ON THE RECORD: NoŽl Coward's Cowardy Custard and Dorothy Fields Tribute, "Somethin' Real Special"

By Steven Suskin
17 Nov 2013

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From 1928 on, though, Fields was the only consistent female contributor until Betty Comden came along 15 years later. The first lyricist who appeared to be Fields' equal in style and perhaps talent was Carolyn Leigh, who reached Broadway in 1954. When personality problems made Leigh impossible to work with, composer Cy Coleman replaced her — at the urging of Bob Fosse — with Fields.

In any event, Fields is the only woman lyricist to turn out standard after standard with the top composers of her time. I don't imagine that said top composers considered her a woman lyricist, mind you; just a brilliant lyricist. Consider the immortal 1928 hit "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," the immortal 1936 Oscar-winner "The Way You Look Tonight," and the flavorful "Big Spender" from 1966. They all feature impeccably-written lyrics, and they are all remarkably different.

Fields had a decided advantage, coming in: Her father was renowned Broadway actor/producer Lew Fields, and her brother Herb was the librettist to the up-and-coming Rodgers and Hart. Dorothy got her start, as it was, as a teenaged performer in Rodgers/Hart/Fields amateur shows. It's not every lyricist who gets to make her Broadway book musical debut with a show starring and produced by her father (and yes, it was called Hello, Daddy!). But nepotism had little to do with Fields' career. Just good lyric writing.

By this point, Dorothy had started writing songs for the Cotton Club in Harlem, working with composer Jimmy McHugh. When a producer named Lew Leslie decided to do an all-black revue on Broadway, he not unnaturally called on performers and songwriters from the Cotton Club. Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1928 pulled in crowds for over a year and instantly put McHugh and Fields on the musical map thanks not only to "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" but such winners as "Diga Diga Do" and "Doin' the New Low-Down." The Depression sent Fields to Hollywood, where she fell into a collaboration with the great and demanding Kern. Their work included the hit-filled Astaire-Rogers film "Swing Time," which contains what might be the quintessential Fields lyric: "Pick yourself up, brush yourself off, start all over again."

Fields returned to Broadway in 1939 with the first of three musicals with composer Arthur Schwartz, which was also the first of her three musicals for Ethel Merman. (Fields devised Annie Get Your Gun for Merman as a Kern-Fields musical. When Kern suddenly died, Fields relinquished the lyric assignment to make way for Irving Berlin, although she wrote the libretto with brother Herb.) Over the years, she also worked with composers like Arlen, Romberg and Burton Lane. At 63, when most songwriters of the time were sitting around collecting their ASCAP residuals, she started a new collaboration with the 35-year-old Coleman. This resulted in two contemporary musicals, Sweet Charity and Seesaw, both with lyrics as refreshingly contemporary as can be.

While not as celebrated as her professional brethren — a stellar group in which I'd include Ira Gershwin, Harburg, Mercer and Dietz — I would imagine that they considered her very much in their class. And the songs speak for themselves.