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)

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