Cy Coleman was well on his way to becoming a composer of popular standards when he began his career as perhaps the most eclectic of all musical theater composers. A child prodigy, with his writing partner, Carolyn Leigh, tunes such as “Witchcraft” and “The Best is Yet to Come” became smash hits for Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra.
Along came Lucy
Following her divorce from Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball signed on to star in Wildcat, a musical about a feisty woman hoping to strike oil in Texas, circa 1912. Lucy was wrong for the role, but because of her star status and a huge advance sale, the show lasted 5 months before, admitting defeat, Lucy high-tailed it back to California to take over as CEO of Desilu Studios and star in two hit comedy series. Wildcat wasn’t a complete disaster, however. Later packaged for summer stock with Martha Raye, the show has one popular standard with “Hey Look Me Over.”
During this same period, Edward Everett Tanner, better known by his pen name, Patrick Dennis, wrote a series of bestselling novels. His first, Auntie Mame, had been dramatized and filmed, and was still touring the country. Readers demanded a sequel, so Around the World With Auntie Mame was published in 1958. Two novels, Guestward Ho and House Party were each adapted for television, the latter a series starring Phyllis Diller.
When Sid Caesar’s comedy series, Your Show of Shows had completed its run, Caesar decided it was time for a return to Broadway. This time, however he hired one of his TV writers, an up and coming playwright by the name of Neil Simon, to adapt the source material, Dennis’ hilarious novel, Little Me. Coleman and Leigh wrote the score which included a number of good tunes, including “I’ve Got Your Number,” “Here’s To Us,” and “Poor Little Hollywood Star.” It was co-directed by producer Cy Feuer and choreographer Bob Fosse, whose “Rich Man’s Rag” was a highlight of the show.
Ever versatile, Caesar played all seven male roles, characters romantically linked to Belle Poitrine (nee Schlumpfert), an attractive, but poverty-stricken girl from the “other side of the tracks” in Venezuala, Illinois. She falls in love with the wealthy Noble Eggleston, but they can’t marry until she acquires wealth, culture and social position. Along the way, Belle finds herself a murder suspect, vaudeville performer, wife, widow, mother, film star and eventually, Countess Zoftig.
Bob Fosse won the fourth of nine Tony Awards for his work here. Little Me has had three revivals (including a performance by Encores), one of which starred Martin Short. Along with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Little Me is considered the funniest musical ever written. It hasn’t been presented in the Twin Cities for decades, but with such an exceptional script and score, it’s time for this musical to make a comeback. That way, audiences could hear the Coleman-Leigh score live, enjoy Neil Simon’s book and see what local talents could do with Little Me.
Leigh and Coleman never teamed again. Coleman’s next two shows were written with Dorothy Fields. The daughter of Vaudeville performer Lew Fields, she collaborated with her brother on the libretto for Annie Get Your Gun. Coleman helped revive her career late in her life. Their first show, Sweet Charity, brought most of the Little Me team back together. Directed and choreographed by Fosse, with a script by Neil Simon, the show starred Fosse’s wife and muse, Gwen Verdon. It was, of course, a massive hit, with such tunes as “Big Spender,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now” and “I’m a Brass Band.”
Riding the Seesaw
Coleman and Fields enjoyed collaborating so much, they found a similar property so they could use some of their unused compositions from Sweet Charity. In the early 1950s, William Gibson’s two-hander, Two for the Seesaw starred Henry Fonda and introduced Anne Bancroft to Broadway. The show is about the brief relationship of Jerry Ryan, a Nebraska lawyer in New York awaiting a divorce and Gittel Mosca, a dancer (with an ulcer), hoping for her big break.
On the road, Seesaw, as it was now titled, was in serious trouble. The producers brought in Michael Bennett to direct and Lainie Kazan lost the first of two jobs in the same season (she was later fired from a revival of The Women.) Bennett also brought Ken Howard and Michele Lee in to star, and created a role for his co-choreographer, Tommy Tune. The script and score were reworked and, under Bennett’s guidance, Seesaw became a lyrical love-letter to New York City. In addition to such clever songs as “Nobody Does It Like Me,” “Welcome to Holiday Inn” and “Spanglish,” the high-point was “It’s Not Where You Start,” a dazzling production number featuring the long-legged Tune dancing up a flight of stairs as chorus dancers wearing leotards and balloons swirled around him.
With reasonably small cast requirements, if it’s played as a celebration of the 1970s, Seesaw is a perfect romantic show.
Over the years, Coleman has contributed the scores for I Love My Wife with its 1970s sitcom themes; Barnum, featuring romantic circus themes; City of Angels, a 1940s Film Noir onstage and The Life, with a tough as nails, character-driven score, among other shows. Listening to the cast recordings, all available from Amazon, Coleman’s versatility is quickly evident.
Theatrical Screwball Comedy
On the Twentieth Century has quite a pedigree. The libretto, by Betty Comden and Adolph Green is adapted from the play Twentieth Century by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. The story is most familiar from its 1933 film version, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Carol Lombard and John Barrymore in perhaps their best screen performances. This movie ushered in the genre of the screwball comedy, which also includes It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby and it’s ultimate achievement, His Girl Friday, Hawks’ 1940 adaptation of Hecht and MacArthur’s The Front Page starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. (If you haven’t seen any of these classics, what are you waiting for?)
The story is set on-board the 20th-Century Limited, a luxurious train, travelling from Chicago to New York. Oscar Jaffee is a theater producer up to his neck in debt. His protégé, Lily Garland, now a movie star, is on board with her ill-mannered boyfriend, Bruce, hiding in her compartment. Through flashbacks, we learn how Oscar turned Lily into a star, and how he manipulates her into starring in his new, as yet unwritten drama. Chaos and laughter reign on this cross-country journey into madcap comedy. (On the 20th Century was scheduled for presentation this summer by Skylark Opera, however, this production has been postponed until further notice.)
The Will Rogers Follies
If there’s any musical that represents Coleman’s finest work, I think its The Will Rogers Follies. Subtitled “A Life in Revue,” the show features a script by Peter Stone, with lyrics by two of the theater’s most vital, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Based on the life and career of Will Rogers (1879-1935), cowboy, vaudeville performer, humorist, writer, actor and social commentator. The musical is set against the backdrop of a Ziegfeld production, the great man himself commenting as the story unfolds. (On Broadway, Ziegfeld was voiced by Gregory Peck). Many of Rogers’ famous quotes are used as titles for musical numbers especially “I Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like.” Rogers’ renowned rope tricks, sequences from a Wild West show, including (at least on Broadway) a dog act and some mildly risqué humor add flavor. It opens with a leggy showgirl, called simply, “Ziegfeld’s Favorite” and “Will-a-Mania” carries us to the center of this exciting show, at least the way a great showman would have told it!
Stone’s book covers Rogers’ history from the farmlands of Oklahoma, to vaudeville, his courtship of Betty Blake (Ziegfeld sets their first scene on the moon), to fatherhood, celebrity, a mock run for President in 1928 and his fateful flight to Alaska with Wiley Post. The Will Rogers Follies has a reasonable-sized cast, with more roles for women then men. Why not give this show a try?
Producing a musical with a score by Cy Coleman just might prove that “The Best is Yet to Come!”