Leigh, Carolyn (1926–1983)

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Leigh, Carolyn (1926–1983)

American lyricist for many Broadway musicals, including Wildcat and Little Me. Born Carolyn Paula Rosenthal in the Bronx, New York, on August 21, 1926; died in New York City on November 19, 1983; daughter of Henry Rosenthal and Sylvia Rosenthal; attended Hunter College High School; attended Queens College and New York University; married David Wyn Cunningham Jr. (an attorney), in 1959 (divorced).

Martin Gottfried wrote that Carolyn Leigh was one of the three major lyricists to emerge in the musical theater during the late 1950s and early 1960s, along with Fred Ebb and Sheldon Harnick. Leigh's most successful collaborator was composer Cy Coleman, with whom she wrote songs for the musicals Wildcat and Little Me, as well as a string of popular hits. After their association ended in the 1960s, Leigh went on to collaborate on the musicals How Now, Dow Jones and Smiles before a heart attack ended her life at age 57.

A lifelong New Yorker, Carolyn Leigh was born in 1926 in the Bronx and, after attending Queens College and New York University, wrote radio and advertising copy before landing a job as a lyricist for a music publisher in 1951. Her popular success dates from 1954, when she wrote the lyrics for "Positively No Dancing" (music by Martin Roman), and "Young at Heart" (music by Johnny Richards), a song that Frank Sinatra turned into a standard. That same year, she collaborated with Mark Charlap on nine songs for what was to have been a small musical production of Peter Pan, including "I'm Flying," "I Won't Grow Up," and "I've Got to Crow." While the show was still on tour, the producers decided to turn it into a full-scale musical and hired composer Jule Styne to expand the score. He brought in his own lyricists, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who unwittingly stepped on Leigh's Broadway debut.

Leigh began her relationship with Cy Coleman in 1957, and, a year later, they scored their first runaway hit with "Witchcraft," another big seller for Frank Sinatra. Their second hit, "Firefly" (1958), was popularized by Tony Bennett, who subsequently hit the charts with a number of other Coleman-Leigh songs, including "It Amazes Me" (1958) and "The Best is Yet to Come" (1961).

In 1960, Coleman and Leigh collaborated on their first Broadway musical, Wildcat, a vehicle for Lucille Ball . A hoedown number, "What Takes My Fancy," stole the show, and "Hey, Look Me Over" went on to become Ball's signature song. Gottfried, however, points to a lesser-known song from the show, "High Hopes," as containing some of Leigh's most gentle and metaphoric lyrics.

Unfortunately, Ball withdrew from Wildcat after 171 performances, signaling the show's demise. Leigh and Coleman immediately undertook their second Broadway collaboration, Little Me (1962), a show written by Neil Simon for Sid Caesar, who was returning to the stage following his enormous success on television. In the show, Caesar played seven different characters of different ages and nationalities, all paramours of the character Belle Pointrine, a girl of questionable virtue who rises from poverty to become a movie star. Although the show had only a moderate run (257 performances), it is considered Leigh's best work, perhaps because her lyrics complemented Simon's libretto so succinctly. When the show was revived on Broadway in 1982, Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote: "Every song in Little Me is tuneful, literate, dexterously crafted." Two of the musical's songs, "I've Got Your Number" and "Real Live Girl," achieved national popularity, although they lost much of their charm when taken out of context. Another song, "Here's to Me," became such a favorite of Judy Garland 's that she requested it be played at her funeral.

Coleman-Leigh songs were the products of constant bickering and vitriolic disagreements. "It's the best way for me," Leigh once told an interviewer. "He writes a song and plays it for me and I don't like it and I say, 'Cy, no, I won't write for that.'" When Coleman hated Leigh's lyrics, he didn't much bother to mince words either. "I wouldn't link eight notes to that if it were the last lyric on earth," he once told her. After the initial barbs, the two would discuss, argue, rewrite, and polish. The collaboration eventually wore itself out and ended in the 1960s, although the artists reunited to write two songs for a revival of Little Me in 1982.

While Coleman went on to write a string of successful musicals, including Sweet Charity (1966) with Dorothy Fields , On the Twentieth Century (1978) with Comden and Green, and Barnum (1980) with Michael Stewart, Leigh never quite hit full stride again. She collaborated with Elmer Bernstein on How Now, Dow Jones (1967), an inane musical about big business, in which Leigh's songs lacked their usual warmth and upbeat spirit. Her last effort was Smiles, composed by Marvin Hamlisch.

Leigh also liked to perform her own songs and made occasional club appearances. Her last was at Michael's Pub in Manhattan in November 1980. The lyricist died in Lenox Hill Hospital in 1983.


Ewen, David. American Songwriters. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1987.

Gottfried, Martin. Broadway Musicals. NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1979.

Hischak, Thomas S. Word Crazy. NY: Praeger, 1991.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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