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With A Song in His Heart: CY COLEMAN

9 minute read
Wilfrid Sheed

American music has been moving so fast for the past hundred years or so that it has hardly had a moment to look back. Sure, ragtime was great — but listen to this. Big bands? Elvis! Hard rock? Soft rock. Acid rock. Get with it. Even a Mozart would be only as good as his latest hit in such a hip-hop marketplace as this.

Yet, either because it’s the ’90s now and rearview time, or because the stuff is too good to ignore any longer, many Americans have been looking back in spite of themselves at the incredible trove of Broadway show tunes and pop melodies composed between roughly 1920 and 1950 and finding it not only good but great, even classical, in a loose-jointed, informal American sense of the word.

And if it’s so good, why not play it again? When Barry Manilow helped open the new Paramount theater — a symbolic act in itself — back in September with a volley of his favorite Broadway standards, he was the latest of several Pop stars to declare for the old-time religion: Maureen McGovern, Linda Ronstadt and Carly Simon have all issued neoconservative albums, to blend right in with your Bennetts and Clooneys and Sinatras, while several talented young singers, such as Andrea Marcovicci, Mary Cleere Haran and Harry Connick Jr., actually seem to have been born that way.

So if everybody’s singing it, is anybody still writing it? No form of music can be considered fully resurrected so long as people suppose it was all written by Cole Porter, with maybe a little help from George Gershwin. It has to start ringing bells with today’s geniuses as well — and here the spotlight narrows sharply to one put-upon hero, the great Cy Coleman, who, with hits like Sweet Charity and Barnum, already has the honor of the American musical riding on his other shoulder. His classic songs, such as Hey, Look Me Over, If My Friends Could See Me Now, Witchcraft and Big Spender, are near the top of the postwar musical charts.

Not that Coleman is the last American to write good theater songs — not while Charles Strouse, Jerry Herman and Kander and Ebb are still banging them out. He just happens to be the latest American to have had two first-run hits playing on Broadway at the same time (City of Angels and The Will Rogers Follies) since the glory days of Rodgers and Hammerstein, when America ruled the boards, and probably the last active one (unless Burton Lane and Jule Styne have something up their sleeves) to write the classic American jazz song that the young singers are just now rediscovering.

A visitor to Coleman’s office on Manhattan’s West 54th Street may feel as if he’s stumbled upon the remains of Tin Pan Alley: over there is the old upright piano on which Cy has scored most of his songs, and next to it the thousand- year-old desk, and everywhere theater posters and photographs (“He just keeps putting them up till the wall is full,” says his secretary). And through the window pipe the New York City street noises that have inspired the American song ever since Irving Berlin first picked them up in the 1900s on the Lower East Side.

So how has this throwback to another era managed to survive not only the rock revolution, in all its geologic phases, but all the distractions of country-and-western and rhythm and blues? Coleman, who is no fossil but an immensely energetic and youthful fellow of 61, has the answer wrapped and ready to go. “Selective hearing,” he snaps. To which he adds that he is not writing imitation ’30s songs (“Pastiche is for college kids”) but the same kind of music, as if it had continued to evolve uninterrupted, fed by the latest developments in jazz — to which he listens voraciously.

It’s never too early to begin on a course like Coleman’s, and at the age of four young Cy was already playing everything he could get his ears on on the family piano in the Bronx. “Did you have any musical relatives?” he is asked. “No,” he responds with a charming non sequitur, “my family couldn’t even speak English.”

Coleman’s father was, in fact, a carpenter whose sole visible contribution to his son’s art was to nail the piano shut so he could get some peace around here. “Fortunately, as a carpenter’s son, I figured out how to open it.” After which he was left undisturbed, and unencouraged, until the local milkman, who’d heard him on his morning rounds, somehow talked the family into getting the kid lessons.

With just this lick of help, it was the work of a moment for Coleman to become a child prodigy, with a particular affinity for Beethoven. “I could already do the technical stuff, and I was looking for ‘feeling’ ” — an excellent career choice for a seven-year-old, because to this day virtuosity and feeling fight it out for attention in Coleman’s work, which sometimes sounds almost too clever to be quite great.

But what his critics are hearing is not emotional coldness (the act of composition moves him to the roots of his being) but the coolness of modern jazz laid on top of the type of supersophisticated melody lines he first heard from his major influence and first great love, the radio.

In those days, announcers seldom told you who wrote what, so Coleman simply fell in love with the whole period, namely the middle to late ’30s, by which time the American song had reached a pitch of harmonic subtlety and adventuresomeness. And it is this kind of song that Coleman started playing in clubs as a teenager (“a school you can’t pay tuition to”) and still writes today with whatever refinements Miles Davis, Bill Evans, et al., might have brought to it.

“I think of myself first and last as a professional pianist,” he says, and this order of things, which he sustains with a few dazzling concerts a year, gives him the serenity to continue when rising costs threaten musical theater with extinction. If extinction comes, “I’d probably become my own publisher and produce my own videos. I would always write music.”

Since he can hear a full orchestra in his head, he probably has no choice. – Tunes have come to him unbidden during cocktail conversations, and if there’s no polite way of writing them down, he just remembers them with one ear and fields dialogue with the other.

And what if somebody else has written that song already? “I just tip my hat and move on.” But he doesn’t often bump into familiar stuff as an amateur might, because his tunes “come from a different place — a very primitive place,” his own private cellar, where the melodies are marked COLEMAN ONLY. And you don’t have to be a professional to spot a vintage one. Witchcraft, The Best Is Yet to Come would simply never have got written at all if a certain musical milkman in the Bronx hadn’t kept his ears open.

Yet it’s also notable that some of his most characteristic songs were written with different lyricists. Unlike George and Ira, Gilbert and Sullivan, Cole and Porter, Coleman changes partners in song, because they all do different things well, which helps him do likewise. It is no accident that the lyrics for The Will Rogers Follies, the ultimate in brassy, knock-’em-dead show-biz shows, were contributed by the stage-wise troupers Adolph Green and Betty Comden, whereas the cerebral City of Angels was done with David Zippel. The result is two utterly different scores, held together only by the fact that nobody else could have written either of them.

You might land one Broadway hit by shooting arrows in the air, but never two. And Cy Coleman probably knows more about the mechanics of a Broadway musical than any other composer since Richard Rodgers. “The business, the politics, the script, the scenery, the transition” — Ira Gasman, a young lyricist who has been working with Cy on his next show, ticks off a few of the things he has learned at Cy Coleman Academy. “Songs emerge from him like giggles coming out of a baby.”

Obliged, for instance, to come up with something for a stage-frightened and vocally challenged Lucille Ball in Wildcat, he dashed off the almost singerproof Hey, Look Me Over, a number that really tears up the joint and did wonders for Lucy’s nerves. For Sid Caesar in Little Me, he contrived a waltz (Real Live Girl) well within the minuscule range of that star and every bathtub basso in the land. Nevertheless, Coleman’s greatest claim on the future remains, so far, the score for Sweet Charity, words by the immortal Dorothy Fields, choreography by the likewise Bob Fosse, which conveys in every swashbuckling note the vitality and glittering professionalism that not so long ago made the American musical the toast and envy of the outside world, like the American automobile. How does Coleman feel about his responsibilities as a species of one-man Big Three to the U.S. musicals industry? “I don’t mind waving the flag a bit,” he says, and adds, “I am not alone.”

He continues to work like three songwriters in one, while apparently enjoying life enormously. Buzzing back and forth between New York and Southampton, he has never stopped writing long enough to get married but has picked up a lot of friends with whom to share the laughter that also comes pouring out of him — easy, loud and often — between songs.

And if that ever fails him, he can always turn on the radio in his head and listen to the world’s finest music, including — who knows? — maybe the score to his next show.

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