Noir of the Greasepaint, Spell on the Crowd


When the musical Crazy For You opened on Broadway in 1992, then-New York Times drama critic Frank Rich joyously proclaimed:

When future historians try to find the exact moment at which Broadway finally rose up to grab the musical back from the British, they just may conclude that the revolution began last night. The shot was fired at the Shubert Theater, where a riotously entertaining show called Crazy for You uncorked the American musical’s classic blend of music, laughter, dancing, sentiment and showmanship with a freshness and confidence rarely seen during the Cats decade.

Rebecca Trehearn (left) and Rosalie Craig in the Donmar Warehouse revival of City of Angels. Photo credits: Johan Persson.
Rebecca Trehearn, Rosalie Craig in the Donmar Warehouse’s revival of City of Angels. All photos by Johan Persson.

Rich had been cool (mostly) to the British musical melodramas steadily flowing onto the Great White Way during the 1980s, and he was particularly antagonistic toward Andrew Lloyd Webber, who with director Trevor Nunn birthed the indefatigable Cats, and with director Harold Prince, the still-running Phantom of the Opera. Despite Rich and many of the rest of the critics, these shows — plus Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s gold-plated behemoths, Les Misérables and Miss Saigon — remained Broadway’s most robust rainmakers. Curiously, these four original “mega-musicals” are all currently playing to capacity crowds in London more than 30 years since the oft-maligned Cats proved that leggy chorines are no match for anthropomorphic variety turns.

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While the much-lauded Crazy for You certainly qualified as an antidote to the sturm und drang of English pop operas, three years earlier a far wittier and more subversive, distinctively American musical comedy jolted Broadway out of its mawkish doldrums. That was City of Angels, which offered up Cy Coleman and David Zippel’s effusive, tuneful, jazz-infused score to match Larry Gelbart’s irresistibly scrumptious send-up of a noir-drenched Hollywood. As evidenced by the scintillating revival of the show that recently opened at London’s Donmar Warehouse (under Josie Rourke’s canny direction), City of Angels can justifiably be called the last great musical comedy of the 20th century. Accordingly, the show was festooned with 1990 Tonys, including nods for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book and one for leading man James Naughton. This time, a similar raft of honors may not be far behind.

While in Philadelphia working on a short-lived Bob Fosse tuner called The Conquering Hero, Gelbart famously said something along the lines of

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If Hitler’s still alive, I hope he’s out of town with a musical.

Frustrations notwithstanding, Gelbart’s work on City of Angels surpassed even his own uproarious book for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Forum. For whatever invective he may have had for the theatrical development process, he saved his best Ginsu-bladed satire for the smarmy seductiveness of 1940s Hollywood, adroitly pastiching a Raymond Chandler-like detective story into a “real to reel” musical. Stine, a well-meaning scribe, sells his crime thriller to Hollywood only to see it hacked to smithereens by a salacious, Goldwyn-styled studio producer. Meanwhile, the life of his gumshoe protagonist, Stone, seamlessly interweaves, mirrors and even upstages Stine’s own. It’s movie-within-a-show conceit featuring a “Hollywood” cast and a “Movie” cast morphing into each other as sardonic zingers fly.

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Hadley Fraser as Stine in City of Angels.
Hadley Fraser as Stine in City of Angels.

As it happens, my own career began with Coleman’s last full-blown Broadway show: I was a production associate on 1997’s The Life. (Coleman died in 2004.) My proximity to Cy not only yielded me invaluable training as a producer, but also an intimate audience with a musical genius-cum-raconteur.

A child prodigy, Coleman was classically trained and first played piano at Carnegie Hall when only seven years old. To pay for his education at the New York College of Music, Coleman indulged his preternatural musical gifts, in particular his love for jazz, by working as a cocktail pianist at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Still in his teens, he quit school and formed the Cy Coleman Trio, which recorded several albums to great success. He became Broadway royalty via his exuberantly melodic scores for Sweet Charity, Seesaw, On the Twentieth CenturyBarnum and The Will Rogers Follies, among others, and he had a knack for composing standards, including “Witchcraft” and “The Best is Yet to Come,” with frequent lyricist Carolyn Leigh.

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Spending time with Coleman was exhilarating. It was bountiful, energetic and altogether showbiz. Hearing him reflect upon his life and his numerous collaborators — Leigh first, then Dorothy Fields — was akin to watching a documentary on the history of Tin Pan Alley and the golden age of Broadway and jazz delivered in the flesh by an avuncular storyteller. With his knowingly impish grin and feisty intelligence, Coleman exuded an uneasy blend of optimism and anxiety commonly found among immigrant children whose penniless formative years gave way to the abundance and prosperity of post-World War II America.

Coleman may have been a poster child for how to write infectious showtunes, but he always longed for his inveterate love of jazz to form the basis of a theatrical score. He persuaded Gelbart that a 1940s detective yarn married to jazz-drenched production numbers would make a helluva show. And, in his 1998 memoir, Laughing Matters, Gelbart recalled how Coleman’s notion resonated:

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It was a perfect idea. Those are exactly the kind of movies that have been replaying themselves in the video section of my mind for years. The sort of musical scores featured in those films — the wailing trumpet, the mournful sax — would allow Cy the opportunity to do the jazz score he’d long wanted to do. True jazz, not tamed for Broadway or watered down, jazz that still had the sound of gin in it.

Musicals are nothing if not collaborations, and the Coleman-Gelbart-Zippel triumvirate had to adore their source material even more than they had to master it. Satire that’s simply cynical often comes off as cheap, and for City of Angels, which sent up everything from The Big Sleep to the crackling jazz riffs of Count Basie, satire was informed by the heartfelt reverence of its creators. (Parody, it is said, is a form of lovemaking.) And while the wisecracks and one-liners aimed at Hollywood and all its writer-loathing soullessness are as profuse as gunfire in a Warner Brothers gangster picture, City of Angels is never bitter. If anything, the show’s gimlet-eyed view of crass commercialism and artistic integrity is leavened by its ability to make an audience laugh — not just at hard-boiled, trench-coat wearing sleuths and Gal Fridays, but at ourselves.

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For all of its skewering, for all of its pillorying, City of Angels is very much an American musical comedy, what with can-do optimism and aspirations. Although the show portrays the deviousness of our cultural underbelly, there’s no escaping that the show is about dreams, even if its characters are dreamers who are schemers. Just listen to that Goldwyn-styled studio producer, Buddy Fidler, when he tells Stine to avoid nuance in favor a happy ending. “Change all the black, browns and yellows to red, white and blue,” he bellows. As expected in American musicals, even rogues never give up hope.