For Mothers’ Day, I thought I’d say a few words about the mothers of us all, the great female musical theatre creators. Broadway, for most of its history, was one of those Old Boys’ Clubs, but, every now and then, women who could write circles around most of the men managed to break through. Their work became part of our collective consciousness and influences us, often anonymously. Which is fine and dandy to some; me, I think more people should know Fine and Dandy has music by Kay Swift. So, here’s to the ladies…
As the father of a daughter, I admit to a certain skittishness about her growing up to go into show business. A century ago, Lew Fields was a famous musical comedy star, and didn’t feel lyric-writing was an acceptable vocation for his daughter, Dorothy. She defied him, and bravely invited him to see a Harlem revue featuring her songs. The singers that night, however, had no respect for the text, replacing her words with embarrassingly smutty jokes. Imagine young Dorothy Fields hurriedly explaining to her dad that the sex-sodden travesty was not from her pen. She was a nice girl! And soon proved successful with songs like I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, On the Sunny Side of the Street and The Way You Look Tonight.
lyrics by Dorothy Fields
Four decades later, Bob Fosse was putting together a musical based on a Fellini film about a whore with heart. People doubted that a rather refined old lady could come up with contemporary and “street” argot for the dancers-for-rent of the Fandango Ballroom. But Sweet Charity landed – pow! – right in a pot of jam, and may be the greatest set of lyrics ever written.
Betty Comden sought an acting career, and became a writer out of necessity. She and lifelong professional partner Adolph Green had a nightclub gig in Greenwich Village, lampooning existing hit songs. Then they learned about this thing called Copyright Infringement, and had to team up with composers who’d provide original melodies. Among the act’s fans was one Leonard Bernstein, and when he was given the opportunity to turn his ballet, Fancy Free, into a musical, he insisted on Comden and Green for book and lyrics. They, in turn, insisted on playing leading roles, thinking performing on Broadway would boost their acting careers. Thankfully for us, On the Town boosted their writing careers. Betty Comden & Adolph Green’s names became synonymous with a certain kind of never-too-serious musical comedy. They wrote the screenplay for what’s considered filmdom’s greatest musical, Singing in the Rain, but I’m far fonder of the two star vehicles of mid-fifties Broadway, Bells Are Ringing and Wonderful Town. The latter was written in a mad rush, as another team’s score was jettisoned just weeks before Rosalind Russell had to start rehearsals due to scheduling issues.
They collaborated with Cy Coleman, who had a predilection for working with female lyricists. He also collaborated with Dorothy Fields and Carolyn Leigh. I treasure Coleman & Leigh songs for their distinctive way of using words:
I have a feeling that beneath the little halo on your noble head
There lies a thought or two the devil might be interested to know
You’re like the finish of a novel that I’ll finally have to take to bed
That’s bold stuff, for the 1950s, putting female lust front and center. But the most-told-tale about Carolyn Leigh involved rehearsals for Little Me, when the producer and director (Bob Fosse) wanted to cut one of her numbers. She could have called the Dramatists Guild, but instead ran out of the theatre and convinced him to enter the theatre. “Officer, arrest that man!” I’ve long wished she lived to complete Smile, because it might have been successful and wacky, but the bard who wrote “If you should survive to 105, think of all you’ll derive out of being alive” died at 57.
Serendipity: a friend just asked about A…My Name Is Alice, the off-Broadway revue devised by Joan Micklin Silver and Julianne Boyd. This fabulous and funny artifact of feminism, circa 1983, utilized a huge number of writers before they became famous including Marta Kauffman, Winnie Holzman, and Lucy Simon. But two friends of mine who never gained fame, Georgia Holof and David Metee, outdid them all, creating the most moving female duet ever penned, Friends.
A contemporary lyricist who never fails to move me is Lynn Ahrens (Once on this Island, My Favorite Year, Ragtime, Seussical, Anastasia). Those ignorant louts who maintain “They sure don’t write them like they used to” are usually usually of her works with composer Stephen Flaherty.
Of course the “just”-a-composer I’m going to mention is Jeanine Tesori. Her least-known credit is musical directing my college revue, The New U. and the following year crafted an equally good varsity show with Alexa Junge. Then I had to wait a few years to see Jeanine make the splash I’d always been certain she’d make. The past 21 years have been electrified with her groundbreaking musicals. Some are not quite like any musical ever seen before, and yet they’re all amazingly different from each other – could any pair be more polar opposites than Thoroughly Modern Millie and Fun Home? Now, part of this may have something to do with all her shows having different lyricists, but I think Jeanine reinvents herself for every show, synthesizing the times and places of her settings. When needed, she’ll utilize multiple styles within the same show, such as when she depicted working class blacks and well-off Jews in 1960s Louisiana for Caroline, or Change. The kitchen appliances sound more like the former.
As I was writing this, I was listening to the relatively new-to-the-scene Shaina Taub. I don’t know if she’s the future. But there’s something to be said for familiarizing oneself with the work of women who write musicals on Mothers’ Day. Leave Battle Him of the Republic and America the Beautiful for another day. Oh, wait: those are by women, too.