On Monday, January 31, at 7 pm, Birdland Jazz Club will present acclaimed vocalist Jeff Harnar and his salute to the legendary Emmy, Grammy, and Tony-winning songwriter Cy Coleman (1929-2004) in A Collective Cy. Directed by Sara Louise Lazarus, the show, for which the award-winning cabaret, concert, and recording artist was honored with the 2007 Bistro Award for Major Engagement, includes familiar standards like “The Best is Yet to Come,” “Witchcraft,” “Hey Look Me Over,” “When in Rome,” as well as surprises from Coleman’s six-decade career, with such Broadway hits as Sweet Charity, City of Angels, and Wildcat.
Music director Alex Rybeck conducts The Rhythm of Life Quartet, which features Jay Leonhart on bass, Ray Marchica on drums, and Marc Phaneuf on saxophone. The ongoing musical partnership between Harnar and Rybeck has resulted in four albums and taken them across the country and the high seas, to London, Paris, and Oslo. Most recently, they won the 2020 BroadwayWorld Cabaret Award for Best Show for the 30th anniversary encore engagement at Birdland of Carried Away,” their tribute to Betty Comden and Adolph Green – the musical-comedy duo who provided the books, lyrics, and screenplays to some of the most successful Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals of the mid-20th century.
In advance of his upcoming appearance at Birdland, Jeff was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the show and his long-time appreciation of Cy Coleman.
When was your first introduction to Cy Coleman’s music and what did you love most about it?
Jeff: The year was 1967, the show was Sweet Charity; and I was seven. Amazingly, my parents gave me that album at that seemingly age-inappropriate age. I’m not sure even they knew what the show was about, but they knew I loved Broadway cast albums. I had already worn out the grooves, and no doubt their ears, with Finian’s Rainbow and How to Succeed in Business. Sweet Charity was the third cast album in my collection. Three absolute gems! How wonderful was that? There’s not a bum track on any of those three albums.
At that time my dad was a “Mad Man,” working in advertising in Manhattan, and we were living in Riverside, CT. Sweet Charity was a big new show on Broadway and Dad brought the album home one night on his commute. Maybe he thought with “sweet” and “charity” in the title it would be as wholesome as The Sound of Music? Or more likely, he just liked that saucy picture of Gwen Verdon on the cover!
All I know is that listening to that cast album was absolute bliss to my young ears – the rhythms, the orchestrations, the vivacity of Gwen Verdon’s singing voice, of everybody’s singing voice, the cleverness of the rhymes in Dorothy Fields’ lyrics, and all of that wrapped around those incredibly joyful Cy Coleman melodies.
Perhaps I didn’t know what a taxi dancer was, but I sure understood the lyric “all kinds of music is pouring out of me.” I was mesmerized hearing human feelings being elevated into these exuberant songs. And it wasn’t just me having that response That sound – that contemporary, pop, jazz sound – was a seismic first to Broadway.
Is there one of his songs or shows that’s your absolute favorite and speaks to you most personally as an artist?
Whenever Cy Coleman was asked what his favorite song was, he would give a very diplomatic answer and say, “It’s whatever song I’m working on.” So, in kind, I would say my favorite Cy Coleman song is whichever one I’m singing.
The great thing about putting together your own show is that every single song is a personal favorite. Unlike playing a role in a musical, there is no song or scene I must get through in order to get to the one or two songs I love. I truly love them all.
As for favorite shows, let’s just say Sweet Charity is well represented, including a song written just for the movie version. Another perk of creating a one-man show is I’ve given myself the opportunity to sing some songs sung by female characters in the shows. For example, I’m singing “I’m Way Ahead” from Seesaw,” and I get to sing “With Ev’ry Breath I Take” from City of Angels.
What I can also tell you is that my music director Alex Rybeck, my director Sara Louise Lazarus, and I first put the show together in 2006 for an engagement at Feinstein‘s at the Regency. We are revisiting the show for the first time in over fifteen years . . . and I’m revisiting these keys for the first time in fifteen years! So, these songs that I loved singing back then when I was in my 40s, I am heartened to say, mean even more to me now that I’m in my 60s.
For example, there’s a beautiful song that was cut from Barnum called “So Little Time,” with the lyric, “Where did it go, this lifetime, hurrying by? When did it fly away?” Needless to say, that sentiment carries much more personal gravitas today than it possibly could’ve back then, before I’d lost both parents, and so many others near and dear.
And I also feel very blessed to be revisiting this set of songs with my original Rhythm of Life Quartet.
What are you most looking forward to back at Birdland?
Besides the thrill of being on that historic stage, there’s the unmatched energy of the tiered supper-club seating. The audience is literally wrapped around you, with great sight lines of every face. It’s a very exciting room to play. It’s a very exciting room to see a show in for that reason, too. I’m always grateful when Jim Caruso, who I call the Busby Berkeley of Birdland, adds me to their calendar. And somehow the owner Gianni Valenti, amidst the scores of performers who pass through those doors, always makes me feel so especially welcome. It’s a real treasure, Birdland. Long may it wave!
What can the audience expect from the show?
You’ll certainly hear songs you know, like “Hey Look Me Over,” “Witchcraft,” “The Best is Yet to Come,” and you’ll hear a few surprises, like that song that was cut from Barnum. I’ve also found a rare song that Cy wrote both music and lyrics to that speaks to me deeply, called “Somebody.” I love singing duets with Alex, so expect that, and we have a couple of numbers in which that national treasure Jay Leonhart joins us on vocals for some three-part harmonies. And, of course, you can always expect the unexpected in the brilliance of an Alex Rybeck arrangement. It’s dazzling to hear his spin on a standard you think you know. I think his arrangement for “Witchcraft” is sensually sensational. And to quote Sweet Charity, it is our collective wish to conjure “Fun. Laughs. Good times.”
Many thanks, Jeff, for taking the time to give us some insights into your highly anticipated show. I look forward to being there!
A Collective Cy: Jeff Harnar Sings Cy Coleman plays on Monday, January 31, at 7 pm, at Birdland Jazz Club, 315 West 44th Street, NYC. For reservations (with a $40 music charge for table seating, $30 for bar seating, plus fees, and a $20 food and beverage minimum per person), call (212) 581-3080 or go online. In compliance with New York City rules for indoor activities, Birdland requires proof of full vaccination or a verified medical exemption from all customers, staff, and performers.