“I remember him with a kind of combination laugh and giggle,” actress Michele Lee mused recently, thinking of the Jewish composer Cy Coleman. “He was always smiling.” Her tribute to a beloved mentor, “Nobody Does It Like Me: The Music of Cy Coleman,” runs this Thursday through Saturday at 54 Below ($45-$95;  476-3551). On the program are some of Coleman’s best-known hits, including “Big Spender,” “Witchcraft,” “I’ve Got Your Number,” and “The Best is Yet to Come.”
Coleman, born Seymour Kaufman, was a child prodigy who started performing piano recitals at Steinway Hall and Carnegie Hall when he was in second and third grade. He became proficient at both jazz and classical music before moving into pop and writing the theme song for the Playboy TV specials.
His Broadway musicals included “Wildcat,” “Little Me,” “On the Twentieth Century,” “Sweet Charity,” “Barnum,” “City of Angels” and “The Will Rogers Follies.” (One of his last shows, “The Great Ostrovsky,” a klezmer musical about a Lower East Side Yiddish theater troupe, never made it to New York.)
Lee grew up in a Jewish family in Los Angeles. (She was born Michele Lee Dusick; her father was Jack Dusick, a top Hollywood makeup artist). She is best known as the star, for all 14 seasons, of the prime time CBS soap opera, “Knots Landing.” But she began her career on Broadway, appearing in the original 1961 cast of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
She met Coleman in 1973, when she was cast in “Seesaw,” a musical written by Coleman and Michael Bennett. Playing the role of the Jewish dancer, Gittel Mosca, Lee was struck by how he “wrote the unexpected.” The musicians “hit a chord and thought that it had to be wrong — then they realized that it was just Cy’s style.” His music is, she added, “much more intricate than most novices will notice.”
Andy Propst is the author of the new biography, “You Fascinate Me So: The Life and Times of Cy Coleman” (Applause Books). In an interview, he told The Jewish Week that Coleman’s music is “not easily categorizable, unlike with Burt Bacharach or Steven Sondheim, whose songs you can identify a mile away.” Furthermore, his tunes represent such an array of musical styles, Propst noted, that “it’s hard to believe that the same person wrote all of them.” Coleman had such a thorough grounding in classical music that he “knew all the rules and knew how to break them.”
Lee, for her part, is delighted to be back in the concert hall. She loves the “warm, intimate vibe” of Studio 54. As she put it, “I treat the audience as guests in my living room.” She regrets that she “stayed away from music for way too long. I’m funny — you never know what’s going to come out of my mouth. I can almost laugh as I’m singing.”