Propst’s meticulously crafted and highly accessible book reads both as the portrait of an artist and an insightful study of just how mercurial and challenging Broadway musicals and the music business have been in the past century.
Coleman, born Seymour Kaufman, was an unlikely musician who found his calling almost accidently. A family his mother had been renting an apartment to disappeared one night, leaving only a piano. Young Seymour, age four, began plunking away at the keys and soon became obsessed with it. In short order, it was clear he was a musical prodigy, playing by ear and composing from his youngest days. His proficiency at the keyboard and facility for composition was his lifelong calling card, never failing to amaze people. Those skills also helped save him in several pinches as shows were coming to life.
Propst chronicles Coleman’s life from club performer to songwriter for Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and many more to Broadway legend. And while over the course of his career, Coleman worked with the likes of Lucille Ball, Neil Simon, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Bob Fosse, Tommy Tune, and Chita Rivera, what makes Propst’s work so satisfying is that the focus is always on the artistic process. This is not a sensationalistic, dishy backstage story. It’s far richer and more interesting. Perhaps that’s appropriate, as Coleman’s life, until his later years at least (he died in 2004 at 75), was devoted to his artistic endeavors.
Propst astutely conveys show business’ challenges and how the combination of Coleman’s passion for the art and a whole lot of determination allowed him to overcome hurdles others might have found insurmountable. In this telling, whatever the frustrations, Coleman was always gracious, fully engaged in the process, and a visionary. The reminiscences of actors like Keith Carradine, star of “The Will Rogers Follies,” will leave the reader wondering how any show gets on the boards in the first place.
Propst also uses Coleman’s life and work to show how the musical has evolved over the decades. Younger readers may not remember how Broadway shows were the source of much popular music in the middle of the 20th century or that having Sinatra record a song from an upcoming show could spur ticket sales. Coleman was resolute in his commitment to staying current with changes in popular music and taste. Yet he was often ahead of his time, and virtually all his later shows were compared in the press to his first big hit, “Sweet Charity.” Landmark a show as that was, it was not immune to some harsh criticism — from its original incarnation to later revivals.
Coleman’s life was indeed rich, and in addition to his Broadway work, he scored films, performed live, and was even a TV personality in the medium’s earliest days. All of this is wonderfully captured in Propst’s biography, which beyond the fascinating story is an important contribution to theater history.