Charity begins again

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He was called `the new Gershwin', and at 68 he is still putting on hit musicals. Now Cy Coleman is back in London with his most popular show, `Sweet Charity'.

Cy Coleman doesn't write songs, he writes 24-carat, solid gold hits. Never heard of him? Tony Bennett has. And Barbra Streisand. Not to mention the late greats, Sammy Davis Jnr, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. Elvis Presley even sang one of his songs. And then there's Shirley Bassey. There's barely a person on the planet who doesn't know her signature tune, "Hey, Big Spender".

This blowsy, superbly sleazy come-on is the defining number from Coleman's most popular show, Sweet Charity. Originally staged in 1966, it has been consistently revived for two reasons. First off, it was conceived, choreographed and directed by Bob Fosse and remains a testament to his unique talent; but secondly, the combination of Coleman's ballsy music and Dorothy Fields' smart lyrics is dynamite. In addition to "Hey, Big Spender", the score delivers one show-stopper after another. From "If My Friends Could See Me Now" to the climactic "I Love to Cry at Weddings".

Jet-lagged he may be, but the 68-year-old Coleman brims with good-humoured energy. So would you if you had new projects from here to the millennium, a hit on Broadway - The Life - and were on a flying visit to check out rehearsals for yet another production of something you knocked out 30 years ago.

"The first thing I wrote for Charity was `Big Spender'. I was looking for some kind of key into it and it was that opening vamp that gave it to me. It has this raucous feel with a funny little bit of humour to it." That famous, lazy strutting rhythm defines the mood, a simple six note phrase, punched out by the huge brass section. Five of those notes are the same, capturing the nightly boredom of the "dance-hall hostesses" pounding out the bump'n'grind in the clapped-out Fan-Dango Ballroom. Even with your eyes shut, you know where you are.

Snatched moments of the lyric layer and cross over each other in a way that dictates the staging. Coleman and Fosse had previously worked together

on the satirical musical Little Me. "I was always unhappy with the fact that when Bobby was putting the choreography together, he would put actions in funny places.

"Whenever I challenged him, his answer was always `Why not?'. This time I decided I would build them in so he couldn't do a thing about it. So I wrote, `The minute you walked in the joint BUMP BUMP' ... and that's where his stuff would go. Of course, we played around with it in rehearsal but I was happy because I'd defined the rhythmic structure."

Throughout his almost alarmingly varied career, Coleman has gone to some lengths to be happy about things, including occasionally producing his own work. Shirley MacLaine starred memorably in the movie of Sweet Charity and Coleman produced the tour of her knock-out solo show. She hit the London Palladium in the early Seventies like a whirlwind and Coleman won Emmy awards for her two TV specials. He hadn't counted on doing likewise on his show Barnum, but when producer David Merrick pulled out over a casting row, he and lyricist Michael Stewart took over. Not for long.

"Michael turned to me and said, `I don't have the temperament for this, why don't you do it alone?' Thanks a lot, Michael! Now, I had to do it." He wasn't prepared for the fact that he became the enemy of both sides. "I was saving the show, I thought I was the hero. My fellow producers distrusted me because I was a writer and Michael, who knew how I'd gotten into it, became suspicious because now I was a producer." Faced with budgetary responsibility on this huge circus-style show, he cut the first act climax which was to have been a cable-car lifting up over the auditorium to the second balcony. "In America there are a lot of laws. The smallest bolt falls off and hits somebody: it's criminal. We had a meeting with my fellow writers and I said, `We can't do it'. And there's everyone saying `We don't have a climax'. And `How can you do such a thing?', and I said, `If you think I'm putting all of us in that kind of jeopardy you're crazily mistaken.'" The next day, Joe Layton came up with the high-wire act which sold the show. "It was much better," he grins, "and much cheaper."

This guy might have had lessons from Nancy Reagan. "Just Say No" is something he's been very good at. By the age of seven, this youngest of five Jewish children was a fully fledged piano protege who'd already played Carnegie Hall. He could have had a nice classical career, but no. In his teens he was on a scholarship at Julliard but what he terms his "perversity" kicked in. "I wanted to be part of what was going on everywhere else." At 17 he looked 12 and was going down a storm as a jazz pianist and his teacher sent his Sonata in Seven Flats to the publisher Jack Robbins who labelled him "The new Gershwin", played a hunch and teamed him up with Joseph McCarthy.

Not to be confused with the notorious senator, this Joe McCarthy was the son of a famous songwriter who'd inherited the family business, as it were. "Joe was eight or ten years my senior, very intense - he had these fierce, burning eyes - but he really focused me in on songs. I'd never set out to do that." Novice he may have been, but that didn't stop Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra recording his work. Meanwhile, he was playing piano on TV most days and also at the prestigious Sherry Netherland Hotel. This Bronx boy liked uptown life so much he moved into his dressing room. But he didn't like being a cocktail pianist. "They said, `You're playing too loud'. I'd say, `No, you're talking too loud.'" He quit. Then his agent decided he was "the new Eddy Duchin" and offered him the chance to front his own band.

This was big. "I told them I'd thought about it very carefully, was very flattered but didn't want to do it. I'll never forget it. He turned beet red, got up and towered over me - that's when I realised he was all of 4ft 6 - and said, `You're kidding, aren't you?' I said, `No' and he pointed this finger at me and said, `You're through in show business. Now get out.'"

He pulled the same stunt after Cary Grant had taken him to Hollywood to score Father Goose for Universal Studios. "They offered me a lifetime contract and said, `We're gonna make you a millionaire'. So I said, `How about a shorter term and a little less money?' but they didn't want that and again I said no. Then I was told, `You don't say no to Universal. They take it very badly and they'll never hire you again'." Three years later he was back doing the movie of Sweet Charity for them.

His film scores have never mirrored his Broadway successes, which include the long running City of Angels, which sadly didn't last in London. Its real jazz score drew partly from his time performing at and running a jazz club. It wasn't an entirely happy experience - "never run a jazz club unless your mother is behind the till," he now advises - but the clientele was extraordinary. "Jackie Gleason came in every night. William Holden had a reserved seat at the bar. Harry Belafonte was coming in all the time and during the day I was writing songs." By now, he was working alongside Carolyn Leigh, tossing off numbers like "Witchcraft", a frankly huge hit for Sinatra.

He and Leigh auditioned for the score for Gypsy but even though they didn't get it (Jules Styne and Stephen Sondheim did) Tony Bennett took one of the failed songs and turned it into a hit. They finally made it onto Broadway with Wildcat, Lucille Ball's only musical. She didn't have a voice, she had a klaxon - but Peggy Lee sold discs by the lorry load when she recorded the opening number "Hey, Look Me Over".

Almost 40 years later he's ludicrously busy but right now, it's Sweet Charity. The reviews for Carol Metcalfe's tiny fringe revival of Coleman's tremendous mock-opera On the Twentieth Century persuaded him to grant the rights to this. Whether she can repeat her success in the fierce West End remains to be seen. What's not in doubt is Coleman's score. "I think Carol is going to flesh out the story a lot more. We'll see what that's like. Sounds good, so long as you don't lose the ingredients. Hey... that's why I'm here."

`Sweet Charity' is at the Victoria Palace, London SW1 (0171-834 1317)

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