Billy Stritch hosts “Witchcraft: The Jazz Magic of Cy Coleman” with terrific singers at the 92 Y’s Lyrics & Lyricist Series
by Linda Amiel Burns
Billy Stritch not only served as a knowledgeable and genial host of “Witchcraft: The Jazz Magic of Cy Coleman,” but was the Artistic Director, pianist, singer, and co-writer with Andy Probst (author of “You Fascinate Me So” – The Life and Times of Cy Coleman) for this brilliant show at the 92nd Set Y’s renowned Lyrics & Lyricist Series. Billy met the late great composer Cy Coleman at a party at Liza Minnelli’s many years ago and they bonded. He was also part of another terrific Coleman show in 2011 at 59E59 Theaters, directed by David Zippel. However, this tribute had a new twist because instead of concentrating on his famed Broadway career, we heard some of Cy’s lesser-known songs with various lyricists, independent of Broadway. A dream cast was assembled with extraordinary performers: Debby Boone, LaTanya Hall, Nicolas King, Gabrielle Stravelli, and Billy Stritch on piano and vocals. Other members of his band were the irrepressible Jay Leonhart on bass and Rick Montalbano on drums.
Cy Coleman was born Seymour Kaufman on June 14, 1929 and died suddenly of cardiac arrest on Nov. 18, 2004. He began his career as a child prodigy and gave piano recitals at Steinway Hall, Town Hall and Carnegie Hall between the ages of 6 & 9. His career on Broadway was extraordinary with shows like Sweet Charity, Wildcat, Little Me, and The Life. He was the only composer to win consecutive Tony awards for Best Score at the same time that the corresponding musicals won for Best Musical: City of Angels and Will Rogers’ Follies.
Billy and the cast opened the show with three of Coleman’s biggest hits, with lyricist Carolyn Leigh, “The Best is Yet to Come,” “When In Rome” and “Witchcraft.” Theirs was a tempestuous relationship, and it was known that this songwriting duo fought all the time. Yet their song catalog was extraordinary and they wrote many hits together. Some songs that he wrote with Leigh are not well known but terrific – “A Moment of Madness (1956) that Gabrielle sang with great passion. Debby looked and sounded wonderful on “You Fascinate Me So” (1958), Nicolas crooned “I Walk A Little Faster” (1958), and “Take It From The Top” was written towards the end of Leigh’s life in 1980, and Billy and Debby performed this charming duet.
Billy said “the music seemed to pour out of Cy” and he worked with many lyricists such as Joseph McCarthy, Jr. – “Why Try to Change Me Now, written in 1953 and recorded by Sinatra. The remarkable LaTanya sang a heartfelt version of the song and made it her own. With Buddy Greco, he wrote, “Take a Little Walk” in 1964, and it was sung to perfection by Nicolas. Debby performed “Here I Go Again,” a song Cy wrote with Tommy Wolf and he even collaborated with Allan Sherman (“Hello, Muddah, Hello, Faddah”) on a novelty song that made the audience laugh as Jay Leonhart sang “The Laarge Daark Aardvark Song.”
Cy met Dorothy Fields in 1964 and their first collaboration was the incredible hit, Sweet Charity. Fields was 24 years his senior and very accomplished, so there was none of the drama that he had with Carolyn Leigh. Nicolas sang “You Wanna Bet” (1966), a song that was cut from Sweet Charity. “Pink Taffeta Sample Size Ten,” sung by Debby, was also cut and although a sweet song which displayed Charity’s early childhood, it would have slowed down the action and you can see why it was taken out of the show.
A highlight of the production was two songs that Billy sang at the piano and wowed the audience with their simplicity and feeling. One was a tune Cy wrote with Peggy Lee (1963) “That’s My Style” and then the glorious “It Amazes Me” (1958), with Carolyn Leigh, that is very popular on the cabaret scene.
What is amazing is that after nearly four decades, the L & L Series still feels fresh and exciting due to the leadership of Deborah Grace Winer who brings in extraordinarily talented people to create each production. We are not only entertained, but learn so much about the geniuses behind the songs.
Next in series: Everything’s Coming Up Ethel: The Ethel Merman Songbook. April 16-April 18, 2016 – Ted Sperling, Artistic Director. Photos: Richard Termine
Visit 92Y.org/Lyrics or call 212 415-5500