PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Lyricist-Director David Zippel

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Lyricist-Director David Zippel David Zippel, the lyricist who shared a Best Score Tony Award with composer Cy Coleman, talks about his creation of the revue The Best Is Yet to Come.

David Zippel
David Zippel Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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Lyricist David Zippel once pitched his City of Angels composer Cy Coleman the idea of a musical revue drawing on the large catalogue of songs that Coleman had written for pop stars, films and Broadway musicals. Coleman told Zippel that such an idea was for later — like, way later, after the composer's death. There were new songs and shows yet to be written, Coleman said. Among those new shows would be Pamela's First Musical by Wendy Wasserstein, Zippel and Coleman, and a musical comedy called N, about Napoleon and Josephine, by Coleman, Zippel and City of Angels librettist Larry Gelbart. The former has yet to have world premiere, and the latter was only partly completed at the time of the deaths of both Gelbart and Coleman.

After Coleman died in 2004, Zippel approached his widow, Shelby, with that idea of a revue of Coleman songs — something to celebrate his body of work, mixing the standalone tunes "The Best Is Yet to Come," "It Amazes Me" and "Witchcraft" (and more) with his famous show tunes "I've Got Your Number," "Hey, Look Me Over," "You're Nothing Without Me" and "The Colors of My Life" (and more). She gave her blessing, and conceiver-director Zippel crafted an evening (called The Best Is Yet to Come) with music director Billy Stritch for a California production that has now moved to Off-Broadway's 59E59 Theaters. Commercial producers are circling the show, considering it for a wider life. We spoke to Zippel, who splits his time between New York and California, shortly after the May 25 Off-Broadway opening.

I'm trying to wrap my head around how, when faced with that vast book of songs, you chose a songlist for The Best Is Yet to Come. Were there songs that Shelby Coleman, or the estate, said, "Please stay away from this?" Were there conditions?
David Zippel: No, actually they kind of gave me a free rein — they just said, "Go for it." The premise of the show was that "the best is yet to come," so a third of the show was going to be songs that were, you know, recently unearthed from the treasure trove that people didn't know or new songs [from] shows that he was working on — some with me, or the Bergmans… A third of the songs were supposed to be relatively unfamiliar, and a third of the songs were supposed to be pop songs that he made famous — mostly with Carolyn Leigh — and a third of the songs were going to be his theatre chestnuts that we know and love. That's what I set out to…so it wouldn't feel like a museum piece, but there would be something new to discover.

Cy Coleman in 1960

You're a lyricist with a healthy ego. I have to say, one of the things that I really appreciated and was surprised to see was that there wasn't more David Zippel in this show. You really honored other lyricists' work in this show, especially Carolyn Leigh who gets, I think, 13 songs.
DZ: Carolyn Leigh is just an extraordinary lyricist, and I think she's the person who's represented the most, but that's also because she was Cy's first theatrical collaborator and [collaborated on] most of his pop songs. When we did the show initially, the mega-mix [at the end of the show] had about five more songs in it — it was a little more mega — but they were ballads, and there were songs that I just hated cutting out of the show, but it felt like we were going back into the show and it didn't feel like we were coming to a conclusion. So, sadly, we took out "When in Rome," and we took out a Joe McCarthy song, I think Cy's first hit — "Why Try to Change Me Now?" — and we took out "The Colors of My Life," which we are going to put back in, in another arrangement — an up-tempo arrangement — at some point. But cutting those songs out was hard to do because it just felt like they belonged there. For every song I mention, I can probably think of eight more that would have been great to put in this show.

There are great songs like "I Walk a Little Faster," which has and extraordinary Carolyn Leigh lyric in it and a really cool melody, but it's in the "It Amazes Me" bag, and I just felt like [that feeling] was already represented. Again, it was choosing among a vault full of jewels — it was great. There are so many wonderful songs, and there are so many funny songs, I mean, there's a couple of things from [the musical] Welcome to the Club that are really beautiful. I felt we had to earn the ballads — an evening full of ballads, we wouldn't have any momentum, and so we were just very careful of how we built those moments.

Knowing Cy's canon as well as I do, I have to say that the only thing I sort of actively missed was "The Colors of My Life" from Barnum.

DZ: Well, that's going to go back in at some point when we have some time. In its next incarnation — which I hope will happen. There is a lot of encouragement for that to happen.

Do you mind talking a little bit more about Carolyn Leigh? She's a favorite of mine, and I remember talking about her with Cy, who said she was difficult, but incredibly gifted. There's a sexy quality to everything she wrote and she wrote very specific lyrics.
DZ: Carolyn Leigh is as good as any lyricist that wrote for the theatre or pop. She was first rate, and she had such wit and style, and her rhyme schemes were so fresh and surprising. I mean look at a song like "Little Me," it's just chock-a-block full of amazing rhymes and funny, witty thoughts. I'm a bit in awe of her talent.

There's a great version of "Little Me" in your show, with Lillias White and Billy Stritch singing variant lyrics that I'd never heard.
DZ: I kind of picked and chose among the more interesting versions because I wanted it to highlight Billy and Lillias. I think [I drew from] a piano/vocal version and I think some of it's from the show, as well.

You were a young lyricist when she was still alive. Did you ever meet her?
DZ: I met her once. I met her at the closing performance of the 1982 revival of Little Me, and talked to her for a couple of minutes. In fact, it was interesting because I was introduced to her and I told her that I was a huge fan, and I also told her that I loved the new songs that she wrote for that version of Little Me — both of which happened to be in this revue. One was "Don't Ask a Lady," and one was "I Wanna Be Yours." The response to the compliment was, "Really?" It was like she didn't — there was a little insecurity to it that just sort of struck me. She was very vulnerable and I was kind of surprised by that because she is a master; she was a master.

Lillias White in The Best Is Yet to Come
photo by Carol Rosegg

Will there be a recording of The Best Is Yet to Come?
DZ: People are coming for that very purpose, and I hope that they're as enthusiastic as some of the critics have been, and want to do it.

There are four delicious songs by you and Cy that nobody knows, or few people know, from the unfinished musical N. Is N still developable?
DZ: I don't think so. When Cy died, Larry and I looked at what we had, and we have about seven songs, or maybe eight songs, and part of an outline, and he and I were working on several other things, and we talked about possibly finding another collaborator and finishing it. But it wasn't at the top of our list of things to finish, especially with Cy gone. We didn't work on it for a while, and then Larry died. This particular show, Larry was the impetus for. He had a really kind of interesting, ironic take on [the story of Napoleon and Josephine] — it was mostly their personal lives that we were writing about. And I think without his voice, that would be very difficult, his voice would be very difficult to replace — and on anything actually.

How would you describe what he created for N? Is it darkly comic?
DZ: Well, it was comic… actually, it was a little bit like the tone of the song "Only the Rest of My Life," which was the finale of the show and it's in the revue. It's a heart-felt ballad with some laughs in it. The show was about Napoleon and Josephine, a couple who were madly in love with one another, but never at the same time, and how they tortured each other, and at the same time, were devoted to one another. It's sad and funny…he just had a really interesting take on it. It was funny and human, and you could relate to it, but at the same time, it was very tragic.

I'm curious to know if there are tapes of orphan melodies or pieces of music that Cy had that a surviving lyricist like you could pluck up to craft new Cy Coleman songs…
DZ: There probably are. I have lots of little cassette tapes. I don't even know if I own a cassette player anymore. Little boxes of cassettes of songs that we were working on. A lot of it has been digitalized, so I can have it on my iTunes, but it's just Cy kind of humming along…or the two of us just talking over the playing that he was doing. Most of the music we used, but there is some, I would think that there's a number of melodies that have yet to be set or…from projects that didn't happen that you could actually take and write new lyrics for.

The show tune fantasist in me is interested in that kind of thing because, as you say in your program notes, melody poured out from him.
DZ: Completely. Much like Jule Styne, I think — Styne, they said, always had feverish ideas, and they just splattered everywhere.
DZ: You're right.

Can you take me back to the first time you ever met Cy? What were the circumstances?
DZ: Sure. I'm trying to do the very first time. The very first time I met Cy — I went to law school, and one of my classmates was the son of Albert Da Silva, and Albert Da Silva was Cy's attorney, and I guess it was early in my first year at law school that Russell [Da Silva] heard the work that I'd done as a lyric writer and said, "You're really good, I'm going to introduce you to my dad." [So the Da Silvas] became my champions and they introduced me to Cy in the late '70s, and he was lovely, but I don't think that he was paying a whole lot of attention. Cy liked for things to be his idea, and he was very good about discovering new people, and kind of reaching out to lesser-known people early in their careers. But he, at this point, wasn't paying a whole lot of attention to me.

I did a couple of songs from Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall, and Judy Gordon, who was Cy's co-producer on Barnum, heard them, and she decided that Cy needed to meet me, so she started a little bit of a campaign, and I did this little revue a couple years later called It's Better With a Band — it was actually kind of a bizarre way to start your career with a retrospective! And a couple of Cy's other friends had seen it and started calling him, and I think he started to feel like he was being ganged up on, so that slowed it down a little longer. About three years after that I did my first Off-Broadway show called Just So, based on the Kipling "Just So Stories," and Cy came to see it, and even though it was not a success, he thought the lyrics were terrific and called me, and we met shortly after that and that was what lead to City of Angels.

Zippel and Shelby Coleman
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Was he tough in the room? Was it amiable in the room? What was it like working with him?
DZ: He was — it's interesting — he was delightful in the room. We really had fun working together. It's funny, I used to say there were "yes days" and "no days" — some days you would come in and throw something at him and he would say, "Aw, I don't like that!" And you'd put it away, but he didn't seem to like anything that day, and then other days, he would be like, "Oh my God, that's fantastic!" But he had great enthusiasm and he'd love to work. I've had collaborators that I had to drag into the room to get working. Cy was always wanted to do it. We'd plan things and he'd show up or I'd meet him, and we would just hit the road, and it was always fun. Sometimes I would take something that I thought was a good idea from a "no day" and bring it back on a "yes day" and it would get a great response, other times he would say, "Didn't I tell you I didn't like that yesterday?" [Laughs.]

Larry Gelbart, from the outset, treated me like a colleague, and I don't know if I had, at that point, earned the right, but that's the way he was. Cy treated me as a treasured protégé, until after the success of City of Angels, and then we just became good friends, and those last years we were writing together was just a joy, and Pamela's First Musical, I just loved every single melody he wrote for that show, it was just top-drawer Cy Coleman, and we were just having a great time.

You met at his place to work, didn't you?
DZ: Mostly.

What's the future life of Pamela's First Musical?
DZ: There were a bunch of theatres that were interested, and, at this point, it's a matter of when they step up to the plate. The truth is that I haven't really focused on it for a little while — I've been doing other things. Doing musicals is like pushing boulders up mountains — it will stay in place for a while, but then if you want it to go farther, you just have to keep pushing. We did do a concert version with Donna Murphy that was a benefit for Broadway Cares Equity Fights AIDS, and that went really well, and so I think there's — it has great potential, still.

There's always hope for a City of Angels revival. Does someone have the rights?
DZ: Right now, the rights are with the authors, but there has been a lot of phone calls and a lot of interest, so we are trying to figure out the best way to do it.

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)

Billy Stritch (at piano), Lillias White, Howard McGillin, Sally Mayes, David Burnham and Rachel York
Billy Stritch (at piano), Lillias White, Howard McGillin, Sally Mayes, David Burnham and Rachel York Photo by Carol Rosegg
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