Two years before their first Broadway collaboration, Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh had a huge hit with one of the great songs of the '50s, "Witchcraft." The success of that single must be the reason that this pair of novices was entrusted with a score of the potential significance of Wildcat, the musical that would mark Lucille Ball's Broadway debut.
In 1960, when Wildcat opened, many of the major Broadway composers and lyricists of the Golden Age were still working. But there was something very savvy about hiring Coleman and Leigh to do Ball's show. American pop music was changing. It was no longer synonymous with the music of the theater. There was rock, which was geared primarily to teenagers, but there was also a new style for adults, which would eventually be associated with Burt Bacharach.
Coleman understood the world of pop in a way that many of the traditional Broadway composers did not. Although Wildcat didn't really work that well as a musical (for complicated reasons, I saw it twice), it had a score full of treasures and one of Broadway's greatest overtures (orchestrated by "Red" Ginzler, who orchestrated the greatest of them all, Gypsy.)
Coleman continued to contribute rich scores to Broadway, from Little Me and Seesaw through On the Twentieth Century, City of Angels and The Will Rogers Follies down to The Life. David Zippel, with whom he collaborated several times, has assembled a dazzling cast to sing a wealth of Coleman's effervescent creations in a revue called The Best Is Yet to Come, at 59E59. There's no more entertaining show in town.
The title song is another Coleman and Leigh wrote before they began working in the theater. There are a few other non-theater songs, the most powerful of which are "Come Summer," given a smoldering interpretation by Rachel York (whom we don't see often enough) and "It Amazes Me," movingly sung by the show's musical director, the always elegant Billy Stritch.
Lillias White brings the house down with "Too Old For the Oldest Profession," from the 1997 The Life, with lyrics by Ira Gasman. That show opened -- incredibly -- the same week as Titanic, Jekyll and Hyde and Steel Pier. Hearing "Too Old" and a few other songs made me think I didn't fully appreciate the score at the time.
There are a few songs from an un-produced show Coleman did with Zippel. A few of these -- "Only the Rest of My Life." sung by York and David Burnham, and "The Measure of Love," sung by Sally Mayes and Howard McGillin -- whet one's appetite for the show itself, identified in the program simply as N. Another especially beautiful number, sung by the whole cast, is "It Started With a Dream," from Pamela's First Musical, Coleman's collaboration with Wendy Wasserstein, which, to my knowledge, has only been given a staged reading in New York.
Given the singer who made "Witchcraft" a standard, it's no small praise to say that David Burnham, who may have the sexiest smile in town, sings it with as much panache as his predecessor. But Zippel has staged every number with a full understanding of its potential, and his cast brings out the joy and power of these gems brilliantly.
An onstage band performs Stritch's canny arrangements splendidly. Michael Gilliam's lighting heightens the dramatic effect of the evening.
Coleman died in 2004 at the age of 75, way too young. As the endlessly impressive songs roll by, you can only think the best might have been yet to come.
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