Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Best Is Yet to Come: The Music of Cy Coleman

The title of this show is misleading. The best isn’t yet to come, it’s here right now, onstage at 59E59 Theaters. The Best Is Yet to Come: The Music of Cy Coleman, which opened last night, is a thoroughly delightful 85-minute revue of 32 Cy Coleman songs that reminded me of why I’ve always loved the performing arts, because a good song well sung is a transporting experience, and one that my friend Brenda and I really needed.

The 2010-2011 theatre season was by far the worst I have ever experienced in my dozen or so years as a Drama Desk voter. It started with productions that often bored me -- Mrs. Warren’s Profession springs to mind -- and ended with the most disgusting piece of garbage I’ve ever had to endure in a theatre -- The Motherfucker with the Hat.

In Coleman’s days Broadway writers didn’t create songs about female genital mutilation (The Book of Mormon). Which may be a second way the title is incorrect. The best might just have come and gone.

The appeal of this show hit us the minute we entered the theatre and saw the grand piano and the musicians stands, cream-colored with gold CCs. Brenda said, Oh, I need this. We’ve both been slugging through major life stresses and the chance to escape into a world of romance -- won and lost -- and affairs -- good and bad -- was a blessing.

The mood continued as the eight-piece band, looking the part in their black tie formal wear, walked on and the suave but jovial Billy Stritch, musical director for the evening, took his place at the piano. Then five sparkling singers, also elegantly attired, brought Coleman’s witty and sophisticated lyrics to life -- David Burnham, Sally Mayes, Howard McGillin, Lillias White (in photo with Stritch) and Rachel York, with Stritch contributing some vocals of his own; his “It Amazes Me” was enchanting.

My only regret was director-conceiver David Zippel's decision to have the singers use head mics. In that space gifted singers don’t need amplification, especially not established belters like White. I’m sure they were happy about it, though, and with all the pleasure they brought us I won’t begrudge them the assist.

Zippel’s connection to Coleman goes back to 1989 when he wrote the lyrics and Coleman the music for City of Angels, a Broadway musical (Dec. 1989 - Jan. 1992) which I loved, as did many others. It earned the pair a Best Score Tony Award. They were working on other projects, including a new musical, at the time of Coleman’s death in 2004.

Zippel had discussed with Coleman the idea of a revue of his work. In press notes, he offers Coleman’s response: “That’s for after I’m gone. Let’s write something new.”

To Zippel, that summed up his writing partner perfectly.

“That was Cy in a nutshell -- brave, generous, optimistic, prolific and forward-looking.”

Luckily the composer left behind plenty of songs from Broadway and popular music lists. Besides City of Angels, he composed the music for Sweet Charity, Barnum, The Life (which starred Lillias White), The Will Rogers Follies, Wildcat and Little Me. Many of the standards he wrote were made famous by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand and are sung in this revue. Among the lyricists besides Zippel featured are Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Dorothy Fields, Ira Gasman, Carolyn Leigh and Michael Stewart.

Coleman was a native New Yorker whose real name was Seymour Kaufman. A prodigy, he played classical music at Carnegie Hall and Town Hall as a child, but as an adult turned his devotion to jazz, popular and show tunes.

One song sums up the evening, and Coleman’s charm, in a single word -- “Witchcraft,” sung bewitchingly by Burnham. We were happy to fall under the spell.

The Best Is Yet to Come continues at 59E59 through July 3. For information, visit or

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