!

Hard to make that work in Les Misérables. But Coleman knew what he liked: Barnum was about Barnum, The Will Rogers Follies was about Will Rogers, City of Angels was about Los Angeles, and The Life was about showbiz at the horizontal level—Forty-second Street hookers in the seventies. Sweet Charity was adapted from Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, but it wasn't very Cabirian by the time Coleman, Simon, Verdon, and Bob Fosse were through with it.

Coleman started near enough the top: Nat "King" Cole picked up an early song, "I'm Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life," and put him in the big leagues. Sinatra did "Witchcraft" and Peggy Lee "Hey, Big Spender!" And even though they retired and died and there was no one left to get the song to, and even if there were, no radio station would play it, Coleman always gave you the impression that he still had an eye on the "take-home tune," the break-out number, the show tune everybody knows even if they've never seen the show. In the months before The Will Rogers Follies opened, in 1991, he was working the big ballad, "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like," at benefit performances all over town. I ran into him a couple of days after he'd sung it at the Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital. "You should have seen him," said his lyricist, Adolph Green. "There wasn't a dry eye, ear, and throat in the house."

"Musical comedy's difficult," Coleman told me once. "When I was doing movies, I used to say, 'Why don't I ever get a good melodrama?' Comedies are very hard; you never get the credit you should. But in a good melodrama you hold one note, change four chords, and you're up for an Academy Award." In their productive periods most distinctively American art forms—musicals, westerns, jazz—were blissfully unaware they were art forms at all. Then they wised up, and mostly with catastrophic consequences. In the 1980s, when the British, through composed pop opera, took up seemingly permanent residence on Broadway, Coleman regarded it as "a Reader's Digest version of opera. It seems to give people the feeling of culture."

You mean it gives them the feeling as opposed to the culture?

He snorted his distinctive, sneezy-wheezy, laughing-gas laugh. "A-hur-hur-hur. That's what I said."

I mentioned this to Cameron Mackintosh, the producer of Cats, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, etc. "What does Cy Coleman know about culture?" he scoffed.

In fact, he knew quite a lot.

The classical stuff came first. A tenant in his parents' Bronx apartment house moved out and left the piano behind. At seven he played Carnegie Hall. His favorite composer in those days was Beethoven. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. How do you get away from it? Improvise. The child prodigy heard the call of jazz, and his wandering fingers told him the whole classical thing was just hemming him in too much. So he skipped Juilliard, and at fifteen began playing nightclubs. While still a teenager he wrote a fiendishly complex sonata but, between his hectic club life and social life, misplaced it.

"Surely you can play it from memory?" I suggested a few years back.

"Sit down and order dinner," he said, and turned to the keyboard. If you asked him, he'd still tinkle a little Chopin or Beethoven, but after a few bars he'd segue into a party piece about the cocktail pianist trying to play "Clair de Lune" or some such.

So the teenager got a trio and was sufficiently impressed by his dressing room at the Sherry-Netherland that he moved in. The problem with being musically sophisticated at an early age is that you're not always lyrically sophisticated. He wrote a Latin number, and a pal put words to it.

Oh, Castanetta
Oh, lovely lovely Castanetta
I can't forget the night I met 'er
She cast a net round my heart
Her heels were kicking
Her castanets were gaily clicking
With every click my heart was
She had me right from the start.

Joe McCarthy, a more professional hand, rewrote it as

The Riviera
On every street a gay casino
Where continentals sip their vino …

Mabel Mercer and a few other upscale chanteuses began singing it. It would be hard not to improve on "Castanetta," and "The Riviera" certainly has its moments—"where matrons draped in Paris fashions / Prolong the twilight of their passions"—but its "sophistication" always seemed to me only marginally less unconvincing than that of the original. It was the mid-fifties, and Coleman was starting out as a writer of pop standards just as the entire field was about to get ploughed over by rock-and-roll. His ballads in that period were lovely. "Why Try to Change Me Now?" was Sinatra's final record for Columbia, a flip of the finger to the executive honcho Mitch Miller, who'd been trying to change Frank into Guy Mitchell or Patti Page and saddle him with every witless novelty song of the day. "Why Try to Change Me Now?," a plangent, conversational ballad, was Sinatra's way of saying no, thanks, I'll stick with the music, and in the end the music will win.

To be honest, I wasn't sure. It seemed to me that the songs Coleman wrote for Sinatra and others had come along too late to secure a hold in the repertoire. But I was wrong. These days they're everywhere. I was in a hotel room the other week and caught some dreadful Sean Young nonstop-shagging female self-empowerment movie on Channel 139, and just as I was about to flip channels, Nancy Wilson came on the soundtrack singing "The Best Is Yet to Come." Every time I watched CNN before the election, I got distracted by that hotel-chain commercial that uses Coleman's "The Rules of the Road." I went to see Dorothée Berryman, who played the much put-upon wife in last year's Oscar-winning Les Invasions Barbares, in cabaret in Montreal, and she opened with a wonderfully tender "I Walk a Little Faster," a Coleman ballad about the anticipation of love.

All three of those songs were written with Coleman's best partner, Carolyn Leigh. Miss Leigh liked to rhyme, and when she'd tired of masculine rhymes (moon/June) and feminine rhymes (fatter/matter), she liked to put the stress on the third or even fourth syllable before the end of the line; "rules of the road," for example, rhymes with "fools of the road." Noel Coward was partial to this, forever rhyming on the ante-penult.

Why must the show go on?
Why not announce the closing
night of it?
The public seem to hate the
sight of it …

In Coward's hands it seems obtrusive and often points up the dreariness of the tune. But with Leigh it sits so perfectly on top of Coleman's sensuous, sinuous, jazzy melodies, you hardly notice it. Take the middle section of "Witchcraft":

When you arouse the need in me
My heart says yes indeed in me
Proceed with what you're leadin' me to.

It doesn't look like much in print, but set to those notes, the rhymes slyly intensify the headiness of the music. The Coleman/Leigh songs from the fifties and sixties will endure as long as Gershwin or Porter.

The first time I interviewed him, I was a young slip of a lad, and I wanted to know why his best lyricists were the ladies—Leigh, Dorothy Fields, Betty Comden, Peggy Lee. I put it rather awkwardly and it came out as "Do you write with women because there are certain qualities in what they do that you find attractive?" He howled with laughter and said, "No, I date women because there are certain qualities in what they do that I find attractive." He was for five decades a debonair man about town, a swinger musically and socially, the house pianist on the Playboy TV show and not a guy who had to make do with Hef's leavings from the grotto. But in 1997, to the amazement of Broadway, he got married, to Shelby Brown. Aged seventy, he produced a daughter, Lily Cye, put her down for piano lessons, and installed her baby grand next to his trusty full-size one.

He died a few hours after being taken ill at a first-night party for Michael Frayn's new play, Democracy. One of the minor losses occasioned by his passing is that he's no longer around to sing at other people's funerals. He did "Here's to Us" at Judy Garland's, and at Irving Berlin's he sang a gorgeous, slowed-down version of "There's No Business Like Show Business." That's what he did at his best: he could take the most tired, trite, worn, familiar showbiz sentiment and somehow find the truth in it. Sinatra sang all the great songs, but it was Coleman's he put on his tombstone: "The Best Is Yet to Come."

"Wouldn't it be nice," said Cy, "if it's true?"