By BRUCE DENNILL
What You Don’t Know About Women: The Songs Of Cy Coleman, featuring Carly Graeme and with musical direction by Rowan Bakker, is a celebration of the music of composer Cy Coleman, and a look at the relationships he had with his three most famous collaborators: Carolyn Leigh, Dorothy Fields and Betty Comden (with Adolph Green). Coleman’s catalogue of work includes the shows City Of Angels, The Will Rogers Follies and Sweet Charity. For more details, go to redhillinnovate.co.za/redfest/redfest-2018/festival-programme.html.
Carly Graeme spoke about why Coleman’s music appeals so much to her.
A male composer and female lyricists combining so well: how rare a phenomenon is that? And is such a set-up difficult to maintain or is that just a strange industry perception?
It’s very rare. You often had partnerships in one area of writing, like Comden and Green on the lyrics side, but in the era in which Cy Coleman was at his peak – the Fifties – it was not often that female contributors were recognised so sustainably. Cy was working with women almost in opposition to the sociopolitics of the time. There was that whole Mad Men thing happening, where women were housewives or, at best a secretary or stenographer; where they needed to find a role that allowed them to work. This was an industry dominated by men, including many homosexuals, when that was a more difficult space to be in too, so it was a particularly brave space for women to be, which might have attracted some of the strong characters Coleman worked with.
Unusually for a man working in his part of the industry at the time, Cy was straight – as far as anyone can tell – married and not misogynistic at all. The way he worked with women almost gave them more of the power in the partnership, with him having to write music the way the lyrics dictated it. In the show, we also include some of Cy’s collaborations with men, and it’s interesting to see what some of the differences are.
The setlist for the show includes a song for just about every emotional moment in a woman’s life – well, certainly in mine. A couple of examples: there’s yearning in My Unknown Someone; and Witchcraft, made famous by Frank Sinatra, is about being spellbound by someone.
I really discovered Cy Coleman’s music is a pro-am production of City Of Angels in Guildford while I was studying in which I played Mallory, the ingénue. It’s an amazing piece, happening in real time as a writer works on a film noir script that features people in his life as characters in the film.
But his catalogue is endless. Putting this show together, I’ve kept saying, “I want to sing that!” but I’ve had to be strict about my choices in order to keep to the narrative of the piece and to avoid it being six hours long… I think, though, that audiences will find that they didn’t realise how many of Cy’s songs they already know – whether it’s pop, jazz or anthems from musical theatre.
What You Don’t Know About Women is a personal show, so I had to find the balance between showcasing the music and telling people why the songs have mattered so much to me. That requires some vulnerability, but the music is widely applicable.
For all his influence, output and list of impressive credits, Cy Coleman is not a particularly well-known name, certainly relative to his contemporaries. Why is that?
His musicals are expensive to produce, with big casts a lot of the time, so it’s a big gamble to put them on. And some of the shows aren’t very accessible. The Will Rogers Follies, for example, is about a man writing his own show and being told what to do by a third party he doesn’t agree with. Barnum, though not a big success when it was released, will now be better known thanks to The Greatest Showman, which is a different version of the same story. But other shows, like Seesaw, are probably completely unknown to many people, even though they’ll recognise the iconic songs that come out of those shows – like Nobody Does It Like Me, from Seesaw, which Shirley Bassey made famous.
Many of Coleman’s songs that have lasted best feature women singing women’s lyrics, and his music is so cohesive and connected that they’re spot-on emotionally. He writes in the rhythm of the speech of the words, which makes the songs work so well as stories.
Was the purpose of staging this show to educate audiences about Coleman, or is that just a secondary feature?
I did want to make people aware of a catalogue of music they didn’t know they knew. Many of his songs have been interpreted by singers of both genders, so there’s plenty of appeal all round, though I love the female-sung versions, and particularly the jazzy interpretations.
What is Coleman’s work like to sing relative to other writers of a similar vintage?
I love singing his stuff. There are some unexpected intervals that make learning his songs quite difficult sometimes, but once you have them down, they feel so right and you never want to unlearn them. He writes music that allows for real expression – angst and comedy and irony. And he always leaves space for the vocalist to invest in where they’re going.
Other writers from that era wrote more melodically predictably, which was more manageable for a vocalist, and possibly more commercially accessible. But really, the most difficult thing is finding spots for all his beautifully written material. I’m having to mourn the loss of some songs that didn’t make it in.
Exploring Coleman’s relationships with Carolyn Leigh, Dorothy Fields and Betty Comden: how is that done in the show?
It’s a cabaret-style piece – no set, and just me and three musicians on the stage. There’s no real thematic or timeline structure; it’s more about focusing on the lyrical content of the songs. Bringing in some of the context in which they were written is unavoidable, but the craft is important. Coleman never wrote for specific singers: his songs were picked because the writing was great. He’s been responsible for so many incredible moments and I’ve been able to connect them back to him. And over the years, he’s spoken more and more to me. His songs are a gift – every one of them.