Broadway composer Cy Coleman finally makes it to Carnegie Hall — as a composer, that is — when The New York Pops presents the first all-Coleman evening there, It Started With a Dream — Celebrating Cy Coleman, Jan. 18.
Coleman, 72, the Tony Award-winning composer of such musicals as City of Angels, Barnum and Sweet Charity, has already performed at the famed Manhattan concert hall as a pianist: He was a child prodigy, playing classical works before he was 10 years old. Fast-forward 62 years or so to Jan. 18 and the sold-out house will hear the muscular jazz of Coleman's theatre music (he long ago traded Mendelssohn for musicals), sung and played by Coleman himself in the company of Broadway stars who originated Coleman show tunes. The concert includes Coleman hits such as "You're Nothing Without Me" sung by James Naughton and Gregg Edelman, from City of Angels, plus Coleman singing his lesser known works, pulling from his new CD on the Sony label, "It Started With a Dream" (which was released Jan. 15).
Coleman was previously heard on a piano-voice album of songs from Barnum, and his roots have always been in performance. Back in the late 1950s it always bothered lyricist Carolyn Leigh that Coleman would accept jazz gigs around the country rather than staying put and writing songs with her. (The pair wrote "Witchcraft," and collaborated on the musicals, Wildcat and Little Me.)
"I never lost my love of playing," Coleman said. "I've always worked from that base, as a musician."
The disc includes three songs from a song cycle called "Atlantic City" that Coleman wrote with lyricist Christopher Gore. There was talk over the years that a director might shape the material for the stage, and there is still interest from parties, Coleman said. "The concept was decadence and decay," Coleman told Playbill On-Line. "It was very dark humor. It was representative of America itself. Bob Fosse was so interested in it we tried to put a show together around it. It was not written as a show. The number, 'Atlantic City,' Bob said he could do 20 minutes on alone. I came up with the idea of Atlantic City and decay." When putting together the new album, "It Started With a Dream," Coleman said he wanted to unearth songs of his that he loved, but songs that weren't already hits. The disc's lush sound is what you might have heard in the heyday of Tony Bennett and Sinatra (indeed, Bennett sings "The Colors of My Life," a Coleman hit, on the disc). There is also a touch of what sounds like disco in a song called "Nothing to Do But Dance."
"My approach to the album was not theatre," he said. "It's more my kind of pop. I wanted to make an album that really represented me. It's almost, in a sense — it's autobiographical. It's full orchestra, but it's different size orchestras. For example, 'I Really Love You,' a very cynical, wry piece, is done with full string contingent. Then, 'Bad Is for Other People,' which is done with an octet. The material itself dictated whether we were gonna be big, full orchestra or smaller."
New York Pops director Skitch Henderson has been calling Coleman for years about an evening of Coleman music, and this seemed the perfect time. The first half of the evening is Coleman showstoppers, the second half represents the new album.
The concert will start with "Suite Charity," a flashy piano piece heard at the AMFar Sweet Charity benefit concert several years ago. The concert includes Randy Graff singing "You Can Always Count on Me" from City of Angels, Jim Dale singing "There Is a Sucker Born Every Minute" and "The Colors of My Life" from Barnum, Lillias White singing "The Oldest Profession," Naughton and Edelman singing "You're Nothing Without Me" from City of Angels, Larry Gatlin singing "Look Around" from Will Rogers Follies and White and Pamela Isaacs singing the show-closing (and show stopping) duet from The Life. Songs from Coleman's new musical, Grace, a production currently playing in Amsterdam on the subject of Princess Grace of Monaco, will make their New York premiere at the concert (the Dutch stars, Joke de Kruijf, Ernst Daniel Smid and Rob van de Meeberg, are being flown in and will sing in Dutch).
One of the things that distinguishes Coleman beyond his pure, confident tunefulness (think "The Best Is Yet to Come," "I've Got Your Number," "Hey, Look Me Over," "Big Spender") is the range of styles he uses: Folk in Will Rogers Follies, comic opera in On the 20th Century, vocalese and jazz in City of Angels, '60s disco in Sweet Charity, R&B in The Life, circus chase in Barnum, country in I Love My Life, and more.
"My roots are as a musician," Coleman explains. "I started off as a concert pianist. I think like a musician. In other words, if you are musician, you liable to play a concert, playing Mahler, in the evening, and you're liable to do a rock date in the morning. I feel as though I have a lot of colors in my palette and I want to use them."
The song, "It Started With a Dream" (the name of both the album and the concert), is from the work-in-progress musical, Pamela's First Musical, based on the children's book by Wendy Wasserstein, with a book by Wasserstein and lyrics by David Zippel.
The tune is about the creative spark that goes into every theatrical venture — the "sudden spark of inspiration" in someone's imagination.
Coleman is still sparking. He juggles a number of new works at once, and they usually eventually land on Broadway. On his plate beyond Pamela's First Musical are the sexy- comic Napoleon and Josephine (book by Larry Gelbart, lyrics by Zippel); Grace, about Grace Kelly pulled between Hitchcock, her father and Prince Rainier (Coleman is looking for a librettist and lyricist for the English language version); a jazz cycle for the Kennedy Center with lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman sung by Lillias White and Patti Austin; a new version of Exactly Like You about divorce and divorce-lawyers, now called Court TV (with A.E. Hotchner); the long aborning musical, Thirteen Days to Broadway (he says it needs a new title); a Mark Bramble collaboration called Nothing But the Truth using some trunk songs; Ostrovsky, or It's Good to Be Alive, about the Yiddish Theatre in New York in the 20th Century (expect Broadway and klezmer sounds), and more.
Why does he juggle so much?
"I'll tell you why I do it," Coleman said. "Because every project takes time. It isn't the fact that it takes time to write, but that because the nature of musicals is collaborative, [when] your director goes off, and your book writer all the sudden has to take six months off, and you are doggedly determined to do just one project, you sit and twiddle your thumbs [waiting for them]. The only way to keep writing is to keep writing. I decided that if there's something that excites me, I'm gonna write it. It's like a greenhouse: I'm nurturing plants. They wait. When it's ready to blossom, they blossom."
It Started With a Dream — Celebrating Cy Coleman plays 8 PM Jan. 18 at Carnegie Hall. For information, call (212) 247-7800.
— By Kenneth Jones