Baby sister

It’s my sister’s birthday today.  We’re very close, and she did such a wonderful job putting us up in her home recently, we gave her her birthday gift early.  So this isn’t it.  Besides, as I always feel compelled to remind everyone, this is not a personal blog.

But it got me to thinking about the great brother-sister writing team Herbert and Dorothy Fields.  They had another brother, Joseph, who wrote many a good musical, but they didn’t collaborate with him.  And they very often wrote without each other.

Their father was one of the great musical theatre stars of a century ago, Lew Fields, and he didn’t feel writing songs and musicals was a proper way for his daughter to spend her time.  This was a prevalent feeling, which is one reason there were so few females in the field prior to World War Two. 

Young Dorothy was determined to prove her worth to Daddy, and when she got some songs in a Cotton Club revue, she proudly invited him uptown to hear.  To everyone’s chagrin and embarrassment, the singer didn’t perform what Fields wrote, but substituted words so dirty, no woman of the time would want to be in the same room as her father.  There ensued a big scene.  Had I been in Dorothy’s shoes, I would have been devastated: I can’t stand when people think I’ve written what I haven’t, and I never seem to fit in women’s shoes.

By the following year, Fields had her first hit, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.  I’ve long been bemused that a line in its verse,

My luck is changing, it’s gotten,
From something rotten,
To something worse.

was stolen from Rodgers & Hart’s Where’s That Rainbow

My luck has changed: It’s gotten
From rotten to worse.

That’s from a 1926 show, Peggy-Ann, produced by none other than Lew Fields, with book by Herbert Fields.  I guess nobody minded.

And when the Depression hit, the world soon realized there was no more perfect expression of lower-income ardor than I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.

Soon Dorothy was off to Hollywood, where she collaborated with Oscar Hammerstein’s old partner, Jerome Kern.  Words she penned for him ended up in President Obama’s inaugural address, “we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off” and earned an Oscar (The Way You Look Tonight). Wow: Never thought I’d use “Oscar” twice in the same short paragraph.

But there’s one line in The Way You Look Tonight that absolutely slays me.

Someday when I’m awfully low
When the world is cold
I will feel a glow just thinking of you 
And the way you look tonight.

Oh, but you’re lovely with your smile so warm 
And your cheek so soft
There is nothing for me but to love you 
And the way you look tonight

With each word your tenderness grows
Tearing my fear apart
And that laugh that wrinkles your nose 
Touches my foolish heart

Lovely, never ever change
Keep that breathless charm
Won’t you please arrange it? 
‘Cause I love you
Just the way you look tonight 

Take a look at the rhymes in the first and final stanzas: low/glow and change/(ar-)range.  They kind of sneak up on you because Kern’s repeating a four-note phrase and moving it up the scale when I’m awfully low/When the world is cold/I will feel a glow but the third one doesn’t come to a stop. It continues up in a connected, legato completion of the scale.  This allows Fields to employ a rarely-used device in the second stanza.  Find the rhyme there… Normally, “warm” and “for” don’t rhyme, but because we naturally elide a soft consonant like the r in “for” to the next letter in a line that doesn’t stop, the ear hears “for me” as a rhyme for “warm.”  Say it out loud, sing it to yourself, and then… stand up and applaud.  The lyricist has found a new rhyme with ordinary words that other lyricists couldn’t have found in a million years.

Speaking of other lyricists who couldn’t have found that rhyme in a million years, Stephen Sondheim, in his book Finishing the Hat, has a 3/4 page assessment of Fields that’s quite positive.  As I pointed out a year ago, the headline-making aspect of this book is that Sondheim wrote a bunch of sidebars criticizing and castigating the superior lyricists of the great generation that came before him.  But Fields he praises.  (Although, in doing so, he manages to take pot-shots at Anne Caldwell, Irving Berlin, Lorenz Hart, Frank Loesser, Oscar Hammerstein and Sigmund Romberg; quite a crew.)

The first Broadway show to bear the credit, “Book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields” was Let’s Face It, which had a Cole Porter score.  You probably wouldn’t know this if you’re not like a certain character from Avenue Q, but Let’s Face It was one of the longest-running musicals of the 1940’s. One imagines Dorothy jumping at the chance to work with Porter, even if this meant hiding her lyric-writing light under a bushel.  Later in the 1940’s, Rodgers and Hammerstein had a project they wished to produce, not write, and Jerome Kern was to be the composer, Dorothy the lyricist, and the book by Dorothy and brother Herbert.  (Some years later, R & H collaborated with brother Joseph.)  Sound like the makings of a hit?  Sure, but Jerome Kern had to ruin it all by dying.  He was 60.  The replacement they found was the slightly younger and much healthier Irving Berlin (he didn’t die until he was 101).  Trouble there is, Berlin always wrote his own lyrics, so Dorothy was kicked off the lyricist job.  Berlin generously gave her a share of his income as songwriter.

So what show did this dream team of brilliant theatrical minds come up with?  Annie Get Your Gun.  In terms of quantity of enduring classics emerging from one score, nothing touches Annie Get Your Gun: Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly, The Girl That I Marry, You Can’t Get A Man With a Gun, There’s No Business Like Show Business, They Say It’s Wonderful, Moonshine Lullaby, My Defenses Are Down, I Got Lost In His Arms, I Got The Sun In The Morning, Anything You Can Do.  No wonder the rest of the team thought of Berlin as a bottomless well of talent.  No wonder the world did. 

Herbert and Dorothy Fields fashioned the perfect tale for the time, which was 1946. Soldiers were coming home from war, and that meant taking back the jobs that women had taken from them while they were off soldiering.  It’s hard for us, today, to imagine the emotions back then, concerning Rosie the Riveter as Johnny comes marching home.  Did women want careers?  Possibly, but very few were piping up about it in those pre-feminism days. An overwhelming majority aspired to be “unemployed” mother and wife to a working husband.  World War Two upset the old status quo, one in which female theatre-goers, generally, didn’t work.  Those brave returning servicemen, I feel, repressed an understandable anxiety: What if, while we were overseas, the dames did our jobs just as well as we did?  Or better?  The patriotic thing to do, both genders knew, was for the girls to surrender their jobs for the boys. And marry them.

In Annie Get Your Gun we meet the world’s greatest rifle-shooter, a distinctly unfeminine woman. Her closest competitor, Frank, is looking for a gal “as soft and as pink as a nursery” and yet falls in love with her. Their rivalry as shooters apparently turns them both on. At the climax, it’s very clear to Annie that if she outshoots Frank, she’ll lose him as a lover. What to choose? Is winning a contest more important than winning at romance? Annie does what 99% of women in the post-war era would have done: she chooses to intentionally miss her shot, providing a happy ending for the love story.

Five decades later, Annie Get Your Gun was revived with Bernadette Peters, and veteran librettist Peter Stone (a liberal, it’s worth noting) was hired to rewrite the Fields’ book to make it more politically correct. The prevailing belief was that the audiences of 1999 would not have enough of a sense of history to understand how the show humorously holds up a fun-house mirror to something then happening in American society, the competition between vets and female workers for the same job. After the triumph of feminism in the intervening decades, a man had to alter a plot created by a female writer (and her brother) just so nobody, post-feminism, would be offended by what offended nobody pre-feminism. But don’t blame feminism for this. It’s simply an example of skittish producers not trusting the material in a classic hit musical, underestimating the intelligence of their audience. I’m sure Dorothy Fields was turning in her grave.

For she’d been the pioneer: the female songwriter who’d succeeded in a male-dominated field, simply by being better than the boys. Annie Get Your Gun was her biggest hit, not just because of the wonderful Berlin songs, but because the Annie Oakley story, as she and Herbert chose to tell it, touched a nerve with late 1940’s audiences. With the stock market crash quickly propelling I Can’t Give You Anything But Love to standard status, I may be making it sound like Dorothy Fields led a charmed life, with all that good timing. But her success is more obviously the result of attention to detail, and those breezily singable mellifluous lines that hide the careful artistry that went into them.


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