They’re Playing Our Song

This is a really fun set of interviews by theater historian Max Wilk with some of the greatest songwriters in American history; some wrote popular songs, some wrote for the theater, most did both. Long and personal interviews with Rodgers and Hart, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Comden and Green, Yip Harburg, Frank Loesser, Dorothy Fields, and others.

It was published in 1973, and a lot has happened since then, but it’s a great snapshot at a time when all these folks were still alive and able to be interviewed.

Among my favorite quotes/excerpts from some of the interviews:

Johnny Mercer: What you do know, though, is, it’s got to be different. It can’t be just another damn show. There are so many of those. Almost all the shows that come into town are not original, they’re all like something else. And I—well, this will sound conceited to you, but I just don’t want to write Hello, Dolly! I think it’s a dreary show. West Side Story was a strong show, or [The] King and I. That’d be the kind of show I’d like to write, one that has some substance, with a lot of original ideas and great songs. (p. 147)

Jule Styne: In some strange way, all the guys that have made their way in the musical theatre as composers are dramatists, because they have given the character. When you can give characterization, you are a dramatist. So I was growing up with this all the time, layer upon layer of know-how, and then came Gypsy. Of course, that was the biggest kind of landmark that ever was for me. I became the superb dramatist out of that because, GOd, I mean, to me that was like Traviata—that first act, writing a thing like “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, which was so macabre, with this child thing, and the woman crying, and all that. It was just unbelievable. It was, of course, one of the greatest shows I have done. (p. 176)

Sammy Cahn: Now, you ask which comes first, the words or the music? I’ll tell you which—the money! Or the phone call—or the request! Which we have. I go to the typewriter and I sit down with a piece of yellow paper which is my work sheet. I look at it about two, three minutes and I start to type. The title. “Three coins in the fountain, each one seeking happiness. Thrown by three hopeful lovers, which one will the fountain bless?” That took me two or three minutes to type. Now, as simple as it sounds, it is the result of twenty years of lyric writing. (p. 198)

A great read for any musical theater person who’s also curious about its intersection with popular songwriting (which is, of course, one of its roots, but some younger folks like us tend to forget about that, since in the 1960s popular music and theater music diverged).