MUSICALS / Returning to the scene of the rhyme

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DON Black writes lyrics for a living. Most recently, he's been writing them for the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Sunset Boulevard, collaborating with the playwright Christopher Hampton. Clearly there's money in this kind of work. Black's new flat in Holland Park - all high ceilings and huge windows - used to belong to Holman Hunt, the pre-Raphaelite painter. Hampton, incidentally, owns William Morris's old gaffe. Lloyd Webber, meanwhile, sticks to collecting the paintings. And presumably, when Sunset Boulevard opens on Monday, all three of them will be laughing all the way to the auctioneers.

But Black's deal is for a share of the box office, so he's seen no money yet for two years' work. And there are, he insists, as he leads you through to the garden, talking in rapid cockney and twitching the gold jewellery on his wrist, no guarantees.

'Getting a musical together is like doing your own root canal work. And it's amazing how many people get it wrong. You get Alan J Lerner in the same room with Andre Previn and Katherine Hepburn and they do a musical called Coco Chanel and it closes. Or you get Richard Rodgers in a room with Danny Kaye and they do a musical called Two by Two about Noah, and it closes. There is no certainty. It's about as scary as having lunch with Michael Winner.'

Lloyd Webber first talked to Black about turning Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard into a musical in 1979, just after they had written the song-cycle Tell Me on a Sunday. Black went to Lloyd Webber's house with a notebook and Lloyd Webber screened the film. 'We wrote two songs at that point - one from the butler's point of view called 'Madam Takes a Lot of Looking After', and a theme for Norma Desmond, called 'One Star'. '

But then Lloyd Webber went off to make Cats, taking the melody for 'One Star' with him, where it became 'Memory'. And Black assumed the idea was ditched, until he finished working with Lloyd Webber on Aspects of Love and it surfaced again.

'When Andrew shows you something he's written, he doesn't just say, 'Here it is . . . what do you think of that?' He will play you something like 64 bars before he plays you the tune - he'll sit at the piano and talk you right through it, playing all the time, setting the atmosphere up: 'Norma walks in . . . then I think we should go to G minor as she turns round and looks at Joe . . . and he says, 'I'm just a writer', and then she turns to him and sings' - and off he goes into the tune. He's like a musical dramatist, shoe-horning you into the mood.'

Black makes an apt partner in the mainstream business of Lloyd Webber. He knows about musical theatre but he also takes cues from pop. 'It doesn't have to be 'My Funny Valentine', it doesn't have to be Sondheim. There are great lyrics from Don McLean and Billy Joel and Paul Simon. And it's just as hard to write those kinds of songs. It's hard to write a 'Gypsies Tramps and Thieves' for Cher, or an 'I Will Survive' for Gloria Gaynor. These are great pop ideas, but they're maligned, frowned upon.'

Then again, Black, who has managed to rhyme 'brochure' with 'kosher' in a lyric for Sunset Boulevard, says he frequently wishes pop songs were better crafted. 'I like Janis Ian's 'At 17', but the rhyming is awful. In musical theatre, you don't get bum rhymes - you'll never get someone rhyming 'mine' with 'time', like Bob Dylan. For me, when you've got the expectancy of a rhyme and it doesn't come, it's like letting the air out of a tyre - it sags where it should crackle. I don't think you'll find an impure rhyme in Sunset Boulevard.'

Black's biggest successes have been with film numbers which doubled as pop songs - 'Diamonds are Forever', 'Born Free', 'To Sir with Love'. He wrote 'Ben', a song for a movie about a boy's relationship with his pet rat, which Black wisely generalised so that it became a number about friendship more broadly. Michael Jackson had a number one hit with 'Ben' before his voice broke (or rather, before it didn't), and it remains the pop star's favourite song, which means that Black still gets the call to pay Jackson an annual visit. 'He especially likes the bridge: 'I used to say I and me / Now it's us, now it's we'.' The topic of their most recent conversation was the virtue of the song 'Thumbelina' from the movie Hans Christian Andersen. 'There's a side to Michael that no one has captured,' says Black, not unreasonably.

Any songwriter is looking to come up with something which carries on generating income through time, and many of Black's lyrics have managed that - albeit sometimes in ways beyond his control. Ben just happened to become a popular boy's name again in the early 1980s; 'Born Free', which was originally about a lion, got taken up by the anti- abortionists in America, where it now gets trumpeted in churches; and 'To Sir With Love', originally a hit for Lulu, has turned into a standard graduation number in American High Schools. As Black says, 'Catch a universal theme and you're home. 'Tell Me on a Sunday' was about letting someone down easy: 'Take me to a park, covered with trees / Tell me on a Sunday, please.' I'm not saying it's the world's greatest, but it's just something that hasn't been said in that way. You're just looking for those little openings.

'I think Sunset Boulevard is Andrew's richest work, in terms of extractable songs. Richard Rodgers always used to say, 'You've got to give them a take-home song,' and I think we've done it here.'

Then again, Barbra Streisand has already extracted the ballad 'As If We Never Said Goodbye', and failed to hoist it high in the charts (it popped briefly into the Top 30 and popped out again). 'But it's very hard to get a ballad like that away. Radio 1 won't play this stuff. Radio 2 played it, but with Radio 2 listeners, the last record they bought was by Bobby Jezebel so it doesn't help much.'

So Black's hopes now rest with 'The Perfect Year', a New Year's Eve song in the writing of which he seems to have located not so much a little opening as a yawning chasm. 'Irving Berlin did 'White Christmas' and 'Easter Parade', but apart from 'Auld Lang Syne', there's never been a New Year's Eve song. 'We don't need a crowded ball-room / Everything I want is here / If you're with me, next year will be / A perfect year.' That could apply to so many people on New Year's Eve. I personally think this will be the song from it - maybe not instantly, but eventually.'

It was Lloyd Webber's suggestion that Christopher Hampton should be brought in. It must have seemed an unlikely combination - the east-ender who knocked about in Denmark Street and knew Matt Monro when he was only a podgy bus-driver working in tandem with an Oxford languages graduate and former resident dramatist at the Royal Court. 'I've always thought of him as very much an erudite egg-head who translates Ibsen and Moliere and all that stuff - not my world at all, not the world of songs.'

But they rubbed along. 'What we worked hardest on was keeping the tone, not veering off too much, which is a danger with musicals. Most musicals start off as intimate little shows and before you know where you are people are dancing on pianos. It was particularly easy with this show to think we needed big production numbers, because the story is really only about four or five people, but audiences expect lots of singing, lots of dancing. It's a songwriter's tendency to go poetic and Christopher Hampton was very good at saying, 'But she wouldn't say that - it may be a great song, but forget about it.'

'We had an opening number called 'Let's Do Lunch' - really racy, everyone charging about saying, 'Great to see ya, how ya doin'? Let's do lunch.' But everyone said, 'They didn't say 'let's do lunch' in 1950.' We checked with Paramount, with Billy Wilder, and there's always an expert on everything - so someone was found who knew that the phrase came in at precisely 2.30pm on 15 July 1985. So the number is now called 'Let's Have Lunch'. Which works, but to me it's not quite the same. You have to keep monitoring yourself, though. You don't want to start the show off and the first thing you hear is an anachronism.'

In the end, something like 75 per cent of the dialogue has come directly from the film. 'The greatest praise we've had is from Billy Wilder, who's read the book and saw a video. He said, 'The writers hit on a staggeringly good idea - they decided not to change it'.'

And if it runs and runs, Don Black will take his share of the box office and buy a full- size snooker table for his large flat in Holland Park.

(Photograph omitted)