Broadway Honors Cy Coleman

A composer’s memorial showcases one of the best talent shows in town

In 1988, the New York Daily News’ venerable theater critic, Howard Kissel, drew up a list of the ten best Broadway shows of that year and one of them was a funeral, or rather, a memorial. In July 1988, Joshua Logan passed away and Broadway assembled at the Shubert Theater to bid him farewell. A show business giant, Logan wrote and directed a mind-boggling number of hits—his films included “Bus Stop,” “Picnic,” “Camelot” and “Paint Your Wagon.” On Broadway, his showstoppers were “South Pacific,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Mister Roberts” and “Knickerbocker Holiday.”

There were eulogies and remembrances. Famous artists sang songs from his shows. An historic atmosphere surrounded this New York moment. Imagine being in the living room of your favorite movie star or Broadway singer and hearing that star open his heart or her memory and share with you intimate, funny and sad details of an exceptional life. Then multiply that experience by a hundred and you have the Broadway Memorial.

As time passes and the grim reaper takes his toll, these memorials are more frequent. In recent months there have been three big ones—for lyricist Adolph Green of the Betty Comden and Green team (“On the Town,” “Singing in the Rain,” Wonderful Town,” “Bells Are Ringing”); lyricist Fred Ebb (“Chicago,” “Cabaret,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Woman of the Year,” “Flora the Red Menace” and “Liza”); and—most recently—composer Cy Coleman (“Sweet Charity,” “On the Twentieth Century,” “The Will Rogers Follies,” “City of Angels” and such mega-hit songs as “Witchcraft” and “The Best Is Yet to Come”).

Mostly held on Monday because theaters are “dark” that day, memorials are open at no charge to the general public and usually get under way at noon. Several days before the event, word gets out; there are announcements in local newspapers and the drum system of loyal fans is multiplied by buzz on the Internet. Crowds began to assemble early in the morning and by 11 o’clock the line snakes for blocks from the box office. People camp on the sidewalk with backpacks, coffee, bagels and folding chairs.

Most amazing is the rare camaraderie that develops among the dedicated mass of strangers. Stockbrokers talk to punk teens; a bunch of gay men from Chelsea share stories with a pair of grandmothers from New Jersey; everybody just hangs out and for an hour or two forgets where they work or how big their credit card balance is.

Sharing the sidewalk before Fred Ebb’s memorial, two lesbians and two housewives exchanged Liza Minnelli stories and proudly displayed some of her garments—a jean jacket and a belt—that they had bought on eBay. Tension mounted as the clock edged towards noon and celebrities started to step out of their limos. There was Lauren Bacall! Then, surrounded by a football team of security, was Ms. Minelli, stepping from her huge black SUV. The housewives and their lesbian buddies went wild with joy, screaming and jumping up and down.

Later, inside, after Joel Grey did his famous “Come to the Cabaret” number, Liza sang “New York, New York” and couldn’t reach the high notes, but the crowd loved her, even more just because of it. For 90 minutes, everybody was one big family.

This January 10, the famous, beautiful and talented gathered once again, this time to say goodbye to Cy Coleman. James Naughton opened the program seizing on what was the essence of Coleman—that he was loved for his common touch. He wrote songs about “heels in loafers and loafers in heels.” Then there were songs, dances and speeches by a host of Cy’s friends, collaborators and protégés. Luci Arnaz belted the crowd with “Hey, Look Me Over” (her mother, Lucille Ball, had been in Cy’s first musical “Wildcat,” her one and only attempt on Broadway). Bea Arthur winged it beautifully when the sound system failed and delivered a moving tribute to Cy’s capacity for loyalty and friendship. Chita Rivera still looking 25, danced up a sexy storm and wowed the crowd with “Big Spender” from “Sweet Charity.”

With all these hard-to-follow acts before her, the high point of the gathering came when Lillias White sauntered on stage, sat down on a stool, took her shoes off and dove into her raucous rendition of “The Oldest Profession,” her signature song of a tired hooker from “The Life.” You’ve never seen so many staid establishment types screaming their lungs out as they did when Lillias finished that number.

Tony Bennett was scheduled to sing “The Best Is Yet To Come” but couldn’t appear because of laryngitis. Brian Stokes Mitchell stepped in and did him proud with a moving rendition of the song.

Playwrights Wendy Wasserstein, Neil Simon, A.E. Hotchner and others delivered moving, funny tributes to the man who was so honored that he was in danger of developing “award elbow.” Then the stage went dark except for a spotlight on the empty piano and Cy’s picture up above. “A little traveling music, please…” as the man himself sang to the crowd and they stood in a final moment of rapt silence before filing out onto the cold street.

No question about it. Howard Kissel was right. These memorials are just about the best shows in town. So keep your eyes peeled and go catch a little piece of history at the next one.

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