By Scott Farthing
During my first visit to New York City and Broadway, I saw City of Angels, the Tony®-winning Best Musical with a score by Cy Coleman and David Zippel. Thanks to the Columbia Records cassette tape, I had already fallen in love with the knockout jazz-meets-Broadway score before seeing it the summer of 1990. To hear the songs I had so studiously listened to performed live with such precision was a transcendent experience for a seventeen year-old dying to move to the big city and just discovering musical theater. Flash forward twenty years: I now work for a record company, Masterworks Broadway has just reissued City of Angels on CD (due May 4), and I get to write about one of my all-time favorite scores, plus Cy Coleman’s follow-up, The Will Rogers Follies. To quote City’s Lt. Muñoz, “Good things come to those who wait” – indeed!
A child concert pianist who was expected to have a career in classical music, Cy Coleman instead chose to go the jazz route, appearing in New York City clubs with his Trio and writing songs such as “Witchcraft” for the likes of Frank Sinatra. He eventually set his sights on the “legitimate” stage, starting with 1960’s Wildcat, then shot off into the theater stratosphere with an impressive run of shows including Little Me, Sweet Charity, Seesaw and On the Twentieth Century. After the 854-performance success of 1980’s Barnum, Coleman spent the remainder of the decade on revivals of earlier works, movie scores and three long-in-development musicals. In April 1989, Welcome to the Club was his first new show out of the gate but ran a disappointing thirty-two performances. Not a great Broadway comeback after nine years, but Cy Coleman had back-to-back Tony®-winning scores waiting in the wings: City of Angels and The Will Rogers Follies.
“To put it brazenly, I wanted to do something that I think I’m uniquely qualified to do in the theater, which is present real jazz…music whose rhythmic phrases you can’t describe but that when you’re snapping your fingers to it, you say, ‘This swings.'” Who could disagree with Coleman’s assessment after hearing City of Angels? From the first notes of the brassy opening theme, we know we’re in rarefied musical theater territory. The songs for the vocal quartet Angel City 4: “You Gotta Look Out for Yourself,” “Ev’rybody’s Gotta Be Somewhere” and “Stay with Me” amaze with their syncopation and tight vocal harmonies. The shiver-inducing torch song “With Every Breath I Take” and scintillating “Lost and Found” almost certainly would have been heard on the radio only a few decades earlier when Coleman was regularly covered by popular artists of the day. Mix in examples of theater composition at its best – “What You Don’t Know About Women,” “You’re Nothing Without Me,” “You Can Always Count On Me” and “It Needs Work” -and you’ve got a classic score for the ages worth repeated listening.
City of Angels was still in the midst of its 879-performance run when the legendary Palace Theatre reopened after a three and a half year renovation in April 1991 with The Will Rogers Follies. This time out, Coleman had re-teamed with lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green with whom he’d won a Tony® for On the Twentieth Century. While certainly enjoyable, the Tony®-winning score is far more traditional than City of Angels, taking cues from the Ziegfeld Follies peppered with country stylings. Still, Coleman treats us to the harmonies at which he was so adept with the quartet of Will Rogers Wranglers in “Give A Man Enough Rope,” his gift for syncopation in the insanely catchy “Our Favorite Son” (I’ve always wondered what came first: the song itself or Tommy Tune’s virtuoso choreography?), his lush melodies for Betty Blake in “My Unknown Someone” and “My Big Mistake,” and his knack for the blues in the “No Man Left For Me.”
Get more information on The Will Rogers Follies via its new album page, plus the majority of Cy Coleman’s shows including Wildcat, Little Me, Sweet Charity, On the Twentieth Century, Barnum and The Life here on Masterworks Broadway.
Scott Farthing is the Senior Director of Marketing for Sony Masterworks. He cut his show-tune teeth in the Stage, Screen and Vocals room of HMV (the record store).