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An Evening With Dorothy Fields
(Live, April, 1972 at the 92nd Street Y, NYC)
For William Zinsser, Dorothy Fields was first among the small group of women popular songwriters during period of The American Songbook. He divides the women into two groups of three: those who made "a sizable contribution to the literature of American popular song" and those who left "a small but exceptional legacy." The former group included, along with Fields, Betty Comden and Carolyn Leigh, the latter, Kay Swift, Ann Ronell and Dana Suesse. Zinsser notes that the members of this "barely remembered" second trio were "gallant also-rans in a mans race."
As for Fields, Zinsser reminds us that she might have gotten a head start by belonging to a very successful show business family headed by her father Lou Fields, most well known as half of the vaudeville comedy team of Weber and Fields as well as a successful Broadway producer. He is quick to add, however, that Dorothy was not in any "need of nepotistic favors," eventually becoming one of the most successful of all songbook songwriters with more than 400 songs written over four decades to her credit.
Zinsser credits much of her success to her ability to write directly with no affect: Her lyrics" say what someone in love should say--no inversion, no allusion, no poetic effects:
I can't give you anything but love, baby,
That's the only thing I've plenty of, baby . . . .
"This is the English language at its most declarative--a writer making her feelings available to us." (Zinsser, pp. 107-111)
Dorothy Fields and the Songwriters Hall of Fame
Fields was inducted into The Songwriters Hall of Fame in its first year, 1971, with Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Yip Harburg, Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer;
Dorothy Fields' Collaborators
Dorothy Fields collaborators included Jerome Kern, Sigmund Romberg, Harold Arlen, Arthur Schwartz, Burton Lane, Jimmy McHugh, Morton Gould, Harry Warren, Albert Hague, J. Fred Coots, and Cy Coleman, so it is not hard to understand why, by her own description, she was "just one of the boys." And as Deborah Grace Winer notes, Fields never had the name recognition that almost all of her "boy" songwriting partners achieved. "Certainly, her personal fame outside the entertainment community never came close to being commensurate with the renown of the standards she produced. Up until her death in 1974, she often encountered people who would suddenly exclaim in realization, You wrote that?" -- a situation that, publicly, anyway, she'd always joke about." (Winer, xvi).
Ken Bloom comments that Dorothy Fields was able to write with a group of collaborators who were "wildly diverse in style." Bloom also reflects that Fields was not only flexible in her ability to write with such a wide range of composers but was "able to keep up with her times, using contemporary idiomatic phrases without sounding forced or trendy."
Fields' biographer Charlotte Greenspan informs us that after the 1959 show Redhead for which Dorothy co-authored the book and wrote the lyrics, and which had swept the Tonys in all musical categories, it appeared that her career was over. "For more than five years, there was no Broadway show, no musical, no movie featuring songs with new lyrics by Dorothy Fields." But that was about to change. Greenspan lets Cy Coleman tell the story:
"How would you like to write a song?" With this harsh question I approached the veteran lyricist Dorothy Fields at a songwriters' meeting in her home and waited nervously while the writer of such songs as "The Way You Look Tonight," "Remind Me," "I Can't Give You Anything but Love," "Sunny side of the Street," and countless others looked at me and said, "Why not?" This was the beginning of a collaboration that was destined to go far beyond the tune I had in mind at that moment. (Greenspan, p. 205).
Coleman and Fields wrote music and lyrics respectively for Sweet Charity (1966) and Seesaw, (1973), Fields' last show.
Dorothy Fields on integrating a song into a show and on writing the book for a show.
"If you don't have a story that will hold the audience, you won't have a successful show. And as for the songs that go into that book, they have got to move the plot forward. I don't care how good a song is--if it holds back the story line, stalls the plot, your audience will reject it" (Wilk, p. 43). She adds, "I'm not out to write popular song hits, though I've written songs that have become popular; I'm writing a song to fit a spot in the show. To fit a character, to express something about him or her . . . to move that story line forward" (Wilk, p. 45).
Despite Dorothy's feelings about the importance of integrating a song into a show's book, she was relatively easily charmed out of her principles by Cole Porter. Fields' brother Herb Fields wrote the books for several Porter shows and Dorothy collaborated with him on the book for for the 1941 Porter show Let's Face It. Dorothy told Max Wilk,
Oh, I loved Cole. He and Herbie had worked together so many times before . . . . and they were very close friends. So I learned to disregard the way Cole ignored the book. I got used to it. Lots of times he'd read something in a scene we'd written and he'd say, "Oh, you two people are so talented!" And then he'd cop a couple of lines of dialogue from that scene and put hem into his lyrics. He'd say, "Oh, you don't need this--you'll write something else, I'm sure you will."
On the occasion of Let's Face It trying out in Boston, Dorothy, her brother and Porter were in the lobby during intermission eavesdropping on comments by audience members: "And right next to us was a very aristocratic old dame. She said, 'I don't know how these actors think up all those funny things to say!' Cole was delighted with her remark. He nudged us, and he asked, 'You Fieldses want to write book?'"
When Max Wilk followed up on her anecdote by asking Fields if when she was writing the book for Let's Face It, she wasn't reluctant "to retire as a lyricist and bequeath that spot to Mr. Porter?" Her answer was, "Oh, honey, let me tell you, it's great. The book is always the toughest thing to do; one doesn't need the added responsibility of doing the lyrics, I can assure you. (Wilk, pp. 43-44)
Peter Mintun plays and sings the McHugh-Fields song "Dinner at Eight" from 1933, a song that was written as the title song for the famous movie but not used in it. The song, as Mintun demonstrates, was eventually marketed as being "dedicated" to the movie.
Hildegard sings the 1935 Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields song, "I Dream Too Much" written for the movie of the same title in which it was sung by Lily Pons.
ASCAP Biographical Dictionary, New York: American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, Cattell/Bowker, Fourth edition, 1980 (dates, collaborators, shows/movies, songs, etc., entry p. 156)
David Ewen. American Songwriters, An H. W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary. New York: The H. W. Wilson Co., 1987 (includes 146 bios of composers and lyricists). -- a wide selection of used copies is available at abebooks.com (entry, pp. 158-160).
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Master List of Great American Songbook Songwriters
Names of songwriters who have written at least one song included in the Cafe Songbook Catalog of The Great American Songbook are listed below.
Names of songwriters with two or more song credits in the catalog (with rare exceptions) are linked to their own Cafe Songbook pages, e.g. Fields, Dorothy.
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