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"Angels' gets its wings from music

City of Angels is known for its Hollywood atmosphere, an ingenious movie-within-a-story scenario, a set that incorporates black-and-white film noir with Technicolor and a wisecracking private eye right out of a Raymond Chandler paperback.

But the composer of City of Angels, Cy Coleman, says it all started with the music.

"It was 1982 when I approached Larry Gelbart," says Coleman, referring to the author of the musical's book. "I wanted to write a certain kind of score, a jazz score. Not the kind of jazz you usually hear in the theater, but the kind you hear on records, an amalgamation of 1940s jazz. I wanted to re-create that kind of feeling, and I thought the milieu of the private eye would be perfect for it."

The rest is history, although it took several years to unfold. City of Angels opened on Broadway in 1989 and the next year won six Tony Awards, including best musical. Coleman and lyricist David Zippel won for best original score.

On Tuesday, City of Angels starts a weeklong run at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

The musical comedy is about a writer named Stine, who is struggling to turn one of his detective novels, featuring an ex-cop turned sleuth named Stone, into a screenplay, without selling out to the moguls of Hollywood. The story has episodes from the writer's life as well as his work.

It's a tightly conceived concoction that functions on at least two levels _ real life in color, reel life in black and white. At one point, they intersect as fictional character Stone steps out of Stine's screenplay to confront his creator, and vice versa, in the duet You're Nothing Without Me.

For Coleman, City of Angels was the latest in a string of hits. Since his first Broadway musical in 1960, Wildcat, starring Lucille Ball, he has been composer of such popular shows as Little Me, Sweet Charity, I Love My Wife, On the Twentieth Century and Barnum. Only Stephen Sondheim has enjoyed as much sustained success in musical theater as Coleman over the last 30 years.

When Coleman, 62, is asked what has changed the most in the peculiar alchemy of art and commerce that goes into the making of a hit musical, he harkens back to his early days.

"The biggest change in musicals is that now they cost a lot more," he says, speaking by phone from his townhouse on Manhattan's East Side. "We used to be able to afford choruses, when I first got started. We would have, like, a chorus of eight dancers and eight singers, and now you can't afford that. Now when somebody auditions, they better be able to dance, sing and act."

Coleman mentions three blockbusters of recent vintage _ Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express. "Then, of course, there's been the English infusion, the Europeanization of the American musical, to something very close to the operetta. They brought in those huge sets, so the musical became more spectacle-minded."

However, what happens inside the theater is not all that has altered the climate for musicals.

"A big change has been in the music business itself and the place of the musical in it," Coleman says. "At some point, show music took a back seat to singers who wrote their own music."

It's hard to imagine today, listening to the radio, but musicals once carried a lot of weight with a mass audience, and it wasn't so long ago.

"When I did Sweet Charity in 1965, I remember we had a dozen records out before we opened, covering the score. I mean, we had Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee and a host of others with songs from the show going out over the airwaves. That stimulated a lot of interest.

"You know when people say, "I like to go out of a show whistling a tune'? Well, the fact of the matter is they really go in whistling the tune, because they've heard it over the air."

Today, the hottest thing in musical theater seems to be happening not onstage but in the recording studio. The last few years have seen an outpouring of CDs for which conductors assemble an orchestra and singers to produce renditions of classic shows like Show Boat, Anything Goes, Girl Crazy and Strike Up the Band.

Coleman appreciates the craze for re-recording old musicals. "I think it's only natural that as we accumulate a vocabulary, a repertoire, there will be people who like to work with it. I mean, there are new operas being written, but we still play Puccini."

One of Coleman's old musicals, Barnum, inspired by the life of circus showman P.T. Barnum, is enjoying renewed life in Great Britain in a touring production that he says is headed for a full-scale revival in London.

Coleman recalls that a turning point in the history of Barnum, which opened on Broadway in 1980, occurred in St. Petersburg.

"Barnum was one of my first producing efforts, and one of our big backers dropped out, taking a substantial amount of money with him, so my partner and I decided we would go to see Irvin Feld, who was owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and he was in St. Petersburg. We flew down and met Feld at a hotel and played him the score right there in the lobby. He decided to commit, and we went over to a restaurant called the Owl, a diner-type place. We consummated the deal in the Owl, and it made Barnum possible." (The Owl, on Fourth Street a block north of Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg, is gone now.)

Coleman is working on a new project, a show about pimps and hookers called The Life, but he still talks with enthusiasm about the touring version of City of Angels. Of all the elements in the show, the one he seems most fond of is the Angel City 4, a singing quartet whose numbers give the show a lot of its sophisticated period sheen.

"They act as a sort of chorus, but they're unusual for a musical. These are people who do commercial jingles and backups on records, the kind of intricate jazz singing you don't usually find in shows. Of course, I drove all the casting people crazy because they didn't know where to go looking for these people. Eventually we found them, and they're just wonderful."

City of Angels, with book by Larry Gelbart, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by David Zippel, opens Tuesday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and runs through Feb. 25. Tickets are $23.50-$40.50. Call 221-1045 in Tampa or (800) 955-1045.