Friday, March 27, 2015

Dorothy Fields

"A rhyme doesn't make a song."

I confess to having eclectic taste in music.  A quick look at my downloaded collection will reveal that I have recently played an opera by Wagner, selections from jazz saxophonist Art Pepper, something from Brooks and Dunn's greatest hits, Beethoven's 2nd, guitarist Link Wray, Miles Davis, Iggy Pop [particularly good for the gym], and the collected cadences of the United States Marine Corps [ditto on that gym thing].

Once upon a time I could think of no better way of spending an evening than sitting in a dark and [in those days] smoky club and listening to some group that I had never heard of and would never hear of again playing music that was independent of the brutal realities of the music industry.  In the late 1970's and early 80's, that music was usually loud and raucous; by the 21st century, I would much more likely find solace in places like the Rose Room at the Algonquin Hotel or even The Embers Lounge at the Cleveland Airport Holiday Inn, listening to someone's interpretation of American classics.  Still dark, just no longer smoky.

Among my favorites are "Pick Yourself Up", "Exactly Like You", "I Can't Give You Anything But Love", "I'm In The Mood For Love", "On The Sunny Side Of The Street", and, of course, "The Way You Look Tonight".  Since their original composition, these songs are still performed multiple times a day around the world by a rich variety of artists, if not in shopping malls and elevators.  The other thing they have in common is that they, and many others, had their lyrics penned by Dorothy Fields, one of the most successful and least known lyricists of the golden age of American music.

Although born in New Jersey in 1905, Fields grew up in New York City where her father mostly worked as a comedian on the vaudeville circuit.  When that medium began to subside, he shifted to musical productions, meaning that his daughter was exposed from an early age to theatrical life behind the curtain.  This became her world and would remain so until her death in 1974.

While originally a performer, with her greatest success realized in the 1920's as part of a comedy duo on the London stage, Fields started noodling around with lyrics during her idle hours backstage until she came to the attention of the composer Jimmy McHugh, with whom she collaborated on producing the music for an otherwise forgotten production known as The Blackbirds of 1928, a popular pairing of musicians and singers both black and white.  As was common with musicals in those days, it began its trial period as a nightclub revue and floor show, in this case at Les Ambassaduers Club on New York's 57th Street.  When it moved to Broadway, it was one of the most successful shows of that decade and Fields found herself much in demand from that point forward.

Many of her lyrics would be heard for the remainder of that decade at The Cotton Club, as Duke Ellington, then its music director, became a fan of the McHugh-Fields collaborations.  The fact that they didn't mind composing for black performers expanded their potential fan base so that their songs found a broader audience than most, especially when radio transmitted their oeuvre far and wide.

As was the case with novelists like F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, songwriters, too, were lured to Hollywood in the 1930's with the advent of "talkies".  Being no different, Fields went west and found herself teamed with Jerome Kern to provide the soundtrack for the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film, Swing Time.  From that film, "The Way You Look Tonight" won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1936.

Not to be limited solely to providing lyrics for stage and film scores, relying on her familiarity the theater world she teamed with her brother as a librettist, that is, the person who writes the play, or "book", around which the musical numbers are organized.  Fields warmed up for this by writing three musicals for Cole Porter and then, at the high point of American stage music, worked with Irving Berlin when he provided the music and lyrics for her script for Annie, Get Your Gun.  It would become the most popular musical of the late 1940's.

She would continue to write, sometimes as a lyricist, as in Sweet Charity in the 1960's, sometimes as both the lyricist and librettist, as in 1959's Redhead, a popular vehicle for Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse that won five Tony Awards, including that of Best Musical, and earned an historical footnote for being the first musical murder mystery. 

Dorothy Fields is remarkable to me for two reasons.  The first, which harks to a pet peeve of mine about musicals in general, is that her songs never seem to be forced into the structure of the libretto, but are a natural part of the plot structure.  The second, and greater, is that while her lyrics ranged over the course of forty years, from Jazz Age jive to the hipster slang of the mid-1960's, they never strike an odd or discordant note.  For her words to suit both the differing times and the style of singers as disparate as Adelaide Hall and Ethel Merman, and dancer/choreographers like Astaire and Fosse, is remarkable.  That's what translates her lyrics from talented composition into art.

As is noted in Michael Feinstein's appreciation of Fields' contributions to theater and performance music:
Of all the Broadway lyricists, Dorothy Fields was the most able to keep up with her times, using contemporary idiomatic phrases without sounding forced or trendy. Her more poetic lyrics never become cloying and her imagery remains sharp, fresh, and hip. It’s to her credit that she could collaborate with composers as wildly diverse in style as Arthur Schwartz, Jerome Kern, and Cy Coleman. And, perhaps most noteworthy of all, in a field largely dominated by men, she always held her own and defied categorization as a “female” songwriter.
Words such as these can only partially represent Fields' gifts, however.  It's much better to simply enjoy the songs, don't you think?

See what I mean about different artists still finding commonality through Fields' work?