MUSIC / Still the man of distinction: 'Even when he's square, he's cool, man.' Mark Steyn talks to Cy Coleman, Tony award-winning composer of City of Angels

The minute he walked in the joint

I could see he was a man of distinction

A real big spender . . .

Cy Coleman doesn't look quite the way he did back when he wrote 'Hey, Big Spender]' (1966), or when he posed for the cover of his album 'If My Friends Could See Me Now' as if he was doing a cigarette ad for Esquire, or when he played piano every week on Playboy magazine's television show, but, if anything, he's a man of even more distinction. With two Tony Awards for Best Musical in successive years, Coleman is now bringing the first of those shows - 1990's City of Angels - to London. Its successor, The Will Rogers Follies, continues to pack 'em in on Broadway, selling on an unlikely combination of a razzle-dazzle Tommy Tune staging, bizarre cast replacements such as Marla Maples (Donald Trump's girlfriend) and Frank Gifford (an ex-football player turned ABC sportscaster), and Coleman's country 'n' western-ish songs. You can't help feeling, though, that City of Angels, with its film noir settings and brooding jazz score, is closer to the composer's spiritual home.

'I thought wouldn't it be nice to write a real jazz score. Not showbusiness jazz, but one with the real tempos and instrumental riffs. So I went to Larry Gelbart and said I wanted to do a jazz musical with a private eye. He started to write a straight story about a private eye. Then he called me up and said he wasn't having any fun. So he concocted the two stories - the Hollywood scriptwriter and the movie he's writing - which was wonderful, because it gave me not only my jazz score but also a movie score, another place to go musically.' The play-about-a-film, based partially on Gelbart's own experiences in Hollywood (Mash, Tootsie), is a hoot, but it shouldn't obscure the unusualness of the music. At a songwriters' get-together, Marilyn Bergman, lyricist of 'The Way We Were', came up to Coleman and said, 'I've just seen City of Angels. Who Was That Trombonist?' 'I said, 'Marilyn, did you like the show?' '

Coleman watches his trombonists, and his orchestrations and dance arrangements, more closely than most Broadway composers. He wrote his first scores - for Wildcat with Lucille Ball and Little Me with Sid Caesar - as a diversion from his 'real' job, playing with his trio in Manhattan clubs every night. He's written songs with Peggy Lee, accompanied Mel Torme and supplied Sinatra with 'The Best Is Yet To Come' and 'Witchcraft'. Even with a squaresville show like Barnum (1980), as rerecorded by the composer for a jazz album, Coleman comes out cool, man. When Robert Palmer underwent the traditional rock star's mid-life crisis a few months back and decided to get finger-snappy, it was a Coleman standard he turned to:

'Those fingers in my hair

That sly come-hither stare

That strips my conscience bare

It's Witchcraft . . .'

'Get Cy to play the piano,' Sid Ramin, the orchestrator of West Side Story, told me. 'He's the best pianist of those Broadway composers.' But Coleman isn't a man to be damned with faint praise. 'Hey, let's ask the pianists,' he says, doodling a little Irving Berlin along the keyboard. 'None of those composers can play piano.' Songwriters are famously awful performers of their work. 'When I started exhibiting songs, they'd say, 'Well, you can make anything sound good', so I'd make it very simple . . .' And off he goes with a plonking one-figure bass accompaniment.

For Berlin's memorial service, the family asked him to play a slow, almost sensuous version of 'There's No Business Like Showbusiness' he likes to do - a tribute to a songwriter who couldn't play his own catalogue from one who can play his own and everybody else's. He met Berlin through Dorothy Fields, Coleman's lyricist on Sweet Charity and Berlin's co-author on Annie, Get Your Gun. At the '66 revival of Annie, he sat between Berlin and Fields. 'Irving looked at her and said, 'Dorothy, it's only a musical. Calm down.' But it was interesting sitting next to him. When his new song came on, he grabbed my arm and dug his fingers in. Then, when it stopped the show, he pounded me.' Only a musical, 'A-hur-hur-hur,' he snorts with laughter - as indeed he does every few minutes. Musical theatre is a solemn business these days. Coleman has as many theories as anybody, but still manages to give the impression that he has a good time.

'Musical comedy's difficult,' he insists. 'When I was doing movies, I used to say, 'Why don't I ever get a good melodrama?' Comedies are very hard, you never get the credit you should. But, in a good melodrama, you hold one note, change four chords and you're up for an Academy Award.' Serious art is supposed to be about serious subjects, and in the Eighties even musicals succumbed. The through-composed pop-opera he regards as 'a Reader's Digest version of opera. It seems to give people the feeling of culture.' It gives them the feeling as opposed to the culture? 'That's what I said.'

In the best Broadway tradition, Coleman is funny but literate. The Rhythm Of Life, the druggy preacher's anthem from Sweet Charity, is a sort of Broadway fugue. On the Twentieth Century (1978) is a comic opera. At seven, he played Carnegie Hall and seemed destined to be a concert pianist. His favourite composer wasn't Berlin but Beethoven. Then jazz intervened and, while still at high school, Coleman was asked to play for the publisher Jack Robbins. 'He pronounced me the new Gershwin, because everyone who walked in that day and was young was the new Gershwin. Then he told me to write three piano preludes like Gershwin. So I wrote the fourth, fifth and sixth preludes of Gershwin. A-hur-hur-hur.'

Forty years on, the preludes are out on a new CD of concert works by Broadway composers. 'They said 'Have you written any classical pieces?' And I said, 'Yes, I've got these three Gershwin-like preludes . . .' ' Before the preludes, there was a fiendishly difficult sonata which Coleman claims to have misplaced.

'Surely you can play it from memory?'

'Sit down and order dinner,' he says, and turns to the keyboard.

Whether his theatrical judgments are as sound as his musical ones is open to question. He was offered a lifetime contract at Universal - 'I could have a big house in Beverly Hills and not go to previews' - but chose to stay in New York. There's a story of Coleman inviting various distinguished Broadway luminaries to a private screening and telling them, 'This has to be our next show.' Then he put on a Carry On film. Ten minutes in, Hal Prince stood up and insisted Coleman switch it off. Carrying on through the Eighties, he wrote Home Again, Home Again which never made it to Broadway, and a show set in alimony gaol which unfortunately did. Anyone can churn out a Bernadette or Witch Witch, but it takes real professionals to embarrass themselves that badly in full view on the Main Stem. For an active composer, a glorious past is no compensation: as one Coleman song bluntly puts it, 'It's Not Where You Start, It's Where You Finish'.

'These aren't the Rodgers and Hart days,' he says, recalling an era when writers could do four shows a season and - hits or flops - you were shot of them after three months. He began working with Larry Gelbart on City of Angels in 1982; it opened on Broadway over seven years later. 'Years ago we used to have records of our stuff on the radio before the show opened,' Cy sighs. Not anymore - though Coleman sometimes seems to be leading a one-man campaign to reverse the trend. In the months before The Will Rogers Follies, he was doing the big song, 'Never Met A Man I Didn't Like', at benefit performances all over the town. 'You should have seen him do it at the Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital,' said his lyricist Adolph Green. 'There wasn't a dry eye, ear and throat in the house.'

Betty Comden and Adolph Green aside, the lyricists aren't always up to the composer. On City of Angels, David Zippel is a clever fellow if you can follow him. But lines like 'your fertile lies don't fertilise' seem designed to be read on paper, and even then they're hard to figure. One of the reasons we love Coleman's early hits is because his first songwriting partner, Carolyn Leigh, planted fat simple words that bounced off the notes:

'Hey, Look Me Over

Lend me an ear

Fresh out of clover

Mortgaged up to here . . .'

Backstage, it was worse than Gilbert and Sullivan. Out of town with Little Me, with Bob Fosse cutting lyrics, Carolyn dragged a cop into the theatre and demanded he arrest her collaborators. Today, the composer still has a painting he was given of a railroad station with a big fight poster on the wall: 'Leigh v Coleman.' The 'stormy marriage', as Coleman describes it, bust up in the early Sixties. But, if a permanent partnership is a marriage, what does that make his present horses-for-courses approach to lyricists? A succession of one-night stands? 'Let's say it's more like having a harem,' he suggests.

His big project is The Life, on which he and Ira Gassman have been working since the Seventies. 'It's about people who are living in the bowels of New York. It's not musical comedy, it's a passionate piece,' he insists. The word is that it's Coleman's Porgy and Bess. But there must be many who hope that virtually the last surviving musical comedy composer won't turn his back on the genre for long. Besides, comedy can be passionate. Coleman remembers working with Leigh and Neil Simon on Little Me and nervously offering some re- writes to Sid Caesar. 'There, Sid, don't you think that's funny?' 'Funny? You want to know what's funny?' said Caesar rhetorically. He ripped the sink off the wall and threw it through the window. 'There. That's funny.'

City of Angels opens next week at The Prince of Wales (Box office 071 839 5987).

(Photograph omitted)

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