Nov 22, 2004

A Sigh for Cy

"The Rhythm Of Life is a powerful beat
Puts a tingle in your fingers and a tingle in your feet
Rhythm in your bedroom
Rhythm in the street
Yes, The Rhythm Of Life is a powerful beat"

Cy Coleman was a gentleman's composer, a uniquely eclectic voice in Broadway musicals. He started as a classical piano prodigy who got sick of the practice hours and discovered jazz, wrote standards for bands and pop singers in the 1950s, then got into writing musicals. Easily his best, and one of the coolest Broadway musicals not written by Kander and Ebb, is Sweet Charity.

I had the good fortune to interview Mr. Coleman last year in conjunction with the Taper's Like Jazz, and found him spry, witty, and urbane, a Bronx boy made good. Some gems from our interview:

Coleman's first musical was Wildcat, a vehicle for Lucille Ball, who, according to Coleman, had "a range of five notes. Then my reward was Little Me, for Sid Caesar--who has a range of four notes."

I asked him whether he'd been approached about doing a major Broadway revue of his hits, and he said he wasn't very interested: "A lot of these things happen because the composer goes after it. I'm just one of those people who don't want to go back and look at all that; it's over. I just keep moving and looking forward; it's my nature. People ask, 'What's your favorite song?' I say, 'The one I'm writing.' They get very disgusted with me."

He started playing supper clubs in his late teens. But he wasn't happy being background music: "They'd say, 'Cy, you're playing too loud, we can't talk!' And my answer was, 'If you didn't talk so loud, I wouldn't have to play so loud!' "

"I played Bop City opposite Ella Fitzgerald and Illinois Jacquet. Ella said nice things to me; she was a very sweet woman. I had to follow Illinois and her doing 'Flying Home'; I didn't even have a drum, I had guitars in my trio. And she said, 'Cy, calm down. You're never going to play louder than me and Illinois doing "Flying Home," so why don't you just cool it, do your thing? They'll come to you eventually.' It was sweet advice--the best advice I could have possibly gotten at that time."

On the writing process: "The minute you start, it's always too late. You can't have enough time. Now, that’s good and that's bad. But that's the way it is."

"People ask, 'When you see a beautiful sunset, do you go home write some wonderful thing?' I say, 'No, I'm more like Beethoven: opus 1, 2, 3, and 4.' But that's not true exactly; I'm affected by things, but it has to come into my blender and then it comes out.

"For example, in The Life, the duet at the end between the two girls, that's a killer. I was in Scotland looking at the fog and the ducks flying and a melody came to me. Now, it's a very raw, R&B kind of score, but I decided to use that melody; it had a very rural feeling. There was a purity there."

There was indeed.

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