Cy Coleman is to be honored in L.A. and New York, but what of the lyricists that he's worked with?
Okay. Coleman has two Tonys, two Grammys, three Emmys, and some Oscar nominations. But what I love about the man is not just his music, extraordinary as that is. What's almost as important to me is his choice of lyricists; he has always given chances to women and/or fledgling writers, two camps that have not been as welcome in musical theater as we all might have wished. Thus far, Coleman has had 12 Broadway (or Broadway-bound) musicals. On a vast majority of them, his lyricists have been women and/or neophytes.
Coleman's first four Broadway musicals had female lyricists. He wrote Wildcat (1960) and Little Me (1962) with Carolyn Leigh, with whom he's already written the pop hits "Witchcraft" and "The Best Is Yet to Come." Sweet Charity (1966) and Seesaw (1973) were penned with Dorothy Fields. Now, one could argue that Coleman was the lucky one to get the chance to work with Fields, who had written such standards as "I Can't Give You Anything but Love," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," and "I Won't Dance" -- not to mention her having had the idea for Annie Get Your Gun and having co-written a darned good book for it. But when Fields teamed up with Coleman to write The Small World of Charity, as it was then called, she hadn't written a Broadway show in almost seven years. Yes, that one -- Redhead -- did win a Tony, but few would offer it as Exhibit A of Fields' best work. Remember, too, that Fields was pushing 60 when she began work on Charity -- and not that far from 70 when she did Seesaw. (Indeed, she died just little more than a year after the show opened.) A collaborator who was nearly a quarter-century younger than she might have worried, rightly or wrongly, that she was past her prime. (Not that I would have. You know how the Beatles said "Strawberry Fields Forever? I'd say "Dorothy Fields Forever.") But Coleman didn't and wound up writing two fine scores with her. In fact, they wrote three together, if you care to count their 1969 Eleanor Roosevelt musical that didn't get on. Notice, too, that all five shows centered on women.
Granted, Coleman wrote his next show, I Love My Wife (1977) with a well-known theatrical name: Michael Stewart. But while Stewart was an acclaimed bookwriter (for no less than Bye Bye Birdie, Carnival, Hello, Dolly!, and George M!), he was an unknown quantity as a lyricist. I admire Coleman for giving Stewart the green light to write words to his music. They turned out pretty well and resulted in one of Coleman's bigger hits. (If you don't know I Love My Wife, it's about the then-trendy subject of wife-swapping; time has passed it by, despite the current TV "reality" show.) Not until his sixth Broadway show did Coleman work with a male lyricist -- and, even then, he collaborated with a female lyricist, too. If that sounds like a riddle, it's easily answered by the words "Betty Comden and Adolph Green." They all joined forces to produce the memorable On the Twentieth Century (1978).
Notice my careful way of stating a few paragraphs back that Coleman wrote "12 Broadway (or Broadway-bound) musicals." Home Again, Home Again (1979) closed out-of-town. This time, the composer teamed with a lyricist who was both female and untried: Barbara Fried. Alas, the show didn't work out and shuttered in Connecticut. While plenty of award-winning composers would have stopped taking phone calls from the novice who didn't deliver a hit, Coleman didn't give up so quickly on Fried. They continued to work on the show and almost successfully jump-started it again four years later under the new title 13 Days to Broadway. Let's applaud their tenacity.
While Coleman again worked with the now-experienced lyricist Michael Stewart on his next hit, Barnum (1980), they did collaborate with the not-very-experienced Mark Bramble as bookwriter. True, Stewart and Bramble were rumored to be romantically linked, but even so, Coleman showed his willingness to work with someone new. After he helped as "creative consultant" to another female songwriter (who was better known as a singer) -- Miss Peggy Lee, on her bio-musical Peg (1983) -- Coleman worked with an acclaimed man of letters, A.E. Hotchner, who'd had a big success with his Papa Hemingway book. But Hotchner wasn't an established Broadway lyricist and, no matter how accomplished you are in one field, you aren't automatically going to write a good Broadway musical. Indeed, Welcome to the Club (1989) was not a good show, but again, let's give the guys some credit for tenacity. They've continued to work on it. As recently as two years ago, it was still kicking around in regional theater under its fourth title -- meaning that it's had more titles than the combined number of perfomances of Dance a Little Closer, Onward Victoria, and The Utter Glory of Morrissey Hall.
Then came one of Coleman's most memorable shows, City of Angels (1989). The bookwriter, Larry Gelbart, was rich and famous from a musical (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), a play (Sly Fox), and a TV series (M*A*S*H), but he was also well-known for saying that "If Hitler is still alive, I hope he's out-of-town with a musical." Maybe that's why City of Angels didn't go out-of-town, but as it turned out, it didn't need to. Here, Coleman signed up to write songs with David Zippel. Zippel was and is talented, to be sure, but he too had had no Broadway experience; his résumé pretty much consisted of a few Off-Broadway revues and a couple of songs for Barbara Cook. Once again, Coleman took a chance with a comparative rookie, and in the process wrote a jazz score that I daresay no one else working on Broadway could have provided as skillfully. Then, after returning to work with Comden and Green on the Tony-winning The Will Rogers Follies (1991), Coleman once again gave a relative unknown lyricist, Ira Gasman, a break and wrote the moderately successful The Life (1997).
Coleman recently turned 75, a year that's associated with both diamond and platinum. They're perfect words to descibe not only his music but also his sense of adventure in choosing collaborators.