Cy Coleman's Musical Witchcraft Sung and Spoken of at Jan. 10 Memorial | Playbill

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News Cy Coleman's Musical Witchcraft Sung and Spoken of at Jan. 10 Memorial Music simply flowed out of Broadway composer Cy Coleman, according to his friends and colleagues, so it was appropriate that the Jan. 10 tribute to the late songwriter at the Majestic Theatre set forth a steady stream of Coleman melodies.
From Left: Lucie Arnaz and widow Shelby Coleman at the Cy Coleman Tribute
From Left: Lucie Arnaz and widow Shelby Coleman at the Cy Coleman Tribute Photo by Aubrey Reuben

A few select speakers approached the podium—collaborators Neil Simon, David Zippel, A.E. Hotchner and Wendy Wasserstein among them—but mainly the event was a festival of song. The first number was arguably Coleman's best known, the jazzy vamp "Big Spender" from Sweet Charity. Chita Rivera and Ann Reinking were joined by eight other chorines in acting out Bob Fosse's famously sexy-funny choreography.

Many of the original stars of Coleman's shows were on hand to recreate their performances. Jim Dale sang "There's a Sucker Born Every Minute" and "The Colors of My Life" from Barnum; Gregg Edelman and James Naughton, playing a crime novelist and his detective creation, sang the rousing "You're Nothing Without Me" from City of Angels; Lillias White ripped through "The Oldest Profession," the bluesy song from The Life that won her her Tony Award; and Michele Lee executed "I'm Way Ahead," a lengthy number from Seesaw.

"I was sitting in the back of a New York City taxi cab when Cy handed my this monologue song," Lee recalled. "We opened the next day."

Where original stars were not available, worthy replacements stepped in. Lucie Arnaz and her daughter Katherine Luckinbill dueted on "Hey, Look My Over," a song first sung by Arnaz's mother Lucille Ball in Wildcat. And Judy Kaye performed the musical tirade "Never" from On the Twentieth Century. Kaye understudied for Madeline Kahn in the original production, and eventually took over the part of Lily Garland.

Brian Stokes Mitchell was the last guest to sing, offering a swinging, finger-snapping version of the standard "The Best Is Yet to Come." "Cy's music always sounds better with snapping fingers," Mitchell said. Coleman, a talented performer himself, closed out the event. A recording of him singing the song "A Little Trav'lin Music, Please," was played over the loudspeakers while a spotlight shown down on the stage's grand piano. Most everyone employed cheerful words to describe Coleman, a man with an evident zest for life and a thorough enjoyment of his talents. He was called ebullient, energetic, sanguine, and endlessly optimistic. "He was the most self-confident people I had ever met, and one of the most positive," said lyricist Zippel, who worked with Coleman on City of Angels. "Cy was the best, and he knew it."

White did an imitation of Coleman playing the piano with his "carpenter's fingers," his hands constantly moving, his face turned to the listener, eyes wide, mouth helplessly smiling. Wasserstein, meanwhile, remembered a time they teamed to woo a potential Windy City backer for their show Pamela's First Musical. "Don't worry. I've charmed women from Chicago before," Coleman told Wasserstein. The two took the would-be angel to lunch, during which Coleman spun yarns about Bob Fosse and Cary Grant, leaving the Chicago woman gaping. They then went to Coleman's apartment, where he played one song from the score, then two, then the whole thing. "After two hours, there she was singing 'Witchcraft' with Cy," said Wasserstein.

"Cy had an appetite for the craft and art of writing," continued Wasserstein, telling of a typical creative session with the composer. "We'd come up with a solution to a song or the structure, and Cy would say 'Let's just play devil's advocate. What if we did it a different way. Let's just try.' And I'd always think, 'Cy, I am fundamentally lazy. We have solved this already.' And inevitably, Cy would be right."

Wasserstein and Coleman would often lunch at the Friar's Club, where, according to the playwright, "Everybody said hi to Cy." Collaborator A.E. Hotchner was also familiar with the man who knew everyone and whom everyone knew. Attending a Kennedy Center Honors ceremony with Coleman one year, Hotchner and his wife waited outside for the songwriter while he said goodbye to all the friends he encountered. "Everyone left," remembered Hotchner. "Finally, the last three people inside came out. They were Senator Kennedy, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Cy."

One of Hotchner's tales perhaps best illustrated Coleman's unflagging spirit and creativity. The two were working on a new show, told Hotchner, and couldn't hit upon a satisfactory 11 O'Clock number. "We'd been two or three days at the piano with no success. Cy said, 'Hotch, tell you what. Let's take a day off. Let's go fishing.'"

The two boarded a fishing boat off the Florida keys, where all attempts to hook a fish were thwarted by a storm. "We came back, beat, windswept, went to our compact Chevy. And a state trooper said there's no access to the highway because one of the bridges between here and Miami has gone up and it's stuck and they can't get it down. And the only guy who's got the mechanism to get the bridge down is in Fort Lauderdale. And he can't come down, because he's been arrested for drunk driving. We found out every motel, every accommodation had been booked. Everyone's trapped in Key West. So Cy said, 'Well, we'll spend the night in our compact Chevy.' We flipped a coin to see who'd get the back seat. I lost. There I am with the steering wheel. It's dark, and raining and there are mosquitoes. Finally dawn came and I opened the door and came out, like a pretzel, black and blue. The back door opens and out pops Cy, looking like he just spent a night at the Ritz. I said, 'Cy, for God's sake, what are you so happy about?' He waved the paper napkins from the dinner the night before and said, 'I've got the 11 O'Clock number!'"

Larry Gelbart, who worked with Coleman on City of Angels, could not attend, but he sent along some words, which were read by Naughton. A section went, "His songs at once reflected our experiences, mirrored our follies and encouraged our fantasies. In the end, those songs are the keepers of this fame... For the ages yet to come, what Cy Coleman leaves behind is a generous message. It says a good deal more than `We were here.' It says that there were some among us, some of us way back now who had the magical ability to give emotion sound, a sound superior to any known language."

From Left: Phyllis Newman, Amanda Green and Lauren Bacall at the Cy Coleman Tribute
From Left: Phyllis Newman, Amanda Green and Lauren Bacall at the Cy Coleman Tribute Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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