Cy Coleman's Creative "Greenhouse" Expected to Yield a Number of Blossoms

News   Cy Coleman's Creative "Greenhouse" Expected to Yield a Number of Blossoms
When an artist dies, those passionate about his work cannot help but wonder what canvases were left unfinished, which ones were completed and stored for safekeeping, and what his disciples and colleagues might be able to complete from his blueprints.
Cy Coleman
Cy Coleman

So it is with the in-development recent works of Cy Coleman, the prolific Tony Award-winning composer who died Nov. 18 of a heart attack. Coleman, 75, was famous for juggling a number of projects at once — and being in talks for many others beyond what he had already started. Perhaps — as one of Coleman's most famous songs goes — the best is yet to come.

Why did he juggle so much?

"I'll tell you why I do it," Coleman told Playbill On-Line in 2002. "Because every project takes time. It isn't the fact that it takes time to write, but...because the nature of musicals is collaborative — [when] your director goes off, and your book writer all of 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."

The next two Coleman works expected to blossom are Pamela's First Musical, his family-audience collaboration with librettist Wendy Wasserstein and lyricist David Zippel, and Like Jazz, his unique musical exploration of the jazz world, written with Larry Gelbart (City of Angels) and lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman ("Yentl," Ballroom).

Army Archerd reported in Variety Nov. 23 that Transamerica would produce a Broadway run of Like Jazz in fall 2005, though no official production plan has been announced. Citing Gelbart, Variety later reported Nov. 24 that the show will have a new title this fall, will not use an additional composer beyond Coleman, and has been revised since an earlier run. In spring 2004, Coleman told Playbill On-Line negotiations were ongoing to give a wider future to Like Jazz. Gelbart, the librettist of City of Angels, provided the book for the unusual show, a conceptual revue painting varied portraits of the jazz community.

Gordon Davidson staged a production for Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles Nov. 25, 2003- Jan. 25, 2004. He will not direct the Broadway run, Variety reported. Mark Taper Forum presented the work in association with Transamerica and associate producers Rudy Durand and Bud Yorkin, who would presumably also be the producers connected to future commercial life.

Coleman said he'd like to see a New York berth for the show, which (in Los Angeles) featured an 18-piece band onstage and a cast of singers and dancers. The L.A. troupe included Patti Austin, Cleavant Derricks, Harry Groener and Lillias White, among others.

Asked if there may be another regional stop for the work, Coleman said, "You know, I never mind tryouts, I think they only help." Variety reported Nov. 24 that no tryout is planned.

Coleman's Broadway musicals include Sweet Charity, Barnum, On the Twentieth Century, The Life, Little Me, Wildcat and The Will Rogers Follies, among others.

As its L.A. subtitle — "a new kind of musical" — suggested, Like Jazz is "different," Coleman said.

"It was born out of different circumstances [than a regular commercial musical]," Coleman explained. "It was born by the Kennedy Center calling up the Bergmans and saying, 'We'd like you to write a cycle of jazz songs for a concert.' They came to me, and we said, 'First of all, what is a jazz song, anyway?' Is it 'Lullaby of Birdland'? Or is it 'How High the Moon' and 'All the Things You Are'? It's a complex question when you're sitting down to write a cycle."

What the collaborators ending up writing was not just a cycle of jazz songs, but a show "about the jazz world," Coleman said.

"About the people who inhabit it," he offered. "About the people who play in it. About the lives of the musicians, the managers, the people who hang out in the bars. It became about jazz."

The show is hard to define, Coleman confessed.

"Every time you do something different it's hard to define," he said. "It is bound together by the feeling of jazz, the landscape of jazz — of the jazz world and jazz people. It's not a book musical in a traditional sense."

At Mark Taper Forum, Patricia Birch handled musical staging and choreography.


Goodspeed Musicals had previously announced Pamela's First Musical would play a world premiere at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, CT, in 2005, but contract details could not be worked out, so its debut will be elsewhere. The Goodspeed plan fell through before Coleman's death, a spokesman said.

Lyricist David Zippel, Coleman's collaborator on City of Angels, told Playbill On-Line Nov. 22, "Pamela is definitely going forward. We are already working on another direction. That was happening before Cy passed away."

Zippel, who won a Tony Award for City of Angels, added, "It's so sad. I can't tell you how heartbroken we all are. I will miss him He changed my life. What an amazing man."

Pamela's First Musical has been seen in reading presentations directed by Graciela Daniele. The show is based on Wasserstein's illustrated children's book of the same name, about a young girl's first visit to a Broadway show.


Another show in the works is a musical about the relationship between emperor Napoleon and Josephine, with lyrics by Zippel and book by Larry Gelbart.

"Larry and I haven't spoken about what we're going to do with Napoleon," Zippel told Playbill On-Line Nov. 22. "I know we would like to finish it. It's not quite as far along as Pamela is, but it's something that Cy's work on is remarkable and we're hoping it will see the light of day."

Army Archerd reported in Variety that a letter from Gelbart was read at the Nov. 21 funeral service for Coleman, indicating he hoped "someday you can hear the love songs that Cy composed for a show that he and David and I were working on — about the short tempestuous relationship between the emperor Napoleon and his Josephine. His melodies for that score are unlike any Cy had ever created before."

Is Napoleon a serious-minded show?

"No, Larry is not writing a serious history," Coleman told Playbill On-Line in 2002. "It's a real fun show. It's got passion and it's very sexy."

Asked about the concept or plot details, Coleman was reticent to reveal too much about the work-in-progress, but said, "It's passionate, it's funny and it opens up with the Marquis de Sade."

The project was born when the writers were asked to pen a splashy Las Vegas show, Coleman said. "We were asked to do one of these shows," he said. "We got a call from this agent and we were thinking about ideas. We spent a lot of time talking and all of a sudden Larry came up with that idea. Time passed by and nothing happened. In my trips to the coast, I talked to Larry and he said, 'That idea is hounding me, I gotta write it.' So David and I sat down and wrote some stuff for it. It'll take time and we're not in any particular rush. We're nudging it forward."


Among other Cy Coleman shows that were being worked on for a wider future — or were on the shelf and waiting for dusting-off — are:

  • A musical with collaborator A.E. Hotchner about the uptown celebrity restaurant, Elaine's, with Lainie Kazan mentioned for the role of restaurateur Elaine Kaufman.
  • The Great Ostrovsky, seen in 2003-04 at Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia (Coleman won a 2004 Barrymore Award for his score). The backstage show about a bigger-than-life Yiddish theatre star (played by Bob Gunton in Philly) was written with co-lyricist and librettist Avery Corman. Coleman said he was hoping for another production following refinements to the book and score. The show was once called It's Good to be Alive, and the score in Philly offered that title tune.
  • Lawyers, Lovers & Lunatics, a new version of his show known as Exactly Like You. It played a mini-tour in 2003, but no future plan for the musical (about divorce court) has been announced. His partner was librettist-lyricist A.E. Hotchner, whose courtroom plot concerned four couples — including legal counsel, jurors, judge and witness — who argue, sing, dance and eventually get romantic. Coleman and Hotchner shared lyric credit. The show was previously seen at Goodspeed Musicals' Norma Terris Theatre and at the York Theatre Company under the title Exactly Like You, and was, at one point, to be called Court TV, the Musical., Coleman and Hotchner's short-lived Welcome to the Club (a.k.a. Let 'Em Rot) played 12 performances on Broadway in 1989, and was also about love on the legal rocks: It focused on alimony jail and got an actress named Sally Mayes noticed in a big way. Parts of that score surfaced in the later shows.
  • Grace, the Dutch-produced musical about Grace Kelly, Alfred Hitchcock and the Monaco royals, was staged in 2001-02 in Amsterdam (in Dutch), and Coleman said in fall 2004 he was reworking the score with American collaborators A.R. Gurney (book), Marilyn and Alan Bergman (lyrics). City of Angels director Michael Blakemore was attached to the English-language future, Coleman said. Some songs from the show had their U.S. premiere at Carnegie Hall in January 2002, when members of the Dutch company sang at a Coleman evening presented by New York Pops.
  • 13 Days to Broadway, the long-in development musical about a musical playing an out of town tryout. In recent years, Coleman said that, among other things, the show needed a new title. Playbill On-Line reported in 1998 that it's based on Coleman's own experience with the 1979 musical Home Again, Home Again and included some songs from that show, which closed in tryout on the road. His lyricist was Barbara Fried. "You There in the Back Row," one of the songs from it, has had a life in cabarets and recordings.
  • Nothing But the Truth, a collaboration with Barnum librettist Mark Bramble, using trunk songs by Coleman and various collaborators, including Dorothy Fields, Carolyn Leigh and Michael Stewart. Work began on it before the death of Stewart in 1987. The musical is based on a play of the same name by James Montgomery and concerns a man who must tell the truth for 24 hours. The play (and apparently a novel before it) has inspired several film versions. There were nine songs by Stewart and Coleman in the can for the show, Bramble said. *

    A revised revival of Coleman's 1966 musical, Sweet Charity, opens on Broadway in April 2005.

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