Golden-age American songwriting was a man’s game. Without exception, all of the major composers of popular songs who were active in the pre-rock era were men. That was pretty much true of lyricists as well—except for Dorothy Fields (1904–1974) and Carolyn Leigh (1926–1983), both of whom had trifurcated success writing musical-comedy scores, songs for movies, and free-standing pop hits.
Fields also wrote the books for several Broadway shows in collaboration with her brother Herbert, sometimes supplying lyrics as well but often working only on their books, most famously with Irving Berlin on Annie Get Your Gun (1946). Leigh, by contrast, only wrote lyrics and was best known for her pop songs, almost always written with the jazz pianist-composer Cy Coleman, many of which were introduced by such noted singers as Frank Sinatra (“Witchcraft,” 1957), Tony Bennett (“The Best Is Yet to Come,” 1959) and Peggy Lee (“When in Rome,” 1964).
Fields never had a permanent writing partner, working most often with Jerome Kern, Jimmy McHugh, and, later, Coleman, with whom she wrote two hit musicals, Sweet Charity and Seesaw. Other than the fact of her collaboration with Coleman, she seemed at first glance to have little in common with Leigh, whether as a lyricist (their styles were totally different) or as a person (Fields was likable and professional, Leigh spiky and difficult).
Yet beneath the polished surfaces of their contrasting writing styles, Fields and Leigh (both Jewish girls from New York) were cut from the same distinctive cloth of character. As lyricists, they viewed the world—in particular, the world of men—with a bright, knowing sassiness tinged with cynicism that is their shared defining characteristic. And though they wrote believably, even poignantly, of romance, their songs very frequently hint at the fact that men and women in love have been known to do more together when alone than hold hands.
For this reason, it is surprising that they have never been written about in tandem other than in You Fascinate Me So, Andy Propst’s 2015 biography of Coleman. But while there is no biography of Leigh, several books about Fields have been written, the latest of which, Kristin Stultz Pressley’s recently published and very fine I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby: Dorothy Fields and Her Life in the American Musical Theater,1 makes no mention of Leigh save in passing. Her absence was a missed opportunity to make a good book even better.
UNLIKE LEIGH, Fields was born into a show-business family. Lew, her father, started out as a vaudeville comedian, half of Weber and Fields, a “dialect act” portraying two immigrants struggling to master English. The act had its heyday at the turn of the 20th century, after which Fields became a theatrical producer.
Young Dorothy longed to go on the stage, too, but Lew forbade it, so she wrote poetry as a stopgap and waited for an opportunity to move into lyric writing. It came when, in 1928, she met the composer Jimmy McHugh, an all-purpose tunesmith. They worked together from then until 1935, producing a steady stream of enduring hits, the best remembered of which are “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Then Fields severed their partnership—it is thought that she and McHugh had also been romantically involved, but neither ever admitted it—and started working with a number of other composers in Hollywood and on Broadway. The most distinguished was Jerome Kern, with whom she wrote “A Fine Romance” and “The Way You Look Tonight” for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to sing in Swing Time.
One striking thing about Fields’s lyrics is how straightforward and unaffected they invariably sound, a quality singled out for praise by Stephen Sondheim, who admires her work so much that he paid subtle homage to her in “Losing My Mind,” a song from Follies that evokes her style. “What I like best about Dorothy Fields is her colloquialism and her effortlessness,” he has said, a compliment echoed by Fields’s colleagues, among them Betty Comden.2 “The marvelous thing about the way Dorothy wrote is that her lyrics were inventive without being tricky,” Comden said. “She didn’t engage in clever wordplay for its own sake. She could do it—but she never compromised her direct, fresh manner of expressing a thought.”
Nowhere are these characteristics more advantageously displayed than in “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby,” whose immaculate craftsmanship is imperceptible to the casual listener. One hears only a universally intelligible sentiment expressed in deceptively commonplace language: “Dream awhile, scheme awhile, / We’re sure to find / Happiness, and, I guess, / All those things you’ve always pined for.” That is the quality Johnny Mercer had in mind when he made this comparison: “To me she’s like John O’Hara. He had such a terrific ear for dialogue—she has it for lyrics.”
Yet Fields’s colloquialism was also perfectly suited to her adult view of sexuality, which is delightfully embodied in “A Fine Romance.” The first verse, sung by Rogers to Astaire in Swing Time, is the quintessence of her style, at once slangy and elegantly turned—not to mention warm-blooded: “We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes, / But you’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes.”
LEIGH’S LYRICS are far more overtly virtuosic, though at no time ostentatiously so. But she made even the cleverest of triple and quadruple rhymes tell, never more so than in “Witchcraft,” one of the first hits she wrote with Cy Coleman: “When you arouse the need in me, / My heart says, ‘Yes, indeed’ in me, / Proceed with what you’re leadin’ me to.” Like “A Fine Romance,” it, too, speaks of sexuality, albeit more directly—small wonder that Sinatra made so much of it on record—and Leigh’s lyric sits on Coleman’s finger-snappingly hip tune like a bespoke suit.
A native of the Bronx, Leigh worked as a secretary and a copywriter until, in 1950, she landed her first songwriting contract. She already had an important Broadway show under her belt, Jerome Robbins’s 1954 musical version of Peter Pan, by the time she met and began working with Coleman. He was the only golden-age songwriter to have started out as a full-time jazz instrumentalist, an experience that shaped his composing style: His songs are built out of the short, swinging rhythmic phrases that jazzmen call “riffs,” and he also employed with total ease the chromatically altered harmonies of modern jazz.
Leigh’s sharp-witted lyrics meshed with Coleman’s urbanely jazzy style, especially in “Witchcraft” and “I’ve Got Your Number,” written for Little Me (1962), the second of their two Broadway shows, a modest hit in which Sid Caesar played seven roles (the first, Wildcat, a 1961 vehicle for Lucille Ball, had closed after just 171 performances). As is so often the case with Leigh’s songs, “I’ve Got Your Number” has a brash, wised-up quality through whose crackling rhymes the romantic uncertainty that also permeates her ballads is clearly audible: “Oh, yes, you brag a lot, / Wave your own flag a lot. / But you’re unsure a lot, / You’re a lot like me.”
Leigh’s sole limitation as a lyricist was that she had no talent for varied characterization. Once again, Sondheim, a great admirer who believed her to be “the most brilliant technician” of all the golden-age lyricists, nailed it when he wrote that she was “not a stage writer” by nature and wrote not about the characters in a show but about multiple aspects of herself. “Many of her theater songs,” Sondheim said, “could be switched among the show’s characters with little disruption.” This may help to explain why only one of the musicals on which she worked, Peter Pan, has held the stage—and she was not its sole lyricist (Betty Comden and her partner Adolph Green were credited as well). Nor was Leigh easy to work with. Full of longing but irascible in temperament and unlucky in love, she was an unhappy woman and an awkward collaborator. Her partnership with Coleman was dissolved by mutual agreement after Little Me opened, foundering on the rocky shoals of her personality.
She wrote only one show after Little Me, the unmemorable How Now, Dow Jones (1967, music by Elmer Bernstein). Thereafter she fell largely silent before her death in 1983, unable to come to terms with the new sound of American popular music.
That puzzlement had also defeated Fields, who wrote no shows between 1959 and 1966. Then Coleman, Neil Simon, and Bob Fosse, the creative team behind Little Me, invited Fields to take her place as the lyricist for Sweet Charity—the story of a frog-kissing whore with a heart of gold. The resulting show was a colossal success that ran for 609 performances and to which Fields, galvanized by the up-to-date talents of her younger collaborators, contributed glistening lyrics to such showstoppers as “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” “I’m a Brass Band,” and the slyly naughty “Big Spender,” a showcase for her undiminished grasp of the American vulgate: “So let me get right to the point. / I don’t pop my cork for every guy I see.”
In 1973, Fields wrote one more musical with Coleman, Seesaw, but even though the show was a hit and her contributions were of high quality—an amazing achievement for a 68-year-old lyricist—the excellent score produced no standards. The ubiquity of rock had long since blocked the way to mass popularity for such golden-age-style show tunes as were still being written. Not that it mattered: Fields had long since established herself as one of the masters of American popular song, and her triumphant late-life success in Sweet Charity made her part of one of the last traditional Broadway musicals to enter the permanent repertory (it opened two years after Fiddler on the Roof and two years before Hair).
Would that the identically talented Carolyn Leigh had lived longer and won more lasting popular recognition, for she deserved it. But Dorothy Fields, whose extraordinary career spanned nearly a half-century, will always be ranked alongside Berlin, Porter, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, and Johnny Mercer—and Carolyn Leigh—as one of the immortal giants of the American songbook.
1 Applause, 212 pages.
2 Comden was herself a successful lyricist (from On the Town in 1944 to The Will Rogers Follies in 1991), but all her work was done in tandem with Adolph Green, and it is impossible to separate out what was hers from what was his.
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