Cy Coleman performing at the piano
Cy Coleman performing at the piano

Giving Cy Coleman His Due

You Fascinate Me So charts the life and career of On the Twentieth Century composer Cy Coleman.

With the arrival of You Fascinate Me So: The Life and Times of Cy Coleman in stores and at online retailers such as Amazon.com, a three-time Tony Award–winning composer finally gets his due. For years, I had always been surprised that no one had ever made the effort to explore Coleman’s life and career. After all, this was a man who penned the Frank Sinatra hit “Witchcraft” and Tony Bennett’s “The Best Is Yet to Come” before writing such Broadway classics as Little Me, Sweet Charity, and Barnum. So in late 2012, I decided to do something about this oversight and wrote to his widow, Shelby Coleman, asking if she would let me tackle the job. To my delight, she said yes, and in doing so, she started me on a two-year odyssey through 74 years of a man’s life and four decades of theater history.
The journey from the idea of a biography to the final manuscript was filled with some terrific surprises and intriguing twists, and I hope that the sense of discovery I experienced about the man I’ve come to refer to as “Cy” (even though we never met) comes through in the biography itself.

The first real discoveries I made about Cy concerned the early part of his career. I’d known that he had been a fixture in some of New York’s swanky clubs before he’d started life as a songwriter, but what I hadn’t realized was that he started at a young age. He was just barely 20 years old when he first made a name for himself in New York nightspots. Beyond this, he wasn’t only performing well into the wee hours of the morning; he was also making regular television appearances as the then-new medium was attempting to figure out what should be broadcast during the day.

Even more impressive, he wrote his first musical by the time he was 20! It was, by all accounts, a featherweight comedy that had its premiere at the Bellport Summer Playhouse in August 1949.

As I became aware of the breadth of Cy’s early career, I began to wonder if I might find anyone to talk to about this period of his life. Luckily I came across a number of people who had worked with him as he was just starting out, including jazz guitarist Mundell Lowe, who was at Cy’s side on television on the daytime show Date in Manhattan (it was broadcast daily live from Tavern on the Green) and in the one short film that he made for RKO (a portion of it can be found on YouTube). Additionally, I managed to arrange interviews with Ray Mosca, who joined Cy’s trio in the mid-1950s and, like Lowe, is still a practicing musician, and Ruth Allen, who was in the young people’s ensemble of that first musical. Perhaps most amazing was finding Cy’s first agent, a gentleman well into his nineties by the name of Leonard Green.

Through my conversations with these people, I began to amass terrific stories about Cy just as he was starting out, and I also got a sense of the milieu in which he was working. Lowe (and another jazz musician, Bill Crow) also provided some great stories about Joseph A. McCarthy Jr., Cy’s first songwriting partner. Lowe even gave me a story about the genesis of Cy’s first big hit with McCarthy, “Why Try to Change Me Now?” (which is getting new life on Bob Dylan’s just-released album Shadows in the Night, featuring songs made famous by Sinatra).

As I moved from this period of Cy’s life to his Broadway work (which began in late 1960 when his first musical, Wildcat, starring Lucille Ball, premiered), I also took my first trip out to Los Angeles to visit the offices of the publishing company he founded: Notable Music. Before arriving, I’d written Shelby and Damon Booth, the company’s vice president, about all sorts of materials I’d be looking for. I was hoping not only to sort through any drafts of songs and scripts that might exist for the musicals we all know and love, but also cull materials relating to the nearly two dozen shows that he had begun but had not reached the stage.

I was stunned when I walked through the doors at Notable. Damon had, it seemed, essentially emptied a storage unit; piled high on the grand piano that Cy had bought when he was a teenager were neatly sorted piles for the various musicals I had written to them about. Then there were boxes — lots of boxes — that basically filled two rooms. I dove in and after five days of nonstop scanning and copying, I had a wealth of background to take back to New York with me.

Once I started sorting through everything, I was astonished by what they shared with me: everything from draft fragments for approximately two dozen songs for Little Me to lead sheets for songs that had been intended for Sweet Charity to the very first draft of The Will Rogers Follies. Damon had also made a stack of CDs for me, filled with demo recordings of songs that Cy had made of his tunes (some of which will be released on a CD from Harbinger Records that will come out in tandem with the book). All of this would become crucial once actual writing commenced, creating a trail that allowed me to reconstruct how Cy’s shows evolved from concept to opening night.

Soon it was time to start conducting interviews with Cy’s collaborators and the artists who appeared in or worked on his shows, and, well, that process was just overwhelming, even for someone like me who has been in the industry for nearly two decades and is used to being around celebrities. It’s rough to describe the mixture of honor and genuine delight that I felt while spending an hour with Tommy Tune talking about his memories of Cy during both Seesaw and The Will Rogers Follies. Going to Hal Prince’s office to ask him about On the Twentieth Century? Another “wow” moment. And when I visited Marilyn and Alan Bergman to talk about one of the last musicals Cy was working on, Like Jazz, their graciousness was simply incredible.

The result of the research and interviews, I hope, is a book that will bring Cy to life both for his fans and for those who only know his music in passing (songs like “Hey, Look Me Over,” “Real Live Girl,” “Big Spender,” and “The Colors of My Life,” to name just a few of the Broadway standards). I also hope that it will help further fuel what seems to have become a year for a marvelous Cy Coleman renaissance. Not only do we have Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of On the Twentieth Century, written with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, we have a concert of his songs coming up, performed by three of the women who were leading ladies in his shows — Randy Graff, Cady Hoffman, and Lillias White — in May at 54 Below, and just a month later, Michele Lee (who starred in Coleman’s Seesaw back in the early 1970s and who may be best known for her work on television’s Knots Landing) will be offering a concert of his music there. Also, a revival of another of his musicals, City of Angels (penned with lyricist David Zippel and book writer Larry Gelbart), just concluded an acclaimed run in London, and you can find a revival of Sweet Charity running now through October at the renowned Stratford Festival in Ontario.

You Fascinate Me So: The Life and Times of Cy Coleman (from Applause Theatre & Cinema Books) is available for online purchase at Amazon.com and in bookstores nationwide. Further information is available at youfascinatemeso.com.