PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Nov. 13-29: The Life of Coleman

ICYMI   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Nov. 13-29: The Life of Coleman Just days after the Broadway memorial for lyricist Fred Ebb, who died unexpectedly on Sept. 11, another of the theatre's few remaining masters of the musical theatre unexpectedly left the world. Cy Coleman fell ill at the opening night party for the Broadway play Democracy and died shortly after at the hospital of a heart attack. He was 75 and was composing new material for the stage until the last.

Unlike Ebb, whose work currently and happily lives on in the long-running production of Chicago, Coleman does not now have a show on the New York boards at which mourning fans might console themselves. However, one is expected to arrive soon: a new Broadway revival of his most evergreen work, Sweet Charity. Coleman, who seems to live to work, said he was revising the score and including new songs he wrote with Dorothy Fields.

Sweet Charity included some of his best known tunes (and "tunes" is a term the Tin Pan Alley sensibility of Cy would have approved of): "Big Spender" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now." Like Ebb and his writing partner John Kander, Coleman was one the last of a disappearing breed of theatre composers who could make a claim on the world's musical memory. The opening vamp of "Big Spender" (BUM, Ba-da dum, Da-DUM!) alone is recognized by millions. And Frank Sinatra made sure his early hit with Carolyn Leigh, "Witchcraft," will always be remembered.

Sweet Charity starred Gwen Verdon as the title good-hearted, ill-starred dance hostess. Coleman would often cater to stars. He wrote Wildcat to suit Lucille Ball, tailored Little Me to the talents of Sid Caesar. Later on in his career, when a new Coleman score was the star of the show, he still seemed to favor building a show around a big personality: P.T. Barnum (played by Jim Dale) in 1980's Barnum; Will Rogers (Keith Carradine) in The Will Rogers Follies. (These actors were often quite grateful for the juicy parts Coleman helped create come Tony time; the list of actors who have taken home the trophy for work in a CC musical is long.)

He was diverse in his collaborations. It was Leigh in the early years, and then Dorothy Fields, but in the last four decades there were partnerships with Michael Stewart, Michael Bennett, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Peter Stone, A.E. Hotchner, Larry Gelbart, David Zippel and Ira Gasman. (At the Ebb memorial, Kander joked that his partner often threatened him with, "I'm going to call Cy Coleman." Coleman probably would have said yes.) His musical style, too, was wide reaching, encompassing his passions for jazz, the blues, pop, country and whatever other genre might catch his ear and imagination. His technique appeared to change with the project—and sometimes the scene. That approach often suited the essentially episodic, near revue nature of some of his projects, notably Charity, Little Me and Will Rogers.

Coleman (again, like Ebb) left a batch of projects which have not yet made it to Broadway, among them Like Jazz, The Great Ostrovsky, Grace and Pamela's First Musical. Taken together with Kander and Ebb's untried ventures, they could satisfactorily fill the next few seasons with echoes of how that musical theatre thing is done. ***

Prior to ending on a sad note, Broadway received a spate of new openings in quick succession. 'night, Mother, the first Broadway revival of Marsha Norman's terse two-hander, opened Nov. 14. The Good Body, solo artist and feminist champion Eve Ensler's Broadway debut, premiered Nov. 15. Another solo show, Whoopi, starring guess who, was unveiled Nov. 17, followed by Michael Frayn's new political drama, Democracy. The last was the only clear winner with the critics. With audiences, we shall see...

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Nathan Lane and Mattew Broderick have made a date for their theatrical family reunion. It is August 2005, when the two will likely team up as Oscar and Felix in The Odd Couple. Also reuniting in 2005 will be Hal Holbrook and producer Emanuel Azenberg for Mark Twain Tonight!

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Finally, Oskar Eustis is the new artistic director of the Public Theater. But you knew that already.

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