Cabaret

Interview with
Cy Coleman

by Jonathan Frank

For almost four decades, Cy Coleman has been penning the music for great Broadway musicals. Starting in 1962 with Wildcat, which starred Lucille Ball and introduced the standard "Hey Look Me Over," his credits include Seesaw, Little Me, Sweet Charity, Barnum, City of Angels and The Will Rogers Follies (the latter two have the distinction of winning Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Score in consecutive years: 1990 and 1991). In addition to his work on stage, Coleman has written some of the be best known and beloved standards of all time, including "Witchcraft" and "The Best Is Yet To Come." One of his best loved shows, Sweet Charity, is returning to Broadway in a production starring Christina Applegate, and there is a good chance that 2005 will see the debut of a new Cy Coleman show (or two) on Broadway.

Cy ColemanJonathan:  Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, especially since you have quite a busy schedule over the next couple of months. First of all, you have a show opening at Feinstein's in New York.

Cy:  Yes, we open on the 12th of October.

JF:  Is that the first time you've performed there?

CC:  Yes. I used to perform all the time but I haven't performed in New York in a very long time. My background was in performing originally.

JF:  You're going to be performing as part of the Cy Coleman Trio at Feinstein's, right?

CC:  That's correct.

JF:  Are there going to be any guest performers?

CC:  Well, you never know if any of the people I've worked with in the past are going to stop by ... and if they are people I really like I just might put them on!

JF:  So in other words, you're not making any promises but it might behoove people to see the show more than once!

CC:  (Laughs) I think so, yes.

JF:  You also are the featured composer for an Actors Fund Benefit that is going to be happening in Los Angeles, where you'll be receiving the Nedda Harrigan Logan Award.

CC:  Yes, on November 6th.

JF:  As it is one of the S.T.A.G.E. concerts, hopefully it will be recorded and released on CD as it has quite the line up: Christine Andreas, Keith Carradine, Tyne Daly, Brian Stokes Mitchell, James Naughton, Alice Ripley, Chita Rivera, Lillias White and Patrick Wilson just to name a few. Are you going to be performing in that as well?

CC:  Yes. And then on November 15th I'm coming back to New York to do another one for the Johnny Mercer Foundation.

JF:   While I knew you were a jazz performer and recording artist, as well as a composer and songwriter, of course, I didn't realize that you were a piano prodigy. You were playing Carnegie Hall at, what, five or six?

CC:   More like seven or eight. I decided during my teens that I wasn't going to have the life of a concert pianist, much to the chagrin of a lot of people who had put a lot of money into me! So I went into jazz and performed in jazz clubs all over the country.

JF:  Did you have a problem making the shift from classical music to jazz?

CC:   It was only a problem in the beginning, since the way I would approach Beethoven is quite different than when I play jazz. You have to be more relaxed or it doesn't swing, and with Beethoven you have to be on top of it and play all those cadenzas.

JF:  How did you make the transition from performer to songwriter?

CC:  Well, it just happened. I wrote when I was young, too ... when I was fifteen/sixteen. I was writing with Joe McArthy and Mabel Mercer was doing all our stuff.

JF:  I love your CD It Started With A Dream and had it on my list of "The Best Vocal Albums of 2002." It was not your first 'solo' album, however, as you had released a number of albums as part of the Cy Coleman Trio. In fact, one of your early recordings that interests me greatly is a jazz album you recorded in 1959 featuring the music of Flower Drum Song.

CC:  It's funny you should mention that one. Originally, I didn't want to do it but I was being held to my contract so I went in, did it in two afternoons, and never listened to it afterwards. Strangely enough, I listened to it two years later and thought to myself that it wasn't a bad album (laughs).

JF:  Is there any chance of it being released on CD?

CC:  I have a bunch of albums I would love to get re-released. I'm trying to get hold of them ... the trouble is a lot of the companies that recorded and produced the albums went bust, so I don't know where to get the masters.

JF:  ... so if anybody reading this has a line on how to get the masters of some of your older albums, we need to get the information to you! You have some really intriguing albums out there, such as a jazz version of Barnum. Given that you produced a lot of your cast albums, I'm surprised you didn't produce that one.

CC:   Well, the label that recorded the Barnum jazz album came to me and so they used their own people and resources. For It Started With A Dream, I had Mike Berniker produce it. Since I was the solo artist as well as the writer for the songs, I figured I had enough credits on it already. (laughs)

JF:  You have quite a number of shows in development. You had a musical that was produced in Amsterdam in 2001 called Grace. Have there been any American productions?

CC:  It's about Grace Kelly. Right now A. R. Gurney is writing a new book and Alan and Marilyn Bergman are working on the lyrics.

JF:  You worked with the Bergmans on another show, Like Jazz, which was produced at the Mark Taper Forum late last year.

CC:  Yes, but it's now called Making Music, although who knows what title it will end up having.

JF:  Is it a revue or book show?

CC:  Well, it's one of those animals that's neither but both. It's about the people who inhabit the world of jazz.

JF:  Does it feature historical jazz performers and personalities?

CC:  Somewhat. It's like The Life in that it focuses on the people who inhabit a specific world, which this time is the very distinctive world of jazz.

JF:  Is it set in the modern day or in a by-gone era?

CC:  It's ageless and combines elements from all over. We feature performers like Billy Tipton, a woman who had to masquerade as a man to play, and Tedd Baker, as well as stories of specific places, like Small's Paradise in Harlem.

JF:  Is there a timeline for it to come to Broadway?

CC:  All the backing is there, so ...

JF:  So that might be running on Broadway right alongside the revival of Sweet Charity, for which you wrote the music. Have you been working on that show as well?

CC:  Oh yes! I put in three new things: some songs that I had worked on with Dorothy [Fields, the lyricist] that fit the show. To make them work, I rewrote some verses and additional lyrics and they are working very well. It's going to be a very exciting production.

JF:  I can't wait to see it. I recently saw a promotional photo of Christina Applegate in Entertainment Weekly and I liked the look: the blonde hair/pink dress is almost a polar opposite of what has become the trademark for the character.

CC:  She's going to be excellent in the part. She's a good dancer and she can sing! And we have Denis O'Hare, and he's great! He did the best reading I had ever heard in the part [of Oscar].

JF:  I heard a song from another of your shows in progress - David Zippel performed the critic's number from your adaptation of Wendy Wasserstein's book Pamela's First Musical at a MAC/ASCAP Songwriter's showcase earlier this year. It was hysterical and I can't wait to hear more numbers from the show. How is it progressing?

CC:  We're doing a workshop over the first two weeks of December, I believe, with Graciella Daniele directing it. Then it will have to wait until the fall of 2005 to open at Goodspeed. From there, it's scheduled to go to the Old Globe.

JF:  Are there any other projects? Not that three isn't enough ...

CC:  I've been working with A. E. Hotchner on a show that is currently called Lawyers, Lovers and Lunatics, which played in Palm Beach and a few other places. Debbie Reynolds is deciding whether or not she wants to go out on the road with it. I'm also working on another project with Larry Gelbart and David Zippel [both of whom worked on City of Angels]. And I'm working with Avery Corman [who wrote Oh God! and Kramer Vs. Kramer] on a show about the Yiddish theater called The Great Ostrovsky.

JF:  You've worked with some of the best lyricists to ever pen a song. Is there anybody you never got a chance to work with that you wish you had?

CC:   Well, Alan J. Lerner called me right before he died.

JF:  For a specific project?

CC:  Yes. It was for an adaptation of My Man Godfrey. He was writing with someone else and wasn't happy so he called me. We got together and ended up not doing it. Then he decided that we should do something 'more important.' I didn't know what he meant by that. Unfortunately, a week later he was in the hospital.

JF:  I read somewhere that you have a connection with the band Aerosmith ...

CC:  When I was four years old, my mother owned some tenements in the Bronx. Someone skipped on the rent and they left behind a huge upright piano, which got moved into our apartment so the other apartment could get rented out. I took to it and started playing. That's when Constance Tallarico came over and started teaching me, and she's the grandmother of Steve Tyler, who's name was originally Tallarico.

JF:  Well, I can't wait to see you and Feinstein's as I am looking forward to hearing some of your new songs, as well as some old favorites, of course.

CC:  Thank you!


Cy Coleman and his trio will be performing at Feinstein's (540 Park Avenue at 61st Street in New York City ) Tuesday through Saturday at 8:30 PM with late shows on Friday and Saturday at 11:00 PM. For ticket reservations and club information call (212) 339-4095, or log on to TicketWeb.com.

The Actors' Fund of America's 5th annual S.T.A.G.E. event, The Best Is Yet To Come: The Music Of Cy Coleman will be performed Saturday, November 6th at 8pm at Luckman Fine Arts Complex (5151 State University Drive on the California State University campus). Advance Priority ticket orders can be placed by calling (323) 933-9266 x54 or visit http://www.actorsfund.org.

The Johnny Mercer Foundation will hold its second annual awards gala on Monday, November 15, 2004 at The Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center. The event will feature an awards ceremony, dinner, and a spring fashion show by designer Donald Deal; it will include a musical tribute to Broadway composer Cy Coleman with such special guests as Tony Bennett, Chita Rivera, Jerry Orbach, Margaret Whiting, and Glenn Close. Cocktails will be served at 6:30pm, the dinner and awards ceremony will begin at 8pm, and the entertainment will start at 9:15pm. Phone 212-835-2299 for more information.


For more news and information about the cabaret scene, visit: