Friday, November 19, 2004

Ridin' The Tall Hope

Cy Coleman died today. He was an extraordinarily versatile composer, re-inventing his style for every Broadway show he did: contemporary rhythms in Sweet Charity, operetta in On the Twentieth Century, circus-act music in Barnum, jazz in City of Angels. He was one of the few major musical-theatre composers of his generation who gravitated toward musical comedy; Little Me, with a score by Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, boasts one of the funniest scripts ever written for a musical (by Neil Simon, who also wrote Sweet Charity).

His greatest and most enduring songs may be the songs he wrote with the great lyricist Carolyn Leigh. Their partnership never quite reached legendary status; they never had a hit Broadway show, and they wrote most of their pop hits at a time when their kind of pop music was falling out of favor. They broke up because Leigh was famously tough to work with -- she liked to point out that Coleman's tune for their song "Real Live Girl" was unconsciously copied from Sigmund Romberg's "Stouthearted Men" -- and Coleman went on to do hit shows without her. But theirs was the collaboration that produced "Witchcraft," "I Walk A Little Faster," "Hey, Look Me Over," and "The Best is Yet to Come," and the whole wonderful Little Me score. Coleman's tunes, with their catchy vamps and effective use of musical repetition (like other composers of his generation, such as Stephen Sondheim and Jerry Herman, Coleman liked to build melodies out of little repeated two or three note phrases; take "The Best is Yet To Come" for an example) combined with Leigh's extraordinarily sophisticated lyrics to form the essence of what was coolest in late '50s and early '60s "establishment" pop music.

Here's an article from a couple of years ago that discusses Coleman in the context of a recital of his songs, and here's some rather poorly-written coverage of a tribute held for Coleman just a couple of days ago, by the Johnny Mercer Foundation.

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