Interview with Andy Propst - Cy Coleman
Following on from my Cy Coleman discussion with regards to I Love My Wife, I recently met the author of a brand new (and very first!) biography of Cy, Andy Propst. His new book "You Fascinate Me So" is a wonderful look at the life of one of musical theatre's unsung giants and contextualises Coleman's contribution to Broadway and London, taking a linear look at his major musicals, as well as his various unfinished and discarded projects.
For fans of Cy's shows and musical theatre fans in general, "You Fascinate Me So" is vital reading. Despite being aware and appreciative of much of his work throughout the past century I was in awe at the sheer breadth and scope of his work, as both a composer and performer.
I used the book as a guide through Cy's career, stopping to revisit scores and discover new gems. As previously discussed, the beauty in his work comes from his variation in style, and I was keen to ask Andy if he agreed that this had something to do with his lack of name recognition.
I met Andy Propst outside the Lincoln Center in New York to talk with him about the book, Cy's work and his own reflection on one of the most eclectic and fascinating musical theatre careers:
DOH: You say in your foreword that 'Sweet Charity' was your access point into Cy Coleman. How did you make the leap from fan to biographer?
AP: It's one of those things that I joke on some levels that I think he picked me. A couple of years back I was reviewing around 250 shows a year and there was this morning in which I was so not ready to write yet another review, and I was emailing a friend in the UK and said I wanted to write a biography. He asked who would I write about, and the first person I said was Cy Coleman, and then I realised that no one had ever written about this man. The reason I say he chose me, his name came to mind and the seed was planted. Once the proposal had gone out the offer came to me on Cy's birthday – and it all just seemed to fall into place. The whole process took just two years.
DOH: Why do you think a book hadn't been written about Cy before?
AP: The same reason I think that people don't know his name that well. The problem is he is so diverse; his music is so distinct to what it needs to be for the show or for the lyric. His finesse with so many different sorts of music is what has made him the unsung great of musical theatre. The music never sounds as if it's taking a lot of energy – it just sounds perfect and wonderful. I think people are just dazzled by the understated genius of his songs.
DOH: Do you think it has anything to do with the decades in which he's written and the fact that his work spans so many different eras?
AP: I think each score if you go from Wildcat, which is really old school musical comedy and was even retro for 1960 in the years after 'West Side Story' and 'My Fair Lady', to The Life or even to the operetta of Grace. In between these he hops around. Sweet Charity was the first time a synthesiser was used in the pit – an electric sound that was there before 'Hair'. Then you've got Seesaw and the mid 70s sound of I Love my Wife. Then he goes back to the early century operetta style in On the Twentieth Century. He pulls us up forward with jazz noir in City of Angels. He doesn't even have linear progression, instead he's hopscotching as time moves on.
Lucy Ball in 'Wildcat'
AP: There are problems with the era and also the signatures. You can hear a Jerry Herman song a mile away. You can hear a Kander and Ebb vamp a mile away. Let's say you only knew Sweet Charity and Barnum, then I put on City of Angels – they don't mesh instantly. His harmonic tricks are always there, but you need a sophisticated ear to see how they fit. That's why theatre fans will enjoy these types of musicals but not necessarily put his name onto them.
DOH: Did you come across any differences between London and New York audience in terms of reception?
AP: Interestingly enough in the 60s he was doing better in London than he was here. Sweet Charity was an Evening Standard Award winner. It ended up having a much longer run with Juliet Prowse than it did on Broadway. The same with Bruce Forsythe in Little Me – it had a longer run over there. There seemed to be an appreciation for what Londoners had for those shows that was equivalent or a little bit better than we had over here. It could well be with Charity that the UK was slightly ahead in terms of the rock and mod crowd. The songs had also all had time to get into public conscious. New York critics didn't instantly appreciate the music, in fact one retracted his review after hearing the cast album and said afterwords – now I get it. London has never had a Will Rodgers of The Life – those shows that are a bit harder.
Juliet Prowse in 'Sweet Charity'
DOH: Which is your favourite score?
AP: On The Twentieth Century. It's lovely to have back, Chenoweth is giving a bravura performance – she was born to play and sing this role, this dappy Hollywood star. She can hit the high notes and play the high comedy. I had never seen it – I was 13 when it opened. I've always just assumed it was part and parcel of his work. That was the second of his shows I got to know after Sweet Charity. What's interesting this process has given me a chance to listen to all the music he created as a composer and a performer. His work is just gobsmackingly beautiful.
DOH: I agree – it's a wonderful revival, but do you think audiences are coming for Cy?
AP: No not all all. They're coming for Kristin and Peter Gallagher. Because of all her TV work she's got a great visibility – that's the main draw to the show. The artwork and that explosion of people – it's really attractive to audiences. It's a shame it has to close because it's a subscription house – it could run and run.
DOH: She has said it was looking at transferring to London.
AP: I think musically the British ear would be more used to the sound of it. I would think that oddly the score would be more of a draw over there.
Kristin Chenoweth in 'On The Twentieth Century'
DOH: Whilst researching for the book did you watch any of the original productions?
AP: I did watch some here (at the Lincoln Center Archives), and I'd have like to have watched more. The thing is I was so restrained by a word count – I was given 160,000 words which seems like a lot, but really it's not! Whilst I'd have loved to talk more about the descriptive of the production, that's what I found out about doing a biography, that it's weirdly dramaturgical. To describe the production that's not necessarily about Cy – it's about the setting for Cy. When I got to the Wildcat chapter Lucy (Ball) kept trying to take centre stage - that wanted to be her story and it was really tough to push her to the side but yet frame it with ways where Cy remained centre stage. For the most part I needed to not get bogged down or distracted by the physicality of it because I had to be elsewhere. He had so much going on! You have to get from point A to point B to point C. I think I would like to do another book on Cy, and in that case it would be more about the musicals but in this one since it was the first I felt I needed to make sure I got the entire life and the breadth to give the general reader an overall impression.
DOH: Does Cy have a modern contemporary – anyone with that similar level of skill that is working today?
AP: That's a hard question, mainly because I think composers who are working today haven't been brought up with the same level of pop tradition that Cy was. He's interesting to me because he comes from that moment where Top 40 and Broadway were concurrent and he managed to find ways to sound contemporary whilst also maintaining the well made song. If I think about Adam Guettel, John LaChiusa, Bill Finn – they each have such distinct signatures musically. I'd say probably in terms of the musicality and diversity of topics that he's interested in, I'd have to say Michael John (LaChiusa) is closest to Cy. Also Jeanine Tesori. None of Cy's musicals in conception, from Seesaw forward seemed to be the kind of show that should be on Broadway. He would be a Downtown composer, there is a certain bit of avant garde. Here we are ten years after Hair – let's do an Operetta. Then you've got Home Again which is an expressionistic thing. After On the Twentieth Century none of the books are adaptations. That's the other thing, you don't think of Cy Coleman as being a writer of original musicals, but from Home Again forward, you've got original musicals.
DOH: What's the reaction from the industry been to the book?
AP: Oh people are over the moon. From the moment I started saying I was doing a Cy Coleman book I kept hearing 'about time!' It's been remarkably supportive – he was so genuinely loved. For those who didn't know him but respected him, the fact there's now something that can go out there and put on a shelf.
Andy's book "You Fascinate Me So" is now on sale - and I thoroughly recommend you give it your time.