Cy Coleman

Cy Coleman (1929-2004) was the debonair jazz pianist and composer of such legendary Broadway tunes as "Witchcraft," "Big Spender" and "The Best Is Yet to Come.”

Mr. Coleman's musical education began early. He was born Seymour Kaufman, the son of Russian immigrants, Max and Ida Kaufman; he grew up in a Bronx apartment house owned by his mother. As he later told it, one of the tenants moved out and left a piano behind. "My mother had a talent for business, obviously. There were two free lessons and one she paid for. So I became a prodigy and played at Steinway Hall. I even played Carnegie Hall at the age of seven." His father, a carpenter, became so irate at the boy's constant day-long practising that he nailed the piano shut. "I found a screwdriver and pried the piano open," Coleman said. "The music continued and he never tried to do anything more about it."

He went on to attend the High School of Music and Art as well as the New York College of Music, and he earned money by playing popular music in cocktail lounges and on the club circuit. He was irresistibly drawn to jazz and soon put all thoughts of a classical career behind him, although in later years he made many guest appearances with major ensembles, including the Detroit, Syracuse and Milwaukee symphony orchestras.

In the early 1950's Mr. Coleman met the lyricist Carolyn Leigh and began a collaboration that would lead them both to Broadway. Her lyrics perfectly matched Mr. Coleman's spiky, syncopated pop-jazz melodies, and they remain the ultimate musical distillation of sophisticated cocktail party banter of the period. A majority of Mr. Coleman's finest songs came out of this partnership. 

After parting ways with Leigh due to constant bickering, he worked with Dorothy Fields, first on "Sweet Charity" and then on "Seesaw" (1973). Based on William Gibson's hit play, "Two for the Seesaw," the musical, written and staged by Michael Bennett and starring Ken Howard, Michele Lee and Tommy Tune, was the story of a brief romantic encounter between a Nebraska lawyer and a young dancer from the Bronx. It, too, had only a modest run.

After Fields died in 1974, Mr. Coleman teamed up with Michael Stewart to write "I Love My Wife" (1977), a comedic look at the possibilities of wife-swapping in suburbia, and "Barnum" (1980), which had a book by Mark Bramble and starred Jim Dale as the ultimate showman, P.T. Barnum. The show became a long-running hit, and Mr. Dale's dazzling performance won him a Tony Award.

A fluent stylist, Mr. Coleman produced an impressively varied body of work. His Broadway scores touched many styles, from noirish film music ("City of Angels") to country ("The Will Rogers Follies") to rhythm and blues ("The Life"), but they always remaining firmly anchored in a razzle-dazzle show-tune tradition that embraced the spirit of burlesque. His musical signature was the strutting, swaggering star turn: "Hey, Look Me Over," (from "Wildcat"), "I've Got Your Number" (from "Little Me") and "Big Spender" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now" (from "Sweet Charity").

Mr. Coleman was prolific as well, frequently working on three or four projects at once - "One feeds the other," was his explanation - and constantly revising the work at hand.

"I don't like to let go," he once said. "I will drain to the last drop." He said he had neither time nor intent to retire.

Coleman died of heart failure after attending the premiere of Michael Frayn’s play “Democracy” in 2004.

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