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Coleman, Cy

Coleman, Cy

(b. 14 June 1929 in New York City; d. 18 November 2004 in New York City), pianist and composer of popular songs and of scores for Broadway and the movies.

Coleman was born Seymour Kaufman and was raised in the Bronx, New York City. He was the youngest of the five sons of Max Kaufman, a carpenter and cabinet maker, and Ida (Prizent) Kaufman, a landlord, both of whom were Jewish emigrants from Russia. Coleman began making music at the age of four when a tenant in the building in which he and his family lived moved out and left behind a piano. Adept at picking out tunes, Coleman was soon playing almost constantly, to the annoyance of his father, who once nailed the piano shut. Coleman was not deterred. The family’s milkman became so impressed that he helped arrange piano lessons for the boy. Coleman diligently studied the classical repertoire and by the age of nine had performed in New York City’s Steinway, Town, and Carnegie halls. Coleman continued his classical studies at the High School of Music and Art in New York City and simultaneously at the New York College of Music, from which he was graduated in 1948. Coleman was interested in popular music, however, and while still in school made money playing at parties, weddings, and bar mitzvahs.

Immediately after graduation from college, Coleman, whose name change had been suggested by a music publisher, began playing piano in various clubs and hotels in New York City and Chicago. In 1950 he became the lounge pianist at the highly fashionable Sherry-Netherland Hotel on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, a position he held for two years. Soon tiring of the so-called society-music scene, Coleman turned to playing in jazz clubs. He accompanied musicians such as the vocalist Ella Fitzgerald and the saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and worked with various trios. During this period Coleman developed a musical style he later described as “kind of beboppy [but] fuller.”

Coleman wrote a few songs with the lyricist and composer Joseph McCarthy, including “Why Try to Change Me Now” (1952), which was recorded by Frank Sinatra. Cole-man’s composing career took off when he teamed with the lyricist Carolyn Leigh, whom he had met by chance at a lunch counter in New York City in the early 1950s. The two produced pop standards such as “Witchcraft” (1957), “The Best Is Yet to Come” (1959), and “Firefly” (1958). The score for Wildcat (1960), a mildly successful Broadway show starring Lucille Ball, included their stirring march “Hey, Look Me Over.” Coleman and Leigh’s second collaboration for Broadway was Little Me (1962), which closed after 257 performances. Although a reporter for the New York Times wrote that Leigh’s lyrics “perfectly matched Mr. Coleman’s spiky, syncopated pop-jazz melodies,” Coleman and Leigh went their separate ways. About the colleagues’ stormy artistic relationship, Coleman later confessed, “We fought constantly.”

Coleman composed for the movies Father Goose and The Troublemaker (both 1964) and The Art of Love (1965) and then, again by chance, met his next collaborator, the respected lyricist Dorothy Fields. Coleman and Fields’s Broadway show Sweet Charity (1966) ran for 608 performances, and the songs “Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now” became popular hits. The 1969 film version starring Shirley MacLaine earned Coleman an Academy Award nomination.

After several failed attempts to get back on Broadway, Coleman and Fields’s Seesaw (1973) ran for 296 performances. Fields died in 1974, and Coleman returned to Hollywood to work on The Heartbreak Kid (1972) and two Emmy Award–winning television specials with Shirley MacLaine in 1974 and 1976.

Coleman, whose heart was always with Broadway, returned there to compose I Love My Wife (1977) with lyrics by Michael Stewart. The show earned a Drama Desk Award for outstanding music. On the Twentieth Century (1978), with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, was set aboard the luxury train the Twentieth Century, which once ran between New York and Chicago. The show was on Broadway for more than a year and won six Tony Awards, including the first for the composer for best original score. After a failed show called Home Again (1979), which closed before reaching New York, Coleman and Stewart tasted success again with Barnum (1980), about the circus producer P. T. Barnum.

In the early 1980s Coleman performed occasionally at nightclubs and with various regional symphony orchestras around the United States. He continued to produce scores for the movies with Blame It on Rio and Garbo Talks (both 1984) and Power (1986). During his long career, Coleman also recorded more than a dozen albums of his inimitable piano playing.

Coleman’s failed musical Welcome to the Club (1989), with lyrics by Coleman and the librettist A. E. Hotchner, was followed by City of Angels (1989), a popular and critical success with lyrics by David Zippel. Coleman won his second Tony Award for best original score for what the New York Times called “a delirious celebration of jazz and pop styles.” He also won another Drama Desk Award.

Coleman’s next project, The Will Rogers Follies (1991), with lyrics by Comden and Green, ran for two and a half years and earned Coleman his third Tony Award for best original score. The Life (1997), with lyrics by Ira Gasman, was Coleman’s last Broadway endeavor. This gritty show about prostitutes in Times Square won several awards but was only moderately successful.

In 1997 Coleman married Shelby Brown, whom he had met by chance at a New Year’s Eve party in 1992. The two had a daughter in 2000. When asked about retirement, Coleman said, “It won’t work for me,” but he never had the chance to try retirement. On 18 November 2004, after attending the opening-night party of a colleague’s show, Coleman died of heart failure at New York–Presbyterian Hospital, New York City. The next night at curtain time the lights of Broadway were dimmed in tribute. His remains were later cremated.

An optimistic fellow, natty dresser, and quick wit, Coleman was an energetic worker who liked to have several projects going at once. He served on the boards of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers; the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences; and the Dramatists Guild Council. Coleman received numerous honors and awards, such as the Irvin Feld Humanitarian Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1981. Weathering with equanimity the ups and downs of a long career, Coleman told an interviewer for the New York Times, “if you’re a determined writer, you’ll get it on.... Instead of getting frustrated, I say let’s take the ball and run with it.”

Stanley Green, The World of Musical Comedy (1960), includes an insightful chapter on Coleman, his work, and his collaborators. For interviews with the composer, see Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn, Notes on Broadway: Conversations with the Great Songwriters (1985); and the New York Times (13 July 1986). Obituaries are in the Washington Post and New York Times (both 20 Nov. 2004).

Michael Meckna

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