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Cy Coleman, 75; Tony-Winning Composer Also Wrote Pop Hits

November 20, 2004|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

Cy Coleman, the Tony Award-winning composer of such Broadway shows as "Sweet Charity," "On the Twentieth Century" and "City of Angels," who also wrote some of the most enduring songs in pop music, including "Witchcraft" and "The Best Is Yet to Come," died Thursday night. He was 75.

Coleman and his wife, Shelby, had attended the opening-night performance on Broadway of the Michael Frayn play "Democracy" and were at a party after the performance when Coleman said he was feeling ill. He went to New York Hospital, where he collapsed and died of heart failure, according to John Barlow, his publicist.

His death brought an outpouring of reaction from friends and colleagues.

"Cy was as fluent, if not more, in the language of music as he was in English," songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman said in a statement.

"Never satisfied with what came so easily, Cy would probe and dig, and the result was music that was original, surprising and distinctively his."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 25, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
New York high school -- Both the obituary for composer Cy Coleman that ran in Saturday's California section and the appreciation article in Monday's Calendar section said he had attended the High School of Music and the Arts in New York. The school's correct name then was High School of Music & Art. Since 1961 it has been called High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.

Writer Larry Gelbart, who collaborated with Coleman on the Broadway hit "City of Angels," predicted that in the wake of Coleman's death, "they'll find any number of shows no one knew he was working on, like secret bank accounts. He was so prodigious. Music was his first language. If he ever had to stop writing, that would be the most stressful thing in his life."

Lyricist Betty Comden, who along with her now-late partner, Adolph Green, collaborated with Coleman, said that "Cy was enthusiastic about music and a lot of fun."

"His take on life was very funny, and he had a good sense of satire," she said.

As Gelbart noted, Coleman was a prolific composer who always had a number of projects in the works. He premiered two new works within the last year -- "Like Jazz" at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and "The Great Ostrovsky," a comedy about the American Yiddish theater, with book and lyrics by Avery Corman, at the Prince Music Theatre in Philadelphia.

"Like Jazz" examined the lives and spirits of jazz musicians in a series of musical portraits. Reed Johnson, writing in The Times, called it "a deft, sophisticated and tuneful tribute to jazz's enduring influence over whatever it touches or brushes" and saluted Coleman's "effortlessly urbane melodies." The Bergmans wrote the lyrics, Gelbart the book, and Gordon Davidson directed. The creative team hopes that a Broadway version will open in the fall of 2005.

At the time of his death, Coleman was preparing to start rehearsals for an updated version, with new songs, of "Sweet Charity," starring Christina Applegate. That production is scheduled to open on Broadway in April.

An excellent jazz pianist and performer, Coleman often used that genre as the underpinning of his work but could also include rhythms as diverse as country and western, funk and a Sousa-like march.

"If I have a song that becomes a hit, chances are I won't go and write that song again," he said some years ago. "A lot of people continue along the same style and milk it, and people will ask you to do that. Somehow that perversity in me remains, and I'll go off to the other side of something else."

"Like Jazz" director Davidson said that if he told Coleman, "We need to make a transition here," he would sit down at the piano and make one.

"He might go off to refine it, but out of it would come something that didn't exist before," Davidson said. "He was open to a lot of different ways of looking at the same thing, which probably came from jazz."

Coleman was born Seymour Kaufman in the Bronx on June 14, 1929. His parents owned the tenement building where the Kaufman family lived, and young Seymour took up the piano at the age of 4 after a tenant in the building moved and left one behind.

He quickly showed an aptitude for the instrument and began studying classical music. Between the ages of 6 and 9, he won several competitions and performed at Steinway Hall, Town Hall and Carnegie Hall. He gained much of his classical training at the High School of Music and the Arts and then the New York College of Music, from which he graduated in 1948. While in school, he earned money playing at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

At age 17, he wrote his first classical work, "Sonata in Seven Flats." After switching his focus from classical music to jazz, he became the darling of the society-music scene in the late 1940s and early 1950s, playing at such swank Manhattan addresses as the Sherry Netherlands Hotel on Fifth Avenue. But soon he was playing in jazz clubs around town with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Illinois Jacquet, and, for a time, he ran his own jazz club, the Play Room.

His songwriting career also took off in the 1950s after he began a fruitful but often troubled collaboration with lyricist Carolyn Leigh. Between 1955 and 1962, the Coleman-Leigh team produced a number of songs that became American standards, including "Witchcraft," a smash hit for Frank Sinatra in 1957, and "The Best Is Yet to Come," first made famous by Mabel Mercer and then Sinatra.

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