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
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape