By John Dwyer
For a single performance on Friday, Oct. 14, the incomparable Michelle Lee brought to the Bucks County Playhouse her tribute to songwriter Cy Coleman, titled “Michele Lee: Nobody Does It Like Me, The Music of Cy Coleman.”
The Bucks County Playhouse was the venue, but the RRazz Room is the producing group that snared Ms. Lee and brought her to us. For those not in the know, the RRazz Room is renowned nationwide for bringing the best in cabaret to venues in Miami, Coral Gable, Philadelphia and New Hope. And, of course, Lee is a stage and television actress best known for the 1980s TV show “Knot’s Landing.”
Lee is ageless. I mention this only because as she talks about her career, you realize that she must be older than you think. She is 74 years young, and has been working since she was 19 years old, when she appeared on TV’s “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” and in the featured role of Rosemary in “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.”
She starred in “Seesaw” 12 years later, the Cy Coleman musical, and her love of the man and the music is the raison d’etre for this tribute. The title number, “Nobody Does It Like Me,” is one of the songs in “Seesaw,” a Cy Coleman show from 1973.
The evening started out with “The Doodlin’ Song,” a piece that showed how a simple doodle on the piano can be transformed into a fun piece of music, if your talent is as large as Cy Coleman and his lyricist Carolyn Leigh. Lee explained that Cy would play an arpeggio, Leigh would throw out a lyric and, after a little back and forth, there was “The Doodlin’ Song.”
Cy Coleman studied classical music, but his career began not with classical, but jazz. He formed the Cy Coleman Trio, which was very successful. He partnered in the late 1950s with Carolyn Leigh and created the American standards “The Best is Yet to Come” and “Witchcraft.“ Lee went over this part of his career and gave a beautiful rendering of “The Best is Yet to Come.”
She told of the Broadway years, which started with Leigh in “Wildcat” with Lucille Ball, and “Little Me” with Sid Caesar. Leigh and Cy collaborated with Dorothy Fields on “Sweet Charity” and “Seesaw.” Lee recalled a great story of how Bob Fosse was demanding re-writes of music, adding lines and bars, so as to accommodate his choreography, and Cy was getting perturbed and came up with a song that would be difficult to add bars to, as it had a distinct rhythm. And that is how “Hey, Big Spender!” was born.
“Seesaw” was a seminal moment in Michelle Lee’s career, and garnered her a Tony nomination as lead actress in a musical for her portrayal of Gittel Mosca. The show had problems during out-of-town tryouts, and Michael Bennett was brought on as director, and re-cast much of the show, and re-did the book and re-worked the songs.
Lee did not mention who she replaced, in deference to the person who was dropped. I, however, had seen the out-of-town show, which was starring Lanie Kazan, and did not include Tommy Tune, who was brought in as an assistant choreographer to Bennett and as a featured player in the show.
Throughout the evening, we learned much about Cy Coleman and Broadway. In recounting the love between Coleman and, his wife Shelby, Lee sang the lovely song “It Amazes Me,” which mirrored the deep love and affection that Michelle Lee said she could see between Cy and Shelby. It was beautiful. The focus was Coleman, and the self-deprecating Lee did not focus much on herself. But her kindness, her love of craft, and her caring for co-workers and the arts was evident for the entire evening.
She joked about her age, realizing some young people in the front rows may not know about certain cultural references familiar to baby boomers. She sparred with the audience while singing the Cy Coleman song “The Oldest Profession” from his show, “The Life”: “I needed the money, and I wanted some kicks. I ain’t 16, I just turned 46.”
Lee smiled at us then, and asked playfully, “What are you laughing it?”
She sang a little more, and then said, “Would you believe 56?”
The evening ended with Lee singing the “Seesaw” finale “I’m Way Ahead,” a song that was put together the night before opening, and is a musical soliloquy for Gittel. It is an emotional roller coaster and, 40 years after singing it the first time, she performs it with the same honesty and heart as she did back then. Lee mentioned during the show what an honor it was to perform on the world famous Bucks County Playhouse stage — no doubt why Joe Benicassa, President of The Actor’s Fund, Larry Wilker, past president of The Kennedy Center, were in the audience.
Of course there is no place in this country quite like New Hope, largely due to its theater history and cabaret scene. That tradition makes the RRazz Room’s new collaboration with Bucks County Playhouse an exciting development, as they are now able to bring us even more when it comes to the best in cabaret.
Upcoming tickets at the RRazz Room, now located at the Raven in New Hope, include the hilarious Michelle Balan on Oct. 22, and on Oct. 28, the smart and witty comedienne Dana Goldberg will appear. Celebrity impersonators Tommy Femia and Steven Brinberg will bring Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand to the RRazz Room in New Hope on Nov. 12, along with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “People,” and, of course, their duet “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
Whether in New Hope or Philly, it’s time to come to the cabaret!