Cy Coleman, a Master of the Show Tune, Is Dead at 75

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19 Nov 2004

From Top: Cy Coleman and Glenn Close at the Johnny Mercer Foundation Award Gala on Nov. 15; Coleman in 1990
From Top: Cy Coleman and Glenn Close at the Johnny Mercer Foundation Award Gala on Nov. 15; Coleman in 1990
Photo by Aubrey Reuben
Cy Coleman, the Tony Award-winning Broadway composer who rose from child classical pianist to jazz player to master of the catchy show tune, died Nov. 18 of a heart attack, according to friends and colleagues in the theatre community.

Among Broadway musicals composed by Mr. Coleman are Little Me, On the Twentieth Century, City of Angels, Barnum, The Will Rogers Follies, I Love My Wife and The Life.

He was 75. A revival of Sweet Charity, a musical many consider his masterwork, is slated for Broadway in spring 2005. He had previously told Playbill the score will be revised and include songs he wrote with Dorothy Fields.

Marquee lights on Broadway will dim Nov. 19 at 8 PM for one minute in honor of Mr. Coleman, the League of American Theatres and Producers announced.

Mr. Coleman attended the Nov. 18 of the opening of the play Democracy and felt ill at the party afterward. He and his wife, Shelby, went to the hospital, where he collapsed and died, Playbill learned. Mr. Coleman is also survived by a young daughter, Lily Cy.



Mr. Coleman, a native New Yorker, was born Seymour Kaufman. He played classical music at Carnegie Hall and Town Hall as a child, but as an adult heard the siren call of jazz, pop and theatre music and never looked back. Working with the lyricist Carolyn Leigh in his early writing career in the late 1950s and '60s, he penned such hits as "Witchcraft," "The Best Is Yet to Come," "You Fascinate Me So" and "When in Rome."

Leigh and Mr. Coleman would venture into the musical theatre, writing the scores to the Lucille Ball vehicle Wildcat (which offered the tune "Hey, Look Me Over!") and Little Me (which boasted "Real Live Girl" and "I've Got Your Number"). There was friction in the relationship. Pianist Coleman and his Cy Coleman Trio were playing engagements around the country, and Leigh wanted him to stay put in New York and focus on writing musicals.

Though Coleman did settle down to a theatre-writing life, he and Leigh did not write another show. With the legendary lyricist Dorothy Fields, he wrote "Where Am I Going?," "If My Friends Could See Me Now," "Big Spender" and "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" for Sweet Charity, Bob Fose and Neil Simon's 1966 reimagining of Federico Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria." In the musical fable, Gwen Verdon starred as a dance hall hostess named Charity Hope Valentine (in the film, Cabiria is a prostitute).

The show's second Broadway revival (Fosse staged it in 1987) begins in April following out of town tryouts. Walter Bobbie directs and Wayne Cilento choreographs. Opening has been announced as April 21, 2005.

Those who only knew Cy Coleman as a Tony Award winning composer caught a rare glimpse of the pre Broadway Coleman when he returned to his jazz piano roots Oct. 12-23 for a gig at Feinstein's at the Regency.

The engagement represented life as Mr. Coleman lived it some 40 years earlier — performing not just his own jazz waltzes and songs but tunes by other writers. His October 2004 songlist included "Green Dolphin Street," "But Not for Me," "Comin' Home," "Mean to Me" and more. His side men were Gary Haase (on bass) and Buddy Williams (on drums).

The Feinstein's run (with the composer playing piano and singing) conjured Mr. Coleman's milieu of the 1950s and '60s, when he played smoke-filled rooms in Florida, hotels in Detroit and even his own 75-seat 58th Street nightclub, The Playroom, which he ran with partners in the late 1950s. William Holden had his own barstool there, Mr. Coleman told Playbill On-Line.

A couple of jazz performance albums from that era have been re-released for CD, but Mr. Coleman said recently he'd like to unearth some others and get them on the market.

Why did Coleman stop performing? It's not that people stopped asking, he said. The Emmy-wining, Oscar nominated and Grammy-winning composer grew so busy creating and/or rehearsing musicals, from the film of "Sweet Charity" to Seesaw and beyond (including such unproduced shows as Eleanor, about Mrs. Roosevelt), that it became impractical to accept bookings.

The Feinstein's gig (with Coleman on piano and vocals) included some of his classic pop songs as well as his beloved show tunes and material from such forthcoming shows as Like Jazz (with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman) and Pamela's First Musical (with lyrics by David Zippel).

Pamela's First Musical was announced to have its world premiere by Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut in 2005, but a spokesman for the company revealed Nov. 19 the staging will not happen there, due to contract issues that were not resolved.

In January 2002, the New York Pops played a concert of Mr. Coleman's work at Carnegie Hall. He also sang and tickled the ivories in an evening called It Started With a Dream, which is the name of a song from Pamela's First Musical and the name of a 2002 album of the composer's work.

"I never lost my love of playing," Mr. Coleman said at the time. "I've always worked from that base, as a musician."

The concert was a mix of songs from a long career that, from project to project, indicated that Mr. Coleman didn't want to repeat himself.

One of the things that distinguished Mr. Coleman beyond his pure, confident tunefulness is the range of styles he used: A touch of folk and country in Will Rogers Follies, comic opera in On the Twentieth Century, vocalese and jazz in City of Angels, '60s disco in Sweet Charity, R&B in The Life, circus chase in Barnum, a country song in I Love My Life, and more.

For his most recent musical, The Great Ostrovsky, which won him a Barrymore Award earlier in the week for his score, he used klezmer and a Yiddish theatre music sound from the early 20th century. The developing musical premiered at Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia in 2003-04.

"My roots are as a musician," Mr. Coleman told Playbill On-Line in 2002. "I started off as a concert pianist. I think like a musician. In other words, if you are musician, you're 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."

"He was trying to reinvent his sound, he was always doing different style of theatre music — I think he was very proud of that," said Mary-Mitchell Campbell, a friend, pianist and music director who worked on a number of Cy Coleman projects, including Grace, a Dutch-language musical about Grace Kelly, Hitchcock and the royals of Monaco that bowed in Amsterdam in 2001.

Of Grace, Mr. Coleman previously said, "Musically, I wanted to do a meld of European style and American style — the European feeling along with American pizzazz. That fascinated me."

Playbill On-Line reported in October that director Michael Blakemore (The Life, City of Angels) was attached to a potential English language production of Grace, as were the lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman and librettist A.R. Gurney. He also said Like Jazz, his new collaboration with the Bergmans, was still in talks for a wider future.

Mary-Mitchell Campbell said Mr. Coleman was "extremely supportive" of younger musicians and composers in the theatre community. "I think he felt like it was really important to further new voices," she said. "We had lots of great conversations about new stuff and he was always interested in hearing new things."

Campbell called Mr. Coleman a musical genius who felt melody was essential in music. "He wanted the melody to stand on its own regardless of what arrangement was going on around it," she said.

Mr. Coleman won Tony Awards for his scores to The Will Rogers Follies (1991, with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green); City of Angels (1990, with lyrics by David Zippel); On the Twentieth Century (1978, with lyrics by Comden and Green).

He was Tony-nominated for the book and score of The Life (about Times Square hookers and hustlers circa 1980); the score of Barnum (about showman P.T. Barnum, with lyrics by Michael Stewart); I Love My Wife (about wife-swapping in suburban New Jersey, with lyrics by Stewart); Seesaw (based on the play Two for the Seesaw, with lyrics by Dorothy Fields); Sweet Charity and Little Me (1963). He also served as a producer on some of his Broadway projects.

One thing Mr. Coleman didn't leave behind is a published retrospective revue of his work. He previously told Playbill On-Line that he viewed such revues as living obituaries, indicating his writing life was over.

"We had talked a lot about doing a revue of his, of his work," said Mary-Mitchell Campbell. "And he didn't want to do it because, he said, 'I'm not done'..."