Welcome! Fridays are the day when we at the McElrath Cabaret Blog are going to present blog posts in our Cabaret Through Time series. We are going to present historical cabaret singers, venues, writers, and musicians, and will begin to compile a cabaret timeline. We hope that you find it informative, and that you enjoy it!
Dorothy Fields–American Songbook Lyricist And Librettist
Today I will focus on Dorothy Fields, a giant in the field of American Songbook lyricists. Her vast repertoire of standards offer a great deal of fodder for the cabaret performer who is looking for witty and stylish lyrics in songs to perform. So much has been written about Dorothy Fields that is impossible to include in a short blog post, so I can only select some of the highlights to share with you, as well as some personal favorities.
A Brief Timeline For Dorothy Fields (NOT a complete one, only highlights. Please visit the Songwriters Hall of Fame for more biographical information as well as a complete song list):
- 1904—birth; grew up in New York City
- 1928—worked with Jimmy McHugh; wrote “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”
- 1930–wrote “On The Sunny Side Of The Street”
- 1936–worked with Jerome Kern; wrote the music for the Fred Astaire movie Swingtime, which included “A Fine Romance,” “Pick Yourself Up,” and “The Way You Look Tonight,” for which she won an Academy Award.
- 1945 and earlier–Fields began writing books as well as lyrics.
- 1946–Fields and her brother Herbert write the book for the Irving Berlin musical, Annie Get Your Gun
- 1951–worked with Harold Arlen
- 1951–worked with Arthur Schwartz on the Broadway musical A Tree Grows In Brooklyn
- 1960s–wrote songs for Sweet Charity with Cy Coleman, including “Hey, Big Spender,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” and more.
- 1973–wrote songs for Seesaw with Cy Coleman
A fantastic volume that goes into detail about the life and times of Dorothy Fields is by Charlotte Greenspan, entitled Pick Yourself Up: Dorothy Fields and the American Musical. From this volume you will learn about the early years of Dorothy Fields, and her rise to stardom, as well as Fields’ own reflections of the many hits that she wrote during her prolific career, which include such classics as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “On The Sunny Side Of The Street,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now.”
Greenspan, Charlotte. Pick Yourself Up: Dorothy Fields And The American Musical. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
From Pick Yourself Up, we learn that Dorothy Fields came from a showbiz family. Her father was a famous vaudeville comic and went on to become a respected producer of Broadway shows, while her brother Herbert was known as a librettist who worked with many famous people, most notably Dorothy as well as Rogers and Hart. She was named after Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz (12).
She was greatly influenced by the lyric writing of Lorenz Hart. She relates that:
“I was so impressed with the inter-rhyming and the feminine hybrid rhymes of Larry Hart that I was not writing like anybody but trying to be like Larry and consequently they [her lyrics] weren’t very good. I didn’t realize then that that was a very special thing, but that the best lyric writing is the simple lyric writing, and if you don’t have a good initial thought, no amount of rhyming dictionaries and thesauruses can ever pull you over the hump” (41). (my bold)
The composer with whom she wrote the smash hit, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” Jimmy McHugh, tells of how they came up with the idea for that classic song:
“One day as Dorothy Fields and I were walking along Fifth Avenue, we stopped to glance in Tiffany’s window. A boy and girl walked up to us as we stood there, and we heard the young man remark to his girl, ‘Gee, I wish I could give you everything, Baby, but I’m afraid all I can give you is plenty of love.’ Needless to say, this was real inspiration, so Dorothy and I hurried home to put it down in music and words” (47).
Some favorite songs:
This is a fun clip that features Elaine Stritch and others singing from the Fields Songbook–what’s not to love?
This next is one of my all-time favorite songs, which I love performing. It is from A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, which was a book flop yet yielded this wonderful song, sung by the clarion-voiced Barbara Cook: ”Make The Man Love Me.”
What is your favorite Dorothy Fields song? Why do you enjoy performing it as a cabaret artist, or listening to it as a cabaret afficianado? Are there other cabaret artists, venues, writers or musicians that you would like to see featured in the Cabaret Through Time series? Please do share in the comments below!