Cy Coleman

Composer of musicals including 'Barnum' and 'Sweet Charity'

The eclectic composer Cy Coleman is best known for his Broadway musicals, such as
Sweet Charity and
Barnum, but he was also a successful jazz pianist and composer of such popular hits as Frank Sinatra's "Witchcraft" and Barbra Streisand's "When in Rome". Peggy Lee, Nat "King" Cole, Jack Jones and Tony Bennett also recorded his songs.

Seymour Kaufman (Cy Coleman), composer: born New York 14 June 1929; married 1997 Shelby Brown (one daughter); died New York 18 November 2004.

The eclectic composer Cy Coleman is best known for his Broadway musicals, such as Sweet Charity and Barnum, but he was also a successful jazz pianist and composer of such popular hits as Frank Sinatra's "Witchcraft" and Barbra Streisand's "When in Rome". Peggy Lee, Nat "King" Cole, Jack Jones and Tony Bennett also recorded his songs.

His raunchy number from Sweet Charity, "Big Spender", a hit for Peggy Lee in the United States, was an even bigger success for Shirley Bassey in the UK. Coleman's Broadway scores, which span a period of over 50 years, included such varied fare as the operetta pastiche On the Twentieth Century, the jazzy noir thriller City of Angels, and the bucolic Will Rogers Story. The critic Clive Barnes called Coleman "a permanent gem in Broadway's musical crown".

The youngest of five children born to Max and Ida Kaufman, immigrants from Bessarabia, described by Coleman as "the small space between Russia and Romania", he was born Seymour Kaufman in 1929, and raised in the Bronx, where his mother was landlady of a boarding house.

The building's milkman heard the boy playing the piano and was impressed enough to recommend him to his own son's music teacher. "My mother had a talent for business, obviously. There were two free lessons and one she paid for. So I became a prodigy and played at Steinway Hall. I even played Carnegie Hall at the age of seven." His father, a carpenter, became so irate at the boy's constant day-long practising that he nailed the piano shut. "I found a screwdriver and prised the piano open," Coleman said. "The music continued and he never tried to do anything more about it."

Kaufman rejected his music teacher's ambitions for his career as a concert pianist. "It was a desire to do something of my own in the creative field as opposed to being a recreative artist." After attending the High School of Music and Art, as well as the New York College of Music, he worked as a cocktail pianist, quickly becoming a favourite of "society" clientele. He also established a reputation as a "bachelor about town". He fulfilled an ambition to form a jazz trio, initially playing in small venues.

Since I was very young - I was about 17, and I looked 12 - I attracted a lot of tips. I got a job accompanying a woman named Adrienne, who sent me to the publisher Jack Robbins. He liked what I did but he didn't like my name. "Seymour Kaufman will never do," he said. "We'll call you Cy Coleman."

Robbins teamed him with the lyricist Joe McCarthy, with whom he wrote "Why Try to Change Me Now?", recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1952. "It didn't get played much, but it became something of a modern standard. Then we wrote 'I'm Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life', and Nat 'King' Cole cut it."

Coleman composed with other writers, including Bob Hilliard and Hal David, before forming a steady partnership with Carolyn Leigh, although it was a stormy relationship. "We fought constantly," he said later. Leigh's urbane, pointed lyrics perfectly matched the rhythmic, syncopated and sophisticated style of Coleman's music, and the team's first song, "A Moment of Madness", was recorded by Sammy Davis.

In the mid-Fifties Coleman acquired his own nightclub, The Playroom, in which he also performed, but it was not a happy experience. "Never run your own jazz club unless your mother is behind the till," he later said. He continued to perform and had more hits with Leigh, including "Witchcraft", introduced by Gerry Matthews in the nightclub revue Take Five (1955), and recorded by Sinatra the following year.

In 1958 Coleman and Leigh were asked to submit four songs for the proposed musical Gypsy. They did not get the show, but one of the numbers, "Firefly", written for the character of Baby June, became a hit for Tony Bennett, who had another Coleman-Leigh success the following year, "The Best is Yet to Come". Another night-club revue, Demi-Dozen, was the source of the team's song, "You Fascinate Me So", and Coleman wrote music for the stage play Compulsion, but the first Broadway musical to have a complete score by Coleman was Wildcat (1960), starring Lucille Ball.

The much-loved television comedienne was to make her Broadway début after the break-up of her marriage to Desi Arnaz, and the show's director-choreographer Michael Kidd asked Coleman and Leigh to write the songs. "The hardest song we had to write was the first one, because we were nervous, and it was for Lucille Ball." Though daunted by the fact that the song was to be the star's big opening number, the pair wrote "Hey, Look Me Over" quickly, then dismissed it as being too simple and unsophisticated. They wrote several alternativee numbers for the spot, but it was the first that was used, and became the show's biggest hit. The pair gave Ball another show-stopper, the duet "What Takes My Fancy", but Wildcat was poorly received by critics, and after six months it closed when exhaustion forced Ball's withdrawal.

Their next show, Little Me (1962), based on Patrick Dennis's best-selling pastiche of show-business autobiographies, had a libretto by Neil Simon, and was primarily a vehicle for the television comedian Sid Caesar, who played seven roles. The dancer Sven Svenson had a show-stopper with the seductive "I've Got Your Number", and when the show was produced in London in 1964, starring Bruce Forsyth, another hit emerged. "Real Live Girl", considered for cutting from the Broadway production, became popular during the London run and was recorded by Jack Jones. During the show's production, the battles between Leigh and Coleman were prolific. "Carolyn and I were well known for battling. We fought about everything. Carolyn was a perfectionist, but also stubborn and unyielding."

The pair ultimately parted, and Coleman brought the veteran lyricist Dorothy Fields out of retirement to write with him the score for Sweet Charity (1964), with a book again by Neil Simon, based on the Fellini film Nights of Cabiria. Gwen Verdon starred as the ever-hopeful taxi dancer Charity Hope Valentine, a role played by Shirley MacLaine in the film version. Besides "Big Spender", sung by the jaded girls at a seedy dance hall, the score included another hit, Charity's "If My Friends Could See Me Now". The film version, starring Shirley MacLaine, featured Sammy Davis, who brought popularity to another of the songs, "The Rhythm of Life".

Coleman and Fields teamed again for Seesaw (1973), an adaptation of William Gibson's play Two for the Seesaw, written, directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett and starring Michele Lee and Ken Howard. Lee's wryly pessimistic opening number, "Nobody Does It Like Me", has endured, along with the ebullient "It's Not Where You Start, It's Where You Finish", performed in the show by Tommy Tune.

Coleman followed it with I Love My Wife (1977), a small-scale musical about wife-swapping written with Michael Stewart. A modest hit which pleased audiences more than it did critics, its musical highlight was the rousing "Hey There, Good Times". A London production starred Richard Beckinsale. Coleman then wrote one of his most ambitious scores, for a musical version of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur farce Twentieth Century.

Directed by Harold Prince, On the Twentieth Century (1978) had book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and Comden later said,

It took place in the Thirties and none of us wanted to do a Thirties pastiche. What happened was, Cy Coleman sat down one day and improvised things, like Rossini. We knew then that it should have this comic opera flavour, and we knew where to go with it.

Coleman's delightful score evokes not only Rossini, but elements of Offenbach, Gilbert and Sullivan and Romberg, and the New York Times critic, Richard Eder, praised the creative team for bringing back "what seemed dead or at least endangered: the comedy in musical comedy". The show won Coleman the first of his three Tony Awards for best score. In 1980, a London production starred Keith Michell, Julia McKenzie and Ann Beach.

Barnum (1980), Coleman's next Broadway musical, had a more conventional score, but was a hit show with a dazzling central performance by Jim Dale, and it proved equally successful in London, with Michael Crawford earning plaudits for his tour de force as the legendary showman Phineas T. Barnum. Coleman became a Broadway producer for the first time on Barnum, though he had produced television specials, winning an EmmyAward for a 1976 musical Gypsy in my Soul, starring Shirley MacLaine.

He won his second Tony award for the hilarious pastiche of films noir, with hard-boiled detectives and glamorous ladies of deceit, City of Angels (1980), although his inventive jazz-based score, a clear labour of love, sometimes evoked the Fifties rather than the Forties.

Coleman then rejoined Comden and Green for The Will Rogers Follies (1981), a lavish biography of the renowned cowboy (Keith Carradine). It survived tepid revues to become a hit, and won the composer his third Tony Award. It was to be Coleman's final Broadway success, with later shows Welcome to the Club (1989) and The Life (1997) having brief runs. Coleman also wrote film scores, including Father Goose (1964) and The Heartbreak Kid (1972).

In 1997 he finally married, and three years later he and his wife Shelby Brown had a daughter, Lily Cye. Never considering retirement ("I'm lucky to be in a profession where you can keep getting better"), he was working on several projects at the time of his death.

Tom Vallance



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