Cy Coleman is Broadway royalty, with more hit shows than any living American songwriter. The website of ASCAP calls him "a permanent jewel in Broadway's musical crown." His shows are from the same classic fabric as those of Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin. But not quite. Would any of those icons ever compose a song titled "Don't Fuck Around With Your Mother-In-Law"? Not likely. Cy Coleman did, demonstrating that he mixes tradition with hip modernity.

Coleman's personal life, too, is full of surprises. He's in his seventies and is the father of a four-year-old daughter. He married for the first time eight years ago.

David Zippel says: "Cy never wants to do the same thing twice. He is always looking for a fresh, original way to tell a story or write a song. He is always looking for a creative challenge. Each lyricist -- and I'm happy to be one of them -- sparks a different chemistry."

Coleman, born Seymour Kaufman, was the youngest child of a New York carpenter, Max, and his wife Ida, who gave Seymour piano lessons when he was four. "My mom owned four tenements in the Bronx, and that's where I grew up. When some tenants skipped out without paying the rent they left an upright piano, my parents moved it down to our apartment, and that's when I started to play. Then my parents bought an old farm in Monticello, New York, in the Catskills for $500 down, right across the road from Kutsher's resort hotel. My dad did the carpentry, and they built a bungalow community. My parents spoke Yiddish around the house, and so did a lot of people in the Catskills. My mom took me into New York sometimes to see Yiddish theater on Second Avenue. I remember seeing Molly Picon on stage there. And I remember the way they always put happy endings on every play. Hamlet lives happily ever after! We used that in the plot of our new show, The Great Ostrovsky, about a fictional, larger-than-life star of Yiddish theater in the 1920s. It's funny and it has a happy ending."

"My parents liked klezmer music but didn't have any musical abilities, nor did my older siblings. I was the youngest of five. But they gave me piano lessons." He became a child prodigy, training with the famed Adele Marcus, played at Carnegie Hall and entered the New York College of Music in his early teens. "Then I rebelled," says Coleman. "I wanted to do something on my own. The college said okay if you don't want to study piano anymore, you can be a conductor, but I said no to everything. There was something else I wanted to try."

"I started composing about age 16. As a pianist, I was accompanying a woman whose husband was a producer, Michael Myerberg. They sent me to a publisher they knew named Jack Robbins. Robbins called me `the new Gershwin,' and he asked me to write Gershwin's 4th, 5th and 6th preludes, and he published them. [Gershwin died after writing three very popular preludes.] But first Robbins decided that he had to give me a more commercial-sounding name. He said: `We're going to change Seymour Kaufman to Cy Coleman.' Nobody wanted the name Seymour -- it was so nebbishy -- so I was glad to change that to Cy, and he said the change of last name wasn't too extreme: 'It's close, and it's not like you're trying to escape Jewish."
"I called my mom, and she said, 'You want to change your name, be my guest. Do whatever makes you happy, Seymour.'"

Deciding to leave classical behind, he formed a jazz trio and began playing in clubs, "originals and standards, mainly Rodgers and Hart, and I used my technique too much, actually, at the beginning. The hardest part of doing jazz is to get the feel. Gradually I listened to the people I was with, like Ray Brown and Jo Jones, and relaxed and got into it."
He played opposite Sarah Vaughn at Cafe Society and Ella Fitzgerald at Bop City. "Ella said to me, 'Cy, you're never going to be louder than me and Illinois Jacquet doing "Flying Home," so just take it easy.' That was good advice." He used Erroll Garner and, later, the gentler Oscar Peterson as models.

"Serge Oblinsky wrote a column for the Herald Tribune, and he praised my club work. Serge also ran the cabaret at the Sherry Netherlands hotel, and he hired me to front a trio there. I came down from the Bronx on the subway, and in my opening night audience, I had Astors and Vanderbilts. What a contrast. They used to say, 'Cy, you're playing too loud,' and I said 'If you didn't talk so loud, I wouldn't have to play so loud.' But they loved me, they extended my run, and I literally moved into the Sherry Netherlands. I did 'Date in Manhattan' every morning for five years on New York radio and was a frequent guest on Kate Smith's show. So I had a big following.
"We played every nice club in New York --laces that no longer exist, like L'Aiglon, Perigord and Mabel Mercer's. We made recordings,and I was on TV all the time."

Coleman began a lifestyle that included lots of woman but no commitment until he was middle-aged. "Working in nightclubs, when you're in the spotlight, pretty women find you. I'd gets notes from people in the audience."

Coleman found it easy to compose. "I don't know how or why. It was natural. My whole life was music." As a club player Coleman wrote many of his own tunes and scored a big pop hit with "Why Try to Change Me Now." Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and others had hits with Coleman songs like "Witchcraft" and "The Best Is Yet to Come."

"A big executive at MCA offered me the job of fronting a big band which would play eight weeks at the Waldorf and tour the country. I said 'I'm sorry, Mr Dugan, but I want to do something more creative.' He was angry. He got up from behind his huge desk, walked around and pointed a finger in my face and said 'You're through in show business.' At 18 or 19, you get scared by that.

"My first lyric-writing partner was Joe McCarthy, Jr. His father wrote 'Alice Blue Gown' and 'I'm Always Chasing Rainbows.' Joe was ten years older than I was, and his paternalism bothered me. We had a clash of personalities. 'Why Try to Change Me Now' was put on the B side of 'Birth of the Blues,' Sinatra's last hit for Columbia before Mitch Miller dropped him. So it sold a lot of copies, and some people even turned over the record and listened to our song. It did stick around. Then Nat King Cole recorded 'I'm Going to Laugh You Right Out of My Life,' our second hit.

"I moved to 58th Street in a brownstone above the Italian restaurant Vicario's. The owner of that place bought The Playroom down the block and he said to me, 'Cy, if you play at my restaurant I'll give you half interest.' It was the worst decision I ever made, because the employees robbed me deaf, dumb and blind. Jackie Gleason used to bring friends in several times a week and William Holden practically had a reserved bar stool, but I wasn't making any money.

"At that time, I started writing with Carolyn Leigh, and we had a big hit with 'Witchcraft.' I was disgusted with the nightclub, so I quit that and started to write full time with Carolyn. We wrote a score to a Thurber story, and Abe Neuborn, our manager, managed to get us a huge advance from Feuer and Martin to do a show called Skyscraper. It never developed until years later, and by that time we weren't part of the project.
Meanwhile James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn were doing a show for Lucille Ball called Wildcat. They fought over something and the show needed a new songwriting team, so Michael Kidd recommended Carolyn and me. We tried it out at the Erlanger in Philadelphia in 1960, and our biggest song in it was 'Hey, Look Me Over.'"
(By coincidence, when Skyscraper made it to Broadway in 1965 it was with a score by Cahn and Van Heusen. See the story "A Too-Perfect Match" elsewhere in Periodica.)

Wildcat was a vehicle for Ball, and when she left the show, it was doomed. "She met Gary Morton and took off for London and married him. She was gone nine weeks and didn't pay the musicians while she was gone. (She was the producer, too.) The union wanted to be paid, and I said to them, "if you charge her for the nine weeks, she'll say she can't afford to re-open the show, and none of us will get anything.' But the union didn't listen to me, and she closed the show."

Little Me was a successful 1962 collaboration with Neil Simon, Carolyn Leigh, Bob Fosse and star Sid Caesar. For the second time, a Coleman show tried out in Philly. "It was in the tryout that we made a crucial change," he says. "Our first-act finale was falling on its ass. It was a song that went: 'Don't you fret, Lafayette, we are here.' We had cannons going off and Sid doing all his bits. Then Fosse said 'Let's try putting back the slow ballad 'Real Live Girl' to a ballet of soldiers.' He was right. We'd given the audience so much that they reached the saturation point, so they needed a change of pace to let it digest."

"When Little Me was at the Erlanger," Coleman recalls, "Bobby Fosse changed the staging of one of the songs, cutting out a few lines of the lyric. My partner, Carolyn, was furious, and she ran out of the theater onto Market Street, made a left turn and ran towards City Hall. She found a traffic cop and brought him back into the theater, where she commanded him to 'arrest that man' and she pointed to Fosse. She was an intense woman. We knew we had a hit when the cop asked if he could stay and watch the second act."

The collaboration of Coleman and Leigh was strictly professional. "She was a large woman, not my type. In fact she married two different men while we were partners. As you can tell from the story about the cop at the Erlanger Theater, she was very volatile. During one argument she told me, 'Maybe you should write with someone else!'

"Bob Fosse asked me to do Sweet Charity in 1965. I knew him from Little Me, of course, and Dorothy Fields had done the lyrics of Redhead for him. Sweet Charity was really a show for Gwen [Verdon] who was married to Bobby at the time. Fosse wrote the first book for it but knew it needed more, so he flew to Rome where Neil Simon was working on a film and showed up at Neil's door and played our songs for him." That show introduced the songs "Big Spender" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now."

"Dorothy was totally professional. She'd start every morning sharpening her pencils and sitting at a card table to write. When we worked together, sometimes I'd feel intimidated, and to break the tension I'd excuse myself to go to the bathroom, and sometimes while I was in the bathroom a melody would come to me. Dorothy was very smart. Whenever we'd be stuck she'd say: 'Cy, go to the bathroom.'"

Coleman resisted writing music for the Comden-and-Green adaptation of the old comedy The Twentieth Century "because the perception was that it would be a 1920s musical, and I didn't want to get stuck writing in that style. But then Betty and Adolph came up with the idea that the whole show was like a comic opera, so I wrote that type of score." (On the Twentieth Century, in 1978.)

Other Coleman shows include Seesaw, I Love My Wife, City of Angels and The Life. All were hits, or nearly so, on Broadway and the road. Coleman also wrote a smaller musical with A.E. (Aaron) Hotchner about men thrown in jail for not paying alimony, originally called Welcome to the Club and re-written as Exactly Like You. On this project Coleman wrote his first lyrics, collaborating with Hotchner. "I do know something about lyrics, and I knew how I wanted the songs to sound. We worked closely together, and I did that again with Corman on The Great Ostrovsky." Because the characters used the F-word, "and because Mamet uses the word all the time in his plays," Coleman wrote that song about the mother-in-law. More recently he wrote Grace, about Grace Kelly, which premiered in Amsterdam to Dutch lyrics. A. R. Gurney is working on an English-language version aimed at Broadway. Coleman also wrote for many films and has won Tonys, Emmys and Oscars galore.

Coleman and Fields created one musical that never was produced, Eleanor, about the life of Eleanor Roosevelt. Book troubles sidelined it, and then Fields died. Coleman says he liked the score, but all was not lost. "I kind of cannibalized it. I used tunes from it in Barnum, Will Rogers Follies -- "It's Not Where You Start, It's Where You Finish" -- and a new show, The Private Lives of Napoleon and Josephine.

Coleman is also at work with Zippel and Wendy Wasserstein on Pamela's First Musical. a story about Broadway based on a Wasserstein children's book.

Before those shows, New York may see an unusual musical that Coleman premiered in Los Angeles with lyrics by the Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Like Jazz. "It's about the people who inhabit the jazz world, the people who play in it. About the lives of the musicians, the managers, the people who hang out in the bars. It started as a cycle of jazz songs and became about jazz."


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Key Subjects: 
Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh, David Zippel, I Love My Wife, On the Twentieth Century, Wildcat, Lucille Ball, The Great Ostrovsky, Bob Fosse
Steve Cohen
Writer Bio: 
Steve Cohen has written numerous pieces for This Month ON STAGE magazine and
March 2004