Periodically, I try to spend time rediscovering an artist – composer, lyricist, playwright, performer – who I think I may not have “gotten” the first time around. Sometimes, the impetus for this is nothing in particular – but this year, I’m finding, is a particularly good time to think about Cy Coleman. February brought the Encores production of Little Me, which I reviewed in this blog. Next March will see a long-awaited revival of On the Twentieth Century at the Roundabout. And just this week, I was able to see a Philadelphia concert performance of The Life, Coleman’s last Broadway show, which I missed the first time around.
Cy Coleman’s earliest life resembles George Gershwin’s – Jewish kid (his birth name is Seymour Kaufman) from New York who became a child piano prodigy. By the 1950s, he had founded a much-celebrated jazz ensemble, the Cy Coleman Trio – and it’s a sophisticated, jazzy sensibility that I most associate with his original works. I also think of him as an heir apparent to Cole Porter in terms of being the balladeer of Manhattan, but with a difference – not only was Coleman portraying a different time period (the ‘60s and ‘70s, rather than the ‘30s and ‘40s), his tone was steelier, his characters more socially mixed. Here was a Manhattan where Café Society was only a few blocks away from something grittier. I often think that if Guys and Dolls had been come along 20 years later, it would have been Cy Coleman who wrote it.
I now realize that the finger-snapping, pork pie hat-wearing, whisky-drinking sensibility was only part of the story. The first Coleman musical I really fell for is On the Twentieth Century, which is more Hollywood than New York, with a more lushly traditional, Broadway-sounding score. (Some of the influence here must surely be Comden and Green, who wrote book and lyrics). Little Me was Borscht Belt comedy, and again Coleman fills the bill with a score that evokes multiple musical languages – and jazz is only one of them.
Yet it’s the icy-yet-hot jazzy idiom, and a knowing, sometimes rueful slyness, that is central to several of my favorite Coleman songs – “Baby, Dream Your Dream,” “I’ve Got Your Number,” and “Big Spender.”
The first and last of these come from Sweet Charity, one of Coleman’s great hits – and a show about often brutally sad world of prostitutes. It’s a subject he returned to in 1997 with The Life, which Philadelphia’s 11th Hour Theatre presented in concert form, with a charismatic, vocally distinguished cast. I’d say the work itself is a mixed bag, with the book dwelling rather depressingly on the doomed, predictable relationships between hookers and their pimps. The lyrics, too, by Ira Gassman, are weaker than the great collaborations between Coleman and Carolyn Leigh or Dorothy Fields, to name two of his most brilliant partners.
Still, it’s a show – and especially, a score – worth knowing. The Life focuses on a multi-ethnic world, and Coleman effectively incorporates more of an R&B sound than I associate with him. There are several blockbuster numbers that would also work well outside the show. I’m glad to know there’s still more for me to discover in Cy Coleman’s work.
It’s also good news that the 11th Hour Theatre Company is really stepping up their game. Still to come this season is a fully staged, world premiere musical – Field Hockey Hot by Michael Ogborn – as well as concert performances of three musicals that have been praised in off-Broadway and regional productions – Dogfight (November 22-23), A New Brain (March 28-29) and Dani Girl (May 16-17). Judging from the calibre of The Life, we may have found the next important company to fill the void left by the Prince Music Theater’s still-uncertain future.
11th Hour Theatre Company – http://www.11thhourtheatrecompany.org