The eight-man orchestra for The Best Is Yet to Come (59E59 Theaters), the revue of Cy Coleman’s songs compiled and staged by lyricist David Zippel, contains two brass instruments. This is excessive, since the revue’s five-person cast includes Lillias White, whose apparent function in theatrical life is to render brass instruments superfluous. White, an energized cannonball of a woman with a sweetly wicked smile, gets four or five chances, during the 85-minute show, to explode the cozy building in which it performs. After each of them, you may want to check that the roof hasn’t been blown off.
Having a force of nature like White at the show’s center does a good deal to compensate for its eccentricities, which would read as outright flaws if the cast were made up of less appealing individuals, or its music less inherently zestful than Cy Coleman’s. One of the few Broadway composers of the last half-century to be something of a genius performer as well, Coleman (1929–2004) derived much of his strength as a craftsman of showtunes from the same virtues that made him a spectacularly fine jazz pianist.
His songs are full of startling syncopations and ear-tingling harmonic surprises that reveal the mind of a constant improviser jiving his way through a night at the keyboard, always hunting for a new path out of the old patterns. (I once saw Stephen Sondheim, at the press opening of a Coleman show, nearly fall out of his seat with delight at an unexpected modulation.)
The rowdy jazz ambience of Coleman’s music made him something of an anomaly on Broadway—a fish out of water whose triumphant survival kept influencing the lay of the land around him. His composing posed an equal challenge to a long parade of lyricists that ranged from Dorothy Fields, who had been wordsmithing before Coleman was born, to such unlikely figures as Michael Stewart, better known as a book writer for musicals, and the Hemingway biographer A.E. Hotchner.
The shows they wrote with him were often rowdy, too, their characters a procession of tough talkers and oddballs, from the oil-field workers of Wildcat! (1959) to the hookers and brutal pimps of The Life (1997). Dance-hall “hostesses,” tough film-noir detectives, lower-middle suburban wife-swappers, circus promoters, vaudeville comics—refinement and stability are not hallmarks in the world of Coleman’s musicals. Their profusion of jingly marches, zippy “up” numbers, and cockeyed comic expostulations that suggest stand-up routines set to music leaves little space for tenderness. Indeed, Coleman’s scores feature few ballads, and those in his later works often employ the emotionally rhetorical ’70s-pop posturing that makes for stage waits in musicals; his spruce, spry, rhythm-dominated numbers have held up much better.
Zippel uses two such draggy ballads, both with lyrics by him, to bring The Best Is Yet to Come to an unintentional standstill shortly before its snazzy finale, which includes three of Coleman’s best-known cheer-producers, “It’s Not Where You Start,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” and “Hey There, Good Times.” The disparate quality of the two segments indicates the show’s erratic choices of material and of sequence. Even the cast is oddly unbalanced. The three women are all strong-voiced, forceful personalities—White, Sally Mayes, and Rachel York—who handily overpower their two male counterparts, Howard McGillin and David Burnham—low-key, laidback presences who often seem uncomfortable with the brash material.
The physical arrangements don’t help: The show jams its instrumentalists and singers together on the snug stage, dominated, front and center, by the piano of musical director Billy Stritch, who also sings (his “It Amazes Me” is one of the night’s few intimate moments), leaving a narrow central stairway and two downstage corners for the cast. That they can make do with these limited circumstances, each of them coming off with several small victories, is a wonder that almost matches the undimmed verve of Coleman’s music.
Inevitably, some of the best lyrics, particularly the saucy, witty inventions of Coleman’s first and best collaborator, Carolyn Leigh, get drowned out by the orchestra’s big-band enthusiasm, but you can’t blame the players. They clearly love what Coleman gave them to work with. Besides, they may be understandably jittery about having to compete with White.