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
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat