Theatrenow went to meet Don Black on a break from his promotion of Bombay Dreams, for which he has written the lyrics. As he made clear, he may love songs and shows, but he takes the art of lyric writing very seriously.
Black wrote the lyrics for three Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals: Sunset Boulevard (with Christopher Hampton), Aspects of Love (with Charles Hart) and "Tell Me on a Sunday" (combined with "Variations" to form Song & Dance).
You are working with Andrew Lloyd Webber again, but this time he's the producer not the composer. What is it like to work with A. R. Rahman, a creative talent from a very different musical tradition?: "Rahman is a genius, but as he comes from such a different culture, working with him took a bit of time getting used to!"
What were the most striking differences? "There were two, really. You'd be chatting about a song, and suddenly he's get up and leave the room. Before I got to know him well I thought, 'Has he gone to the loo? Is it something I said?' but what he actually does is just get up, go out, and pray. He's a very spiritual man. "The other thing is he has a wholly different attitude to deadlines in the creative process from the Western one, which I'm obviously used to. His approach is the song will come when it comes, which is a bit nerve-wracking to start with, but — along with a bit of prompting from me regarding deadlines — it eventually seemed to work."
A question that most people have is, what comes first — the music or the lyric? "I like to write down ideas for songs. Usually titles, but also a line or two that may come into my head, or an idea for a song, but there has to be some music for me to then apply the idea, or the line or whatever. Rahman would write a lot of music, in which there would be a relatively short bit of melody — stunning melody — that I would be able to pick out and say, 'Yes! That's our song!' and work with it."
You've had an amazing career as a lyricist: an Oscar for "Born Free," the Michael Jackson hit "Ben," several James Bond numbers including "Diamonds Are Forever," and that's really another interview, but what is the essence of a good lyric? "It has to make the song sing. It has to fit the music exactly — to hug the contours of the music. When you get the lyrics right, the music soars too, the song takes off — like 'With One Look' in Sunset Boulevard, for example. Sing those three words to that melody, and you're there."
Has this been harder with Indian music? "No. It's been different, of course, but Rahman has come up with such amazing music . . . It's obviously up to the critics and the public to make up their minds, but I think this show is revolutionary. It's a very brave step for Andrew Lloyd Webber to take as a producer, because it's taking West End musicals somewhere they've never been before, and introducing a very different style of music — of culture.
"The Indian music scenes, the Bollywood film industry, it's all obviously very different to what the West End is used to. The dancing is a wholly different style, and is done for its own sake — the action more or less stops while there's a fabulous dance number. The dancing is very sexy, but the songs are much more restrained, they're lyrical, poetic. They don't further the plot as such: Their role is to heighten the emotions that the characters are feeling at that stage instead.
"I've got some other very exciting projects I'm working on [a Broadway musical of Dracula and an English-language production of the hit French musical Romeo and Juliet], but Bombay Dreams is certainly the most important in terms of the potential for the future development of the musical — that I've ever worked on."
Bombay Dreams opens at the Apollo Victoria on June 19.
—By Paul Webb Theatrenow