Don Black: In the Bombay mix

Don Black is accomplished and prolific, but a Jewish lyricist seems an unlikely choice for 'Bombay Dreams', the Bollywood musical which opens tonight. But, as he tells Rhoda Koenig, he and his Asian collaborators found a great deal in common

The names on the poster are the sort you'd expect for the creators of a show called Bombay Dreams: book by Meera Syal, music by AR Rahman, choreography by Farah Khan, lyrics by Don Black. Er, just a minute. What's the son of an East End tailor and nephew of a chief rabbi doing on a show about the Bollywood movie industry? He seems as out of place in that milieu as a matzo ball in mulligatawny. But Black, whose career spans nearly 40 years of work for pop singers, movies, television and theatre, is used to writing for all sorts of characters, and his business is, of course, one of considerable ethnic diversity. So Black read Indian poetry and saw dozens of the extravagant, gaudy Bollywood musicals. Asked his reaction on seeing the first such movie, he expresses it in two short but heartfelt words: "Oi vay."

Actually Black, who says the most important attribute for a lyricist is compression, can answer even more succinctly. Asked to describe Indian lyrics, he needs only one word: "Oblique." Anyone familiar with Black's output might think this a greater problem than his innocence of Asian culture. This is, after all, a man who, asked for the couplet of which he is most proud, quotes a song he wrote for Michael Jackson: "I used to say 'I' and 'me' / Now it's 'us'. Now it's 'we'". But as the title of his compilation show Black Goes With Everything states, he is nothing if not mutable. He has written lyrics for five James Bond themes, for a lion ("Born Free"), for Bloomsbury bed-hoppers (Aspects of Love), and for the undead (his musical Dracula opens on Broadway in the autumn). Andrew Lloyd Webber, his collaborator on Aspects, Song and Dance and Sunset Boulevard, is the producer of Bombay Dreams.

"Indian love songs don't say, 'I love you'," says Black. "They might say, 'I wish I had 100 eyes so I could see more of you'." But songs that displace emotion into rhetorical questions ("How Deep Is the Ocean?", "The End of the World") are also part of the great American songwriting years of the Twenties through to the Fifties. The show's big love song, "How Many Stars?" fits into either tradition. A lady sighing over a love life full of sorrow was a situation Black knew well – he wrote the words to the title tune ofEastEnders – but this lady was a bit different from those he was used to.

"I'd never written for a eunuch before," he says. The result was gratifying. "Everyone can relate to this eunuch. In the previews, the eunuch always gets a big hand." The eunuchs of India, who entertain at weddings, might behave outrageously, but their plight is tailor-made for yearning, the romantic lyricist's major raw material. "Love's never easy," sings the plaintive eunuch. "Someday soon a dream will start / Well, that is what I tell my heart".

If Black didn't get the lyrics right the first time, he heard about it right away. The rest of the team, he says, "went over every syllable like a forensics department. They'd tell me, 'No, you can't say this – it's too sophisticated for a boy from the slums.' This isn't a show for the 'bamboozle her Methuselah' kind of rhymes." Black accepted this restriction, though it went against his professional instincts. "When I heard the name of the show I thought, 'Bombay... Bombay, Bombay... Aha! Flambé!" Writing a teasingly seductive number, Black was pleased at having come up with the line: "Waking up to this / Just imagine that / Much more welcoming than a welcome mat". But when his collaborators heard it, they pounced. No, no, they sternly said. In India we do not have welcome mats!

While Hindus may be discreet about expressing love between a man and a woman they are, like Jews, far from offhand about affirming family ties. Black's most heartfelt number is "The Journey Home", which he quotes, beaming: "Not ev'ry road you come across is one you have to take / No, sometimes standing still can be the best move you ever make". Black's mother loved popular Jewish music, Gypsy music, "anything with a minor chord, she was happy. When I sit at the piano with Rahman, there's a definite bond. When he hits a minor chord, he could be family."

Black started out working for the NME, then as a song plugger, trying to get his publishers' numbers recorded or given air time. "I plugged songs like 'Please Don't Eat the Daisies', Norman Wisdom's 'Don't Laugh at Me'. If you could get a record on Family Favourites, you were a hero. I've often thought I should write something about those days – they were some of the greatest times of my life. You'd go into Julie's Café, and there would be the guy who wrote 'I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus' and the one who wrote 'Lady of Spain', and after a while they'd say they were off to take a walk in the park to try to get an idea for a new song. I thought this was a wonderful life – you got paid for dreaming." Black switched to the creative side when an Austrian Eurovision song for which he wrote English lyrics became a hit, but he has given generously of his time and expertise through his leadership of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors, and of the recently defunct Vivian Ellis awards, which provided a yearly showcase for young writers – not always a pretty spectacle. (The one time I went, I left after a comedy sketch between Freud and Hitler.) "We thought there was a lot of talent out there," he says sadly, "but I guess that Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, people like that came out of a specific historical moment."

But Black has come out of his pretty well. Along with Bombay Dreams and Dracula, a third musical, Romeo and Juliet, is on the boards this year. "There have been productions in Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Montreal. It is slowly sweeping the world."

But one thing bothers this man of frugal habits. "Maybe I could use 'Bombay-flambé' in a restaurant. I could have a guy order steak Diane! Or baked Alaska!"

But Don, I say, nobody orders these things any more.

Don Black is not discouraged. "It could be an old guy!"

'Bombay Dreams' opens tonight at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, London SW1 (0870 4000 650)

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn