Cy Coleman at the Rainbow Roomon Monday, November 15, 2004(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Cy Coleman at the Rainbow Room
on Monday, November 15, 2004
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
The highly respected composer Cy Coleman, whose jazzy style and chameleonic writing ability were demonstrated in his scores for Broadway shows as varied as Sweet Charity, On the Twentieth Century, and The Will Rogers Follies died last night of a heart attack. He was 75.

Though Coleman contributed music to the revue John Murray's Almanac and the play Compulsion, his first full Broadway score (with lyricist Carolyn Leigh) was for the 1960 Lucille Ball vehicle Wildcat. Though the show ran less than six months, it produced one standard ("Hey, Look Me Over") and launched Coleman's career as one of Broadway's most adaptable tunesmiths.

The raucous musical comedy Little Me, starring Sid Caesar and also featuring lyrics by Leigh, followed in 1962. With the legendary lyricist Dorothy Fields, Coleman wrote the songs for Sweet Charity, the Gwen Verdon-Bob Fosse show that produced the contemporary standards "Big Spender" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now." (A 1969 film version of the musical, directed by Fosse, starred Shirley MacLaine.) Coleman and Fields collaborated again on Seesaw (1973). All three of these shows received Tony Award nominations for Best Score, as did I Love My Wife (1977), which Coleman wrote with Michael Stewart.

Coleman won his first Tony Award for composing the music of the 1978 comic-operetta On the Twentieth Century, for which Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the lyrics. Future Tony Awards would come for his bluesy film noir score for 1989's City of Angels (written with David Zippel) and his Wild-West-meets-Big Broadway songs for The Will Rogers Follies (again with Comden and Green), the cast recording of which earned him two Grammy Awards. He earned additional Tony nominations for the big-top musical Barnum (1980) and the street-walker saga The Life (1997). Coleman also wrote the score for Welcome to the Club, which had a brief Broadway run in 1989. A revival of Sweet Charity, starring television actress Christina Applegate and Tony winner Denis O'Hare, is scheduled to open on Broadway in the spring.

Born Seymour Kaufman in 1929, Coleman began his career in his childhood as a classical pianist, playing Carnegie Hall, The Town Hall, and Steinway Hall between the ages of six and nine. During the 1950s, he played piano as a soloist and with groups in many clubs on the Manhattan jazz circuit, and he became a highly regarded songwriter; among his biggest hits were "Witchcraft," "The Best Is Yet to Come," "When in Rome," and "It Amazes Me." Coleman also scored a number of films including Father Goose, Power, Garbo Talks, and Family Business.

He was honored with a star-studded tribute at Avery Fisher Hall in 1992, and in 1994 he received both the Irvin Fold Humanitarian Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews and an honorary doctorate in music from Long Island University. Last month, Coleman had a gig at Feinstein's at the Regency. On November 6, the composer was feted by the Los Angeles theatrical community with an Actors' Fund of America benefit concert titled The Best Is Yet to Come: The Music of Cy Coleman. And, just this past Monday, he was honored by the Johnny Mercer Foundation in a gala at The Rainbow Room. Last evening, Coleman attended the Broadway opening of the Michael Frayn play Democracy and fell ill during the after-party at Tavern on the Green; his wife Shelby accompanied him to New York Hospital, where he collapsed and died.

Coleman is survived by his wife and his daughter, Lily; two sisters, Yetta Colodne and Sylvia Birnbaum; and several nieces and nephews. He was pre-deceased by two brothers, Sam and Adolph Kaufman. The League of American Theatres and Producers has announced that the marquee lights of all Broadway theaters will be dimmed for one minute at 8pm tonight to mourn Coleman's passing.