UNDERRATED / Waxing lyrical: The case for Dorothy Fields
Wednesday 12 October 1994
The really famous songwriters (Irving Berlin, Cole Porter or Stephen Sondheim) have one big advantage. They wrote the music as well. Mere lyricists are considered as lesser talents. (They also upset record companies who have to pay several different composers to record their material.) The major exceptions - Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein or Fred Ebb - achieved fame by sticking with one composer. Fields, however, worked with everyone from Jerome Kern and Sigmund Romberg to Cy Coleman. Perhaps she should have died young, then she could have summed up an era. But no. Her early work predates Rodgers and Hammerstein, who revolutionised the musical with Oklahoma], while her last, Seesaw (1973), was written 13 years after Hammerstein's death.
At 22 she met composer Jimmy McHugh and two years later they had a hit with the all-black revue Blackbirds of 1928. The show's hit, 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby', its deliberately ornate lyric contrasting with the song's story of poverty and happiness, is a classic Fields ballad. The sweetness is brought out with tight rhymes running into a yearning phrase: 'Dream awhile / Scheme awhile / You're sure to find / Happiness / And I guess / All those things you've always pined for.'
Fields and McHugh went to Hollywood in the Thirties, contributing songs to Dinner at Eight, and there Fields teamed up with Jerome Kern for the score of the Astaire- Rogers Swing Time, coming up with 'The Way You Look Tonight', the sheet music sales of which should have kept her quite nicely.
Slight though several of her projects were (By the Beautiful Sea is nobody's idea of a neglected masterpiece), Fields's best lyrics are character- driven. Redhead (1959) had Gwen Verdon in the title role of Essie Whimple, a waxworker. Few could get away with a number entitled 'Erbie Fitch's Twitch', but Fields did and was justifiably proud of the show's six Tony Awards. Visiting her second cousin, she stalked into the room with her perennial glass of whisky in hand, clocked the record player and barked, 'Ya' got Redhead? Put it on.'
At 62 she was still supplying showstoppers. Her lyrics for Sweet Charity (1966) epitomise what was best about her work. 'Hey Big Spender' has bite and sleaze. It's tough and urban rather than urbane. The hookers' dream of respectability - 'We'll ask the local jet set / To dine on our dinette set' - is perfectly placed in terms of class. Prevailing wisdom has it that you write a hit by generalising, so anyone can sing it. 'If they could see me now' is a great song because it is so specific. 'All I can say is Wow / Wait till the riff and raff / See just exactly how / He signed his autograph.' Fields used to hang out in bars, but clearly it wasn't just the whisky she was after. Her grasp of language came from listening. We should do likewise.
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