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Cy by Cy:
Creative Composer Coleman

Come have a listen to that versatile writer of melodies for Broadway and beyond, Cy Coleman, sing his songs (sometimes with collaborators) in demo form, accompanying himself on piano. If you have a curiosity for hearing how show tunes sound when newly born—and if you relish discovering long-lost items—get ready to be served a big banquet.


Harbinger Records

Imagine yourself as a Broadway producer, in your easy chair, facing songwriters in the hot seat as they unspool their new score. Or maybe you're alone with the music wafting through your room on a tape or demonstration record in those pre-CD days. There's palpable joy and pride when we hear composer Cy Coleman burst forth with his creations. He's neither overzealously "selling" the material nor awkwardly assuming the plays' various characters. It's a treat to listen to these recordings, made from the 1950s to the 1980s, either with the hindsight of history or wondering how it must have been to perform them or hear them fresh, with no knowledge what would be a smash and what would never get off the ground.

Though the revival of a Coleman score with Comden & Green, On the Twentieth Century, is currently on Broadway, it is not represented on You Fascinate Me So. Neither is the Coleman number that gives the collection its title; that name was chosen to be a tie-in with the new Coleman biography of that name, written by Andy Propst who also supplies the interesting and concise background for each of the numbers included. Otherwise, the valuable items here might just as easily have used the truthful appellation employed by Harbinger Records on its releases featuring songwriters Hugh Martin and Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures. About half of the 28 numbers are old friends to those who savor Broadway and cast albums or pop records (and, occasionally, both, as in the case of "Hey, Look Me Over" from the composer's Broadway debut, Wildcat). The others are from aborted projects, were cut from shows, or are little-known efforts for the pop market. An example of this is a curiosity from 1966, "I'm Serving Out a Heavy Sentence Loving You" with words by Floyd Huddleston, whose wife, Nanci Adams, supplied the pleasant-enough vocal for this tongue-in-cheek look at romantic feelings as confinement. Coincidentally, the last project represented took place in alimony jail, 1989's Welcome to the Club with lyrics by A. E. Hotchner.

Those who quiver at the thought of songwriters perhaps croaking out and banging out their tunes certainly can forget the quivering when it comes to Cy Coleman. He was classically trained, and made a living for a while singing and playing in clubs with his own jazz trio, very ably tackling standards and musical theatre material, jazz, and pop. His recording history includes several albums sampling this, some vocal and some instrumental, including a CD called It Started with a Dream, released in 2002, just a couple of years before his death. Also released was an album of the score of Barnum with Coleman doing all the numbers. (Barnum's reflective ballad moment, "The Colors of My Life," is the sole sampling here, while a few other scores—hits or misses—get at least two.)

As the indeed fascinating You Fascinate Me So's tracks are demos, they're not about dazzling or jazzy pianistics. His singing voice is buoyant and no-nonsense, sounding fairly confident, although now and then he has to reach for the high notes. Had these been made in studios with the luxury of time, more polish and styling would have been expected. A demo, not made for the general listening/buying public, is a different animal altogether. But all are enjoyable and charming, now and then revealing elements of craft in writing sometimes overshadowed when songs are filled out by big, detailed orchestrations and showier vocal incarnations. As might be expected, the sound quality varies and there are the occasional sound crackles or "hiccups." But there's no straining to hear lyrics through muddiness, and Peter Millrose (Millrose Music) restored and mastered the material for this valuable label founded and overseen by veterans Ken Bloom and Bill Rudman.

Much ground is covered here, with a wide range of styles and moods. Done with elegance and wistfulness, the disarming and lilting "At My Side" (from Welcome to the Club, recycled for Exactly Like You) sounds like what could have been a deservedly tear-stained standard. It ends the album, but you can skip around and go from the sublime to the deliciously ridiculous with a novelty number with a nutty lyric by Allan Sherman: "The Laarge Daark Aardvark Song" about a missing-in-action zoo animal and its lot in life and love. It really tickles me. "The Lady Is Indisposed," with a lyric by early collaborator Joseph A. McCarthy Jr., is another delight, a snappy romp for a gal declining male company, from the Ziegfeld-free Ziegfeld Follies of 1956 which closed in Philadelphia. It's a pip!

While all four items from Little Me are those that did make it into the show, they are particularly endearing here with the added presence of its very clever lyricist Carolyn Leigh doing a fair share of the singing. Feisty and fun, the songwriting team make for energized fizz here and with Wildcat's zestily sung hit, "Hey, Look Me Over," and its cut numbers, the combined and very attractive "Far Away from Home"/"Angelina." These tender songs of yearning really hit the spot in the writing and performance. You may rightly think of Leigh as sarcastic and even sharp, so it's a surprise—a welcome one—to hear how she shows a truly sweet side in some of her singing.

With five choices, Sweet Charity is most present, technically. But three of those titles weren't in the show by the time it debuted, with one later appearing in Seesaw ("Poor Everybody Else"). Charity's discarded story-song "Pink Taffeta Sample Size Ten," previously rescued by cabaret singers, recounting a little girl's longing for pretty dresses her salesman daddy let her try on, is performed with much grace by its composer. (Oddly, on Seesaw's "Nobody Does It Like Me," also written for a female character, he tweaks lyrics to sing it as a man.) Besides the musicals named above, we also hear work written for The Wonderful O, Eleanor, Atlantic City, and Home Again, Home Again.

Some may say that hearing barer-bones early versions of material presented by songwriters is an acquired taste, but with someone as musical and affecting as Cy Coleman, it's a pretty easy taste to acquire. To quote one his lesser-known song titles included, "The Way I See It," this is quite interesting and entertaining. And the way I hear it, it's something I want to hear again and again.

- Rob Lester

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