One of the most masterful if underappreciated composers of great musicals as well as monster hit pop songs, Cy Coleman is getting lots of well deserved attention this week. "It Started With a Dream," a new CD featuring evergreen Coleman songs performed by the man himself (as pianist and singer) and by guest artists Tony Bennett and Lillias White, will be released by Sony Classical on January 15. And on Friday, January 18, Coleman will join Skitch Henderson and the New York Pops for a celebratory concert featuring stars of his Broadway shows. I recently chatted with Mr. C. about these endeavors and about his new Grace Kelly musical.
THEATERMANIA: It's high time for a Cy Coleman celebration. You must be so looking forward to the Carnegie Hall event.
CY COLEMAN: Yes, but I can't even get seats! The Shuberts have called me asking for some, and I don't have any. I'm really kind of at my wits' end. Who'd have thought it?
TM: Was this Skitch Henderson's idea?
CC: Skitch has been trying to get me to do something like this for a few years now. I started doing symphony concerts about 10 or 12 years ago but I found that it was interfering with my other work, so I stopped. I wanted to get back in shape for this one.
TM: Do you always sing as well as play piano at these concerts?
CC: Yes. With the symphonies, it's mostly playing. When I studied piano with Adele Marcus at Juilliard, she told me I had the fastest octaves in town, so that's what I use! I was something of a child prodigy. In fact, I played in Carnegie Hall when I was about eight years old. Mind you, it wasn't a whole concert; it was part of a concert. But I did play there, more than once.
TM: You've been a major force in music for more than 40 years, yet you look so young. I sometimes forget that you began your career as a child.
CC: You know, I've had a few careers. I started off as a concert pianist, and I was very serious about it. I got a lot of scholarships. When I was a teenager, it was hard for me to make the decision that I wasn't going to do that anymore. I went from there into pop music and then into jazz. I was writing songs back then, but it was a secondary part of my career.
TM: Have you ever contemplated an opera?
CC: Yes, I have--but I haven't done it! I played around with the form in The Life. That show has recitatives and motifs. I would call it "semi-operatic." And On the Twentieth Century was written in kind of an operatic style. The show that I just did in Holland, Grace, also has operatic motifs...and the guy that plays Rainier is really an opera singer. What I tried to do was to combine European sensibilities with my own American sensibilities.
TM: Tell me about your new album.
CC: Well, it was two years in the making. I sat down with Mike Berniker, my old collaborator at Sony, and we carefully chose what would be on it. I had to do some of the famous stuff, of course, but I also included some new things that have special meaning for me. I wasn't thinking "theater," I was thinking "record." We have a full-size orchestra on the CD and everything was newly orchestrated by Brad Dechter. When Skitch asked me what I wanted to do at the concert, I played him the album, and he said: "My God, there it is!"
TM: So, the album is a retrospective?
CC: In a way. It covers a lot of territory but not in a linear fashion. It's more of an abstract biography. For example, we do "Witchcraft" in a way that's never been done before. We also included some dark, psychological songs that I wrote with Christopher Gore.
TM: Without giving away the store, can you give me an idea of what the Carnegie Hall concert will be like?
CC: The first half is dedicated to what we call "show stoppers." We'll open with the Sweet Charity suite we did at the AmFar benefit concert a few years ago. Then Randy Graff is going to do "You Can Always Count on Me," followed by Jim Dale doing Barnum and Lillias White doing "The Oldest Profession." The producer of Grace is flying the cast over from Holland, and they'll perform some things from that show. Then we have James Naughton and Gregg Edelman doing "You're Nothing Without Me," Larry Gatlin doing "Look Around," and the first half ends with Lillias and Pam Isaacs doing "My Friend" from The Life. In the second half, we'll change the mood completely: I'll come on and do about nine numbers. I think it's going to be a very exciting evening.