Volume 74, Number 27 | November 10 - 16, 2004

Music

2nd ANNUAL JOHNNY MERCER FOUNDATION AWARD GALA
The Rainbow Room
Mon. evening Nov. 15
Tickets are $750
212-835-2299

Composer Cy Coleman. Among those honoring Coleman at upcoming benefit include: Tony Bennett, Chita Rivera and Glenn Close

‘That Broadway feeling’

Gala honors legendary composer Cy Coleman who, at 73, is still hard at work

By Jerry Tallmer

Cy Coleman, the Mr. Broadway of composers — from “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac” 51 years ago all the way through to 2004’s in-progress “It Started Like a Dream” — is twice the recipient of a Johnny Mercer award, but lyricist Mercer and music’s Coleman never, as it happens, wrote a song together.

“A deep flirtation never realized,” is how Coleman cheerfully characterizes that circumstance.

The first Johnny Mercer award to go to Coleman was from the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, seven or eight years ago. The second will be at a gala of the Johnny Mercer Foundation on Monday night, November 15, in the Rainbow Room.

“I knew Johnny from when” — even before 51 years ago — “I was playing in jazz clubs,” Coleman said one recent noontime. “He’d come in to hear me. I admired him a lot.

“I once said: ‘Johnny, why don’t we do a show together?’ but he never had that Broadway feeling. He said: ‘Okay, Cy, just send me the tunes to California, and I’ll write the words.’ He used to do that for people like Blossom Dearie; Johnny was very generous in that respect. But [for a Broadway show] it wasn’t going to work that way.

“Later I got to know his wife” [Ginger Mercer, creator of the Johnny Mercer Foundation] who was important in ASCAP,” said the Cy Coleman who is himself married to a stunner, Shelby Brown, young enough to be his daughter — but old enough to be the mother of their daughter, Lily Cye Coleman, age 4. Lily Cye’s father is 73.

“Shelby’s from Montana. She and I met at a friend’s house in Mexico. Somehow we were thrown together at lunch. Then she came up to New York, and we had lunch, and” — Bronx-born Seymour Kaufman said dryly — “that was the end of it. We lived together five years, we’ve been married seven.”

Putting in a Cy Coleman song or two at the Rainbow Room will be old friend Tony Bennett.

“Tony and I talk a lot together. We get into philosophy,” said Coleman. “What about? Just about the world in general. We’re very similar in that.”

Tony Bennett years ago started singing the haunting songs, full of the juice of love and irony, that Cy Coleman wrote with Caroline Leigh; there’s a “Tony Bennett Sings Cy Coleman” album and Bennett sings “The Colors of My Life” on the newest Coleman album from Sony. But for all that, Cy Coleman never wrote a song for Tony Bennett.

“You know, I’ve never written a song for anybody, except for in a show,” said Coleman. “For Sid Caesar, for instance, in ‘Little Me,’ or for Lucille Ball in ‘Wildcat.’ You have to do it if their vocal ability isn’t all that great. For Lucille I wrote ‘Hey Look Me Over’ and for Sid it was ‘Real Live Girl’ “ — one of the great ones, by the way, to this listener/fantasist.

“In a show I write for character and for the person. When it’s not in a show, I just write for myself.”

Organizers of the Nov. 15 event are the cabaret world’s great Margaret Whiting and her husband Jack Wrangler.

“Oh, Margaret Whiting,” said Coleman, in something like awe. “Always a very pure singer. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with her . . . Wait a minute. She did a piece from ‘Wildcat’ that unfortunately did not survive into the show, but it survived in a duet by her and Mel Torme — a combination of two songs, ‘You’re Away From Home’ and ‘Angelina.’ “

Another Nov. 15 headliner: Chita Rivera.

“One of my favorite people. She did ‘Sweet Charity’ on the road and in the film. Chita is the ultimate professional, and she’s really one of the guys — one of those people who keeps a show really happy. A presence. A positive presence.”

And another: Glenn Close.

“What a hard worker! When she came to audition for ‘Barnum,’ all she said to me was: ‘What do you want?’ Then she’d go off and come back, and she’d have it. She’s the type Hollywood always wants, always needs: a Bette Davis, a Katharine Hepburn.”

Not listed among the gala’s notables is playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who might just materialize anyway. She and Cy Coleman and “City of Angels” lyricist David Zippel have been cooking up that “It Started With a Dream,” a project for Broadway derived from Ms. Wasserstein’s 1998 children’s book “Pamela’s First Musical.”

It’s had two readings at Lincoln Center, and now, says Coleman, the Goodspeed Opera in Connecticut wants to put it on.

Also looking for a destination is what at present is titled “Like Jazz” or “Portraits in Jazz,” a musical collectively sired by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, Larry (“City of Angels”) Gelbart, and Cy (“City of Angels”) Coleman. “It’s about the people who live in the world of jazz,” says the 2004 Johnny Mercer Awardee, “Not just about the people who perform it but also the people behind it.”

Look out. One of them one day soon may be named Lily Cye. “She seems to be taking to lyrics,” says Lily Cye Coleman’s father.

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