On June 14th 1929, 91 years ago, Cy Coleman the great tunes-smith who traversed the music worlds of pop, musical theater and jazz during the 20th century was born. In his lifetime, Cy Coleman has collected many accolades for his music, penned over fourteen musical scores, ten of which have been performed on Broadway, wrote several popular songs that would not only be in the national consciousness but also become jazz standards covered by many artists over the decades in addition to serving as the Board of Directors of ASCAP for 38 years to protect the music rights of himself and his fellow musicians.
My personal adoration for Cy Coleman’s musicals began when I was just starting college back in 2015 where I was exposed to two of his musicals, Barnum and On The Twentieth Century. I immersed myself into those shows, repeatedly listened to the cast albums and made me want to explore more scores composed by Cy Coleman. I have been exploring his gigantic catalog ever since. I have used many of his songs for auditions over the years; “You’ve Come Home” from Wildcat has been my go to Golden Age ballad number for three years, “Double Talk” from City of Angels to audition for Sunset Boulevard and “Come Follow The Band” from Barnum for the ensemble of The Music Man, just to name a few! Recently I purchased a copy of Coleman’s biography by Andy Propst titled, You Fascinate Me So and I have been reading all about Coleman’s life during the quarantine. On June 14th, when I saw it was his birthday on social media, I had an insane itch to write all my personal thoughts, opinions about his musicals and to profess my love for Cy Coleman’s artisity with all the information I know about him thus far. The following I have written are subjects about certain recurring themes, patterns and styles I’ve noticed when listening to Cy Coleman’s scores in addition to my personal opinions about his legacy and presence in musical theater history. These are also topics not discussed in biography.
Themes in Cy Coleman’s Shows
Throughout his shows, certain themes and theatrical concepts keep recurring in Cy Coleman’s musicals which might showcase the type of stories and structures that interested him. The first recurring theme is theatrical men who are in the entertainment business and the women in their lives who oppose those men for divulging in that business. In Barnum, the title character wants to live his life in the main ring, full of bright colors and indulge in the pleasures of humbug with his fantastical attractions. His wife, Charity, is the opposite. She is a stern Connecticut Yankee who lives her life in soft earthy colors, as she sings about in her song “The Colors of My Life (Reprise)”. Charity opposes any kind of humbug and wishes her husband would take a quiet respectable job such as her job defending women’s emancipation. In The Will Roger Follies, the famed vaudevillian falls in love with Betty Blake who states that Will’s roping act is “the most disgusting spectacle I have ever witnessed”. She discloses throughout the show that she wished Will would give up show business all together and that their children do not follow in their father’s footsteps. In the song, “No Man Left For Me”, she laments that Will is so busy traveling the world furthering his different careers that she feels forgotten by him and lonely. In City of Angels, Stine is a witty writer who battles with a maniacal Hollywood producer over the creation of a screenplay based on his book about a Private Eye, Stone. Stine’s wife, Gabby, has great respect for her husband but does not respect the fact that Stine is going to be selling out to Hollywood. As she sings in the number “It Needs Work”, “I’d rather see you shoot yourself/Then watch you prostitute yourself”. In On The Twentieth Century, Oscar Jaffee is the grande dame of theatrical impresarios. His pygmalion creation, Mildred Poltka turned to the glamorous Lily Garland, is detested when she is asked to come back to the theatrical endeavours of Oscar Jaffee. “I’d rather die” she meinically explains in her song “Never”.
Another theme that re-occurs in Cy Coleman’s shows are stories about strong and fiercely independent women who are tired of being thwarted by the men in their lives. Sweet Charity, Little Me and The Life are about those very same subjects and feature some of the most fabulously fierce women in the musical theater cannon. In Little Me, Belle will do anything to live life ‘on the other side of the tracks’. In order to do so Belle tries to marry Nobel, the man who can allow her dreams to come true. However, when Nobel’s mother wouldn’t allow her son to marry a girl such as Belle, Belle spends the rest of the show trying to find what she wants in anray of varieties with an array of different men. These men from Mr. Pinchley to Val Du Val to Prince Cherney continually thwart her plan by comically dying making the process longer for Belle to acquire a life of wealth and stature. The title character in Sweet Charity laments her rotten luck with her ex-boyfriend Charlie in the number, “Charity’ Soliloquy”. Later in Act I, Charity demands with her friends Nicike and Helene that “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This”. The ladies dream of jobs that could get them away from a life of creepy men who ask them for a dance with their “groping, grabbing, clutching, clinching, strangling, handling, bumbling, pinching”. The Life features Queen(ie) who throughout the whole show tries to get away from ‘the life’ of prositution and her abusive lover, Fleetwood. She expresses her frustration with Fleetwood’s treatment of her in numbers such as “He’s No Good”, “We Had A Dream”, and “I’m Leaving”. Also in The Life, the spunky prostitutes of New York City are tired of being harassed by the Gospel Group and the Police and they express their anger with the musical numbers “My Body” and “Why Don’t They Leave Us Alone”. In City of Angels, Gabby, Stine’s wife and Oolie, the fictional Stone’s secretary, are tired of being the great minds behind the men in their lives and both lament in the number, “What You Don’t About Women”. Later in the second act, Oolie and her technicolor counterpart, Donna, reflect on how they have been used by men throughout their lives in the number, “You Can Always Count on Me”. Other fierce and spunky woman who run the show in Cy Coleman’s musicals include Wildey from Wildcat, the streetwise Gittle Mosca from SeeSaw, the frigid champion of women’s rights, Charity in Barnum and the grand diva Lily Garland in On The Twentieth Century (Oscar and Bruce both sing in the number, “Mine”, “She runs the show”).
A theatrical convention that Cy Coleman reuses in his musicals is the use of an onstage quartet. These quartets of four men (with the exception of City of Angels) act as the show’s greek chorus and their songs gently comment on the action. Furthermore, these quartets sing a song at the top of Act Two that is used to not only welcome the audience back after intermission but also summarize the story or the story’s optimistic message to impart on the audience. I Love My Wife features four musicians dressed in Santa suits who play the score of the entire show and sing songs by themselves that comment on the action occurring between the two couples such as “Hey There Good Times” (sung at the top of Act 2) and “Scream”. On The Twentieth Century the following year features four train porters who insert themselves into the action of several scenes, help transition scenes (“Oscar Jaffe/Lily Garland”) and at the top of Act Two sing the philosophical “Life Is Like A Train” before returning to the story on the train. In City of Angels the quartet known as the Angel City 4 opens the first and second act with “The City of Angels Theme” (second act version of the song summaries both of the evening’s stories). The Studio Singers are inserted into both the black and white and technicolor stories being told as shown in the number “Everybody’s Gotta Be Somewhere”. The other songs they sing, “Stay with Me” and “Look Out for Yourself”, indirectly comment on the action. In The Will Rogers Follies a male quartet of cowboys sing the “do-whop” and jazz harmonies throughout the show (usually tagged along with Zigfeild’s Favorite) in such songs as “Will-A-Mania”, “Give A Man Enough Rope”, “We’re Heading For A Wedding/I’ve Got You” and “Presents for Mrs. Rogers”. At the beginning of Act 2 they sing and dance to a reprise of the philosophical “Give A Man Enough Rope”. In the musical The Life, Jojo is the main pimp of the story and the narrator. He and his fellow pimps sing the opening of Act One and Two that reflect the story’s themes, “Use What You Got” in Act One and “Mr. Greed” in Act Two. In the 1999 revival of Little Me, Belle starts the show with the title number accompanied by her male quartet known as Belle’s Boys.
The Music of Cy Coleman
Whenever Cy Coleman’s shows are reviewed by the critics, no matter what the show is or how bad the show was reviewed, a high majority of critics unanimously praise Cy Coleman’s for music and great tunes. I firmly believe that Cy Coleman’s music is usually what people most enjoy about his shows. With the exception of Wildcat, all of his shows have either won or have been nominated for a Tony Award for Best Score. He has won three times for Best Score and in 1991 was a composer who enjoyed the success of winning Best Score and Best Musical two years in a row for City of Angels in 1990 followed by Will Rogers Follies in 1991.
The following are aspects about Cy Coleman’s music that stuck out to me while listening to his music, the certain musical techniques he uses to tell the story of his musicals and re-occurrences within his scores.
The first aspect is Cy Coleman’s use of pastiche and the use of content dictating form in order to create a musical style for the show. His use of pastiche or using certain musical styles for his shows communicates to the audience the time the story is taking, the musical sounds of the era and to connect the characters to other music or previous entertainers. While Cy Coleman is using those techniques, underneath the music you can still hear his jazzy style layered beneath the song if you listen very closely. It’s one of the reasons I adore him because he’s a great musical chameleon, able to brilliantly pastiche a number or write in a certain musical style yet still be able to put his own signature stamp on his songs. In discussing Cy Coleman’s music, composer Marc Shaiman has commented that, “Cy could write in any style and always make it entertaining for the masses yet tasty to we musicians”.
Here are examples and a study of Cy Coleman using pastiche and certain musical styles for each one of his shows. With Wildcat and Little Me, although some of the songs in the score are pastiche or have a musical style (ex. “Boom Boom” from Little Me pastiches the kind of number Maurice Chevalier would perform and “What Takes My Fancy” from Wildcat in the musical style of an old fashioned western tavern song ) the music in those two shows overall resemble the golden age musical comedies of its day. Sweet Charity, SeeSaw and I Love My Wife represent a mixture of Broadway show tunes with the sounds of the late 60s and 70s. It’s not till On The Twentieth Century, Cy Coleman really dives into pastiche or using a distinct music style with On The Twentieth Century pastiching European Operetta. As Walter Kerr wrote in his review for the show “Mr. Coleman’s resources are up to the rushing demands, and the playful musical mockery (Bizet and Romberg included) pays off in a final, fraudulent, Tristan‐like death scene as it might have been done by a conniving Nelson Eddy and an insincere Jeanette MacDonald”. In Barnum, Cy Coleman’s uses different styles of music from the turn of the century; ragtime (“Thank God I’m Old”, “Black and White”), Gilbert & Sullivan (“Museum Song”, “Love Makes Such Fools of Us All”), John Phillp Sousa (“Come Follow The Band”) in addition to circus music (“Join the Circus” and the chases of the show). City of Angels pastiches the pop music of the ‘40s (“Stay With Me”, “Look Out For Yourself”), torch songs (“With Every Breath I Take”), the film scores of Max Steiner (“Alaura’s Theme”) and film noir music (“City of Angels Theme”, “L.A. Blues”). Every number in Will Rogers Follies is a pastiche of a certain type of music associated with the Zigefeild Follies or the cowboy sounds of Will Rogers. Some examples of pastiche in the show include big vaudeville numbers (“Big Time”, “It’s A Boy”, “Favorite Son”), Native American music (“Will-A-Mania: Indian Section”), in addition to the grand music that was used in the Ziegfeld Follies (“Presents For Mrs. Rogers”, “Marry Me Now/I’ve Got You”, “My Big Mistake (Reprise)”). Cy Coleman’s music in The Life, resembles his work he did with Sweet Charity, SeeSaw and I Love My Wife, the mix between the jazzy Broadway show tunes Cy Coleman writes so well (“Hookers Ball”, “Use What You Got”, “People’s Magazine”) and the music of 70’s (“Piece of the Action”, “Lovely Day to Be Out of Jail”). The only number that would be considered a pastiche is “You Can’t Get To Heaven”.
The following below are some of the other musical techniques that Cy Coleman uses in his songs for his shows and the examples that showcase style.
Call and Response: two musical phrases, unusually identical, in which one phrase is heard as in response to the second phrase.
- Sweet Charity
- Big Spender (“Hey Big Spender!”, brass responds)
- City of Angels
- What You Don’t Know About Women
- The Tennis Song (Singers and orchestra responds)
- All You Have To Do Is Wait (Singers and orchestra responds)
- Will Rogers Follies
- Will-A-Mania (“He’s got more fans then Shirley Temple”)
- Give A Man Enough Rope
- My Big Mistake (Wind instruments respond)
- We’re Heading For A Wedding/Marry Me Now/I Got You
- Presents For Mrs. Rogers
- The Colors of My Life
- I Like Your Style (“Each blessed day we sweetley fill”)
- Come Follow The Band
- It’s Not Where You Start
- On The Twentieth Century
- Title Song
- Together (“To know my favorite star is not so very far” and “She’s getting on”)
- Our Private World (“You opposite me, opposite you”)
- Life Is Like A Train (“You get on the beginning”)
- Sextext (“I believe in Oscar Jaffe”, brass responds)
- Five Zeros
- Lily, Oscar
- The Life
- Use What You Got (male pimps respond on pitch)
- My Body
- Mr. Greed
- I Love My Wife
- By Three
- Title Song (Piano responds)
- A Mover’s Life
- Married Couples
Counterpoint: the relationship between voices which are harmonically interdependent yet independent in rhythm and contour
- Sweet Charity
- Rhythm of Life
- Hey Look Me Over (Jannie sings the melody while Wildcat sings the counterpoint)
- Will Rogers Follies
- Give A Man Enough Rope (“A guy could choose to run a bank” conterpointed against harmonica)
- We’re Heading For A Wedding/Marry Me Now/I Got You
- City of Angels
- Everybody’s Gotta Be Somewhere (Counterpoint: “Where’s that dame” sequence)
- On The Twentieth Century
- Sextet (Sign, Lily, Sign)
- Together (Second verse with the passengers complaining, “You’re crowding, You’re pushing, She’s waving, She’s smiling”)
- One Brick at a Time (Counterpoint: “Just take a brick and place it on the ground”)
- Out There (Counterpoint in the trumpets)
- I Love My Wife
- Hey There Good Times/By The Way If You A Free Tonight
- I Love My Wife/In Conclusion
To give you an example of counterpoint in addition to call and response, here is one of Cy Coleman’s best theater songs, “We’re Heading For A Wedding/Marry Me Now/I’ve Got You” from The Will Rogers Follies. You also see the onstage quartet singing the tight jazz harmonies as previously discussed in this analysis.
- Call and Response
- 0:36, Will calls and girls respond
- 1:00, Will calls and girls respond
- 1:30, Will calls and girls respond
- 2:48, woodwinds and bells respond
- 2:15, Quartet and Will counterpoint Betty Blake’s melody
- 3:05, Counterpoint between chorus “We’re Heading for A Wedding” and orchestra playing Will’s melody “Marry Me Now”
Other recurring musical styles that pop up in Cy Coleman’s show include operatic-esque soliloquies usually sung the female protagonist about five minuets long (“Charity’s Soliloquy”, “I’m Way Ahead”, “Sextet/Together”, “The Legacy”, “The Oldest Profession”), Recitative numbers (“I’ve Got It All”, “Oh Daddy”, “Go Home”, “We Gotta Go”) and band marches (“Hey Look Me Over”, “Sextet”, “Scream”, “She’s A Brass Band”, “Come Follow The Band”).
The next topic concerning Cy Coleman’s music is my favorite piece he wrote:
The Overture from On The Twentieth Century
It’s Cy Coleman’s best overture and I strongly believe it’s one of the greatest overtures of musical theater, up there with the overture to Gypsy and Candide. The Overture communicates the story of the musical and is similar to the big Act II number, the “Sextext” in which Lily Garland must choose whether or not to sign the Contract. Will she go back to the theatrical world of Oscar Jaffe or remain in the tawdry world of Hollywood with her egotistically silly beau, Bruce Granit? Furthermore, the overture musically introduces the audience to the character’s musical themes in addition to getting the audience ready for the exhilarating and fun train ride about to commence.
- Section A: The Title Song, “On The Twentieth Century”. The porters are helping the passengers settle in for the upcoming journey on the luxury liner.
- Section B: The train starts to pick steam and starts its journey as we hear Oscar Jaffe’s musical plee in the cellos, bass and trombones, “You must come back”.
- Section C: Oscar Jaffe’s melody of “You must come back” mixed with Lily Garland’s melody “Hear my heart hammer”. Oscar’s melody also doubles as the train moves across the tracks.
- Section D: The song “Together”. Lily Garland is exhilarated that her long lost love Oscar and herself are reunited once again on the train together.
- Section E: Oscar’s “You must come back” theme is heard once again before transitioning into the song “Mine”, Bruce Granit’s theme which is a variation of Oscar Jaffee’s “You must come back” theme. You can hear how braggy and boutrous he is with the trumpets and cymbals.
- Section F: The song “Our Private World”. Oscar’s love song to Lily.
- Section E: The song “Sign, Lily, Sign”. Owen and Oliver (basson) are convincing Lily Garland to sign the contract.
- Section F: “Sign it Lily” is intertwined with “I’ve Got It All”. While Owen and Oscar plead, “Sign it Lily, Sign it Lily, Sign it Lily!”, Ms. Garland is thinking about how splendidly her life is in Hollywood, why would she go back when she has it all?
- Section G: “I’ve Got It All” is intertwined with train speeding.
- Section H: The train is speeding faster and faster, almost going off the rails (violins) as we are introduced to the religious nut, Miss. Primrose (the horns).
- Section I: The train is speeding with “The Title Song” as it approaches Grand Central Station.
- Section J: Havoc on the train with the “She’s A Nut” theme, a wild goose chase. The train finally arrives and we end on a grand operatic ending.
Cy Coleman’s Legacy and Popularity
I have gone to see Chita Rivera in Concert each time she came to the Los Angeles area, once in 2017 and 2018. Before she would perform the number “Rhythm of Life” from Sweet Charity, Ms. Rivera would introduce Cy Coleman’s name as the man who wrote the song. Dead silence. Each time I’ve seen her. She would then have to say, “I’ll wait for that” and force the applause out of people to recognize Cy Coleman.
When the New York Public Library did it’s exhibit to pay tribute to Director Hal Prince, the informational board that discussed On The Twentieth Century not once discussed nor even mentioned Cy Coleman’s name as main contributor to the show.
When we think of great theater composers, we usually think of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Kander & Ebb, Jerry Herman, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Frank Lesser. Cy Coleman is usually near the bottom of this list or is usually not even mentioned.
How could this be so? How could it be that Cy Coleman and his work be felt forgotten at times? A good majority of his Broadway shows were successful hits, he wrote more musicals or as many shows as the composers listed above, several of his songs from those shows became jazz standards such as “Hey Look Me Over”, “I’ve Got Your Number” and “Here’s To Us” in addition to his song “Big Spender” being one of the quintessential numbers in the Broadway songbook. Well, here are my possible theories on Cy Coleman’s legacy thus far in 2020.
The first theory, I inquaried while I am reading his biography, could be that he had a life that might be considered “basic” compared to those of other composers. He grew up becoming a musical prodigy, became a jazz pianist in the 50’s then spent the rest of life creating Broadway musicals. Now compare this with Stephen Sondheim whose surrogate was Oscar Hammerstein II, Cole Porter who married a woman and struggled with being a homosexual throughout his career or Leonard Bernstein who also started as musical prodigy, later conducted for the New York Philarmoic and was targeted by political leaders throughout his career. Cy Coleman may not be interesting for musical theater historians to learn about or dissect compared to other composers, Sondheim and Bernstein for example have several books that analyze their lives and their works.
My second theory is because none of his shows changed musical theatre or broke new ground. In college, I had a book/DVD Documentary for my Musical Theater History entitled “Broadway: The American Musical”. The book/DVD documentary discussed the evolution of the American Musical and the shows that helped evolve the Broadway musical to what it was up to 2004. The documentary not once mentioned his name nor a single show he created and Coleman only received an honorable mention in the book when it’s author spotlighted, On The Twentieth Century, as a good show to footnote and called him a “fixture”. And unfortunately it’s true, although his shows had interesting subjects and spectacular music to accompany those stories, the shows were usually structured as traditional musicals and didn’t elevate the Broadway musical to a new level (compared to other shows like Cabaret, Hair, Les Miserables, etc.)
Furthermore none of his musicals come with a cynical edge (although Sweet Charity comes close but that is because of Bob Fosse’s vision) compared to composers like Kander & Ebb or Sondheim. His shows all end happily (one way or another) and his songs are infused with toe tapping joy. Musical theater historians and music critics may not be interested in his musicology possibly because they think his music is too standard compared to Bernstein, Porter or Sondheim. However I disagree, I think his music is rich and interesting to look into (have you listened to City of Angels lately?). Cy Coleman’s music makes me want to study musicology and music theory just so I could discuss how simple yet complex his music is at the same time.
In regards to his shows’ popularity, many of his shows have become cult classic favorites with the musical theater elite, especially shows such as City of Angels and The Life with thanks due to the show’s cast albums. And although his shows do indeed get produced, they only get produced once in a while compared to the catalog of other composers such as Alan Menken or Rodgers and Hammerstein. His shows often show up in companies who celebrate forgotten musicals. In 2019, Musical Theatre Guild produced Barnum, J2Spotlight produced SeeSaw in 2019 as well, and in 2014 City Center Encores presented Little Me. Only three of his ten shows have had Broadway revivals and are usually limited engagements; Little Me twice revived, Sweet Charity twice revived (and once Off-Broadway) and On The Twentieth Century in 2015 (Little Me in 1999 and On The Twentieth Century were both produced by Roundabout Theater Company). The following are my theories on why Cy Coleman’s shows don’t get produced very often.
My first theory is because a majority of his shows were not based on popular properties. While shows like I Love My Wife, SeeSaw and On Twentieth Century were based on plays, they were not household name plays like those of Arthur Miller or Noel Coward. Sweet Charity was based on the foreign film, Nights of Cabiria, however the musical was so remodeled into its own identity the only thing that’s left that resembles Night of Cabiria it’s the film’s plot line. City of Angels, Wildcat and The Life are all original musicals. Broadway musicals have always (and nowadays in particular) relied on popular properties to insure that people would be interested in purchasing tickets to those shows with musicals such as Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin, Beetlejuice, etc. To summarize, people like what they know and the properties that Cy Coleman based his work on are not exactly in the popular consciousness making it more difficult as today’s musical theater main business solely relies on popularity and brand name recognition.
My second theory is that Cy Coleman’s show demands certain types of specialty performers for his shows, above and beyond other shows that just require triple threats or actor-singers. Sweet Charity requires strong Fosse dancers, Barnum requires circus performers, I Love My Wife requires four strong musician singers, On The Twentieth Century requires it’s company, especially it’s leading lady, to be able to sing in the style of traditional European Operetta extremely well. City of Angels requires four singers to be able to sing jazzy scat with intricate harmonies and lyrics while The Will Rogers Follies requires four men to sing the tight jazzy scat harmonies, two strong cowboy ropes men, a Dog Act, in addition to large triple threat cast and budget. Without these specialty performers and special requirements for each show, the stories of these musicals can not be told properly or would feel inadequate without good specialty performers.
Despite the fact that Cy Coleman may not be considered as popular as other theater composers and there are not yearly tributes to him like Sondheim, it cannot be denied that Cy Coleman and his musicals have brought joy to many of his audiences who experience his shows in addition to bringing many great tunes to hum to as we exit the theater. Cy Coleman has raised the bar for complicated and tuneful jazz music on the Broadway music stage and his amazing musical legacy can be seen in many contemporary jazzy Broadway scores such as Catch Me If You Can, War Paint and Bandstand.
For you the reader, if you’re ever on a long car trip, are looking for a new Broadway score to listen to or need a good audition song, I highly suggest looking in the Cy Coleman catalog, you won’t be disappointed. And finally, I personally would like to thank Mr. Coleman for his amazing body of work, his scores have always been a joy to listen to, I certainly will not forget him nor his tuneful songs that always brighten my day. Mr. Coleman, you fascinate me so.
Video-ography: Here are some great videos to watch to see Cy Coleman’s work in action. Luckily three of his shows have been recorded in their entirety and are easily accessible on Youtube!
Supplemental Albums: If you’re a musical theater nut like me and have already listened to all of Cy Coleman’s musicals, here are some great albums to go look for to give a listen to! All of these albums are available on Youtube.
Photos for this blog are from the Broadway on Broadway and Fans of “On The Twentieth Century” Facebook groups.