July 15, 1905– Dorothy Fields
In his first inauguration speech, President Barack Obama pleaded:
“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.“
He was referencing the lyrics from Pick Yourself Up: “Pick yourself up; dust yourself off; start all over again”. The popular song was composed in 1936 by Jerome Kern, with lyrics by the great Dorothy Fields. It was written for the film musical Swing Time (1936), where it was introduced by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. You can’t do better than that! In the movie, Rogers plays a dance instructor whom Astaire follows into her studio; he pretends to have “two left feet” to get her to dance with him. Astaire sings the verse to her and she responds with the chorus. After an interlude, they dance to the tune. It is one of the very greatest of dance duets on film, boundlessly joyous, endlessly watchable.
Like the eloquence of our former President, it is a lyric that is lofty and folksy at the same time. It speaks of what we aspire to, what we hope to attain, but it does it in the common language of the people. The words were written by a rare breed of bird: a female lyricist.
Fields’ range as a lyric writer often comes as a surprise because composers with whom she wrote: Kern, Arthur Schwartz, Sigmund Romberg, Cy Coleman, are all more famous than Fields. But she contributed a rich catalog of popular music that includes the standards: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Exactly Like You, On the Sunny Side Of The Street, A Fine Romance, The Way You Look Tonight, Big Spender and many, many others.
In her 50 years as a lyricist, Fields wrote words for more than 400 songs for 19 musicals, and 25 films. She was the only woman among the first 10 people inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.
Her family was deeply involved in showbiz. Her father, Lew Fields, was a Jewish immigrant from Poland who partnered with Joe Weber to become one of the most popular comedy duos of the early years of Vaudeville. They were known as “Weber and Fields”. When the act broke up in 1904, Lew Fields became one of the most influential theatre producers the 20th century. From 1904 through 1916, he produced 40 Broadway shows, and was even nicknamed “The King of Musical Comedy”. She had two older brothers, Joseph Fields and Herbert Fields, who also became successful on Broadway: Joseph as a writer and producer, and Herbert as a writer who later became his sister’s collaborator.
Yet, her father disapproved of her choice to pursue acting and did everything he could to prevent her from becoming a success. When she was 17 years old, he refused to let her take a job with a theatre company in Yonkers. Instead, Fields worked as a teacher and a laboratory assistant, while secretly submitting work to magazines.
Fields’s career as a songwriter took off in 1928 when Jimmy McHugh, who had seen some of her work, invited her to provide some lyrics for him for the Broadway musical revue Blackbirds Of 1928, with an all-Black cast that included the great Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
The show introduced the song I Can’t Give You Anything But Love. It ran for 518 performances, becoming the longest running all-Black show on Broadway, featuring the Blackbirds Beauty Chorus and the Famous Blackbirds Orchestra.
The next year, the entire original Broadway production opened at the Moulin Rouge in Paris where it became the hit of the season. It ran for three months before returning to the USA for a road tour.
Fields and McHugh were a team until 1935. They wrote specialty numbers for the various Cotton Club revues, many were made hits when recorded by Duke Ellington.
In the mid-1930s, Fields started to write lyrics for films and collaborated with other composers. With Kern, she worked on the film version of Roberta (1935) and had their greatest success, Swing Time. The song The Way You Look Tonight, a foxtrot sung by Astaire, seated at a piano, while Rogers is busy washing her hair in another room, brings nostalgic romanticism to the affair, but later, when the music is danced to as part of Never Gonna Dance sequence, it provides a mood of somber poignancy. With enduring appeal, this song is regularly featured in modern films Chinatown (1974) and My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997). The Way You Look Tonight won Fields and McHugh an Academy Award.
Fields returned to New York City and worked again on Broadway shows as a librettist and lyricist, collaborating with Arthur Schwartz on Stars In Your Eyes (1939) with Jimmy Durante and Ethel Merman, and they re-teamed for the lovely A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1951). In the 1940s, she teamed up with her brother Herbert, with whom she wrote the books for three Cole Porter shows, Let’s Face It! (1941) with Danny Kaye, Eve Arden, Vivian Vance and Nanette Fabray; Something For The Boys (1944) with Merman and Mexican Hayride (1946) with June Havoc.
In 1946, Fields approached Oscar Hammerstein II with her idea for a musical based on the life of famous female sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Hammerstein liked the idea and agreed to produce the show. Kern and Fields were signed on to write the songs. Kern died before the project got started, and Irving Berlin was hired to replace him. Berlin did his own lyrics, he is one of the greats, but Fields and her brother wrote the book for Annie Get Your Gun, while Berlin provided the score. The show was a huge success, starring Merman, and ran for 1,147 performances. In 1959, she wrote book and lyrics to Albert Hague‘s music for the Broadway musical Redhead with Gwen Verdon, a hit that won six Tony Awards.
Fields had a remarkably long career, with successes in 1920s through the 1970s, writing some of the most enduring and romantic lyrics for theatre and film songs. To me, her words are inventive without being showoff-ish, direct, fresh, almost conversational.
Fields was prolific, and she wrote with speed, often completing a song in a day. She liked to have three or four cocktails in the afternoon, but who doesn’t? Yet, her lyrics are always sharp and smart. I met her at a Christmas party when I worked at ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) in the mid-1970s. She reminded me a bit of Lillian Hellman, but with a sense of humor.
I think her masterpiece has to be Sweet Charity (1966) with music by the great Cy Coleman. Sweet Charity is the baby of a five-person creative team: Fields, Coleman, Bob Fosse, Verdon and Neil Simon. At 61 years old, Fields was a generation older than the other four. Yet, she showed her talent for slang and colloquialisms and she used an authentic, evocative street-talk in her work for this show. Sweet Charity was one of the last Broadway musicals where individual songs became popular radio hits with Big Spender and If My Friends Could See Me Now covered by various recording artists.
In 1973, she worked on a second show with Coleman (they did not get along), her last, the under-appreciated Seesaw (1972), then she finished where she started, in New York City, gone at 68 years old.
I was in a 1971 summer stock production of Sweet Charity, and this Fields lyric became one my favorites:
Where am I going?
And what will I find?
What’s in this grab-bag that I call my mind?
What am I doing alone on the shelf?
Ain’t it a shame,
No one’s to blame, but myself…
Which way is clear?
When you’ve lost your way year after year?
Do I keep falling in love
For just the kick of it?
Staggering through the thin and thick of it,
Hating each old and tired trick of it.
Know what I am,
I’m good and sick of it!
Where am I going?
Why do I care?
Run to the Bronx, or Washington Square,
No matter where I run I meet myself there,
Looking inside me, what do I see?
Anger and hope and doubt,
What am I all about?
And where am I going?