The Sunny Side of the Street
A tribute to Dorothy Fields devised by Tim McArthur & Sarah Travis with music by Cy Coleman, Jerome Kern, Arthur Schwartz, Jimmy McHugh, Sigmund Romberg and Harold Arlen, all to lyrics by Fields
Rosemary Ashe, Leanne Jones, Helen Hobson, Jane Milligan & Shona White
Tim McArthur – Director
Sarah Travis – Musical Director / Arranger / Keyboard
Philip Aiden – Choreographer
David Shields – Set & Costume Designer
Phil Spencer Hunter – Lighting Designer
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 23 June, 2012
Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre, London
In a world where nobody remembers or even acknowledges who wrote the music for a popular song, you would hardly expect anyone to remember the lyricists involved. They are the great unsung (!) heroes and heroines of the entertainment world. Ask the man or the woman in the street to name a popular composer or lyricist from the golden age of Tin Pan Alley or Broadway theatre and they might answer George & Ira Gershwin, Rodgers & Hammerstein (but not Rodgers & Hart), maybe Kander & Ebb or Stephen Sondheim but most punters would be in total ignorance of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen & Yip Harburg, or even Noël Coward and Cole Porter, although if they are of a certain age they will certainly know the songs that these eminent word- and tune-smiths wrote.
The name of Dorothy Fields is even more obscure, even though she wrote lyrics for some of the most iconic songs of the twentieth-century with some of the most prolific and successful composers of popular music. She contributed to over 400 songs in her long career which started in the 1920s, writing songs for the Harlem Cotton Club, and lasted for fifty years via Hollywood and Broadway, until her comparatively early death in 1974 at age 68. During that period, a golden age for American popular and theatre songs, Fields wrote with composers such as Jimmy McHugh, Jerome Kern, Arthur Schwartz, Richard Rodgers, Herbert Stothart, Harold Arlen, Sigmund Romberg, Albert Hague, Cy Coleman and even violinist Fritz Kreisler! With her brother Herbert, Fields wrote the librettos of three shows by Cole Porter, Let’s Face It!, Something for the Boys and Mexican Hayride. They were going to write the book of Annie Get Your Gun with Jerome Kern but he died suddenly and they continued with Irving Berlin and it became one of their biggest successes.
Fields began with a hit song and never looked back. Written with Jimmy McHugh for the show Blackbirds of 1928, it was ‘I can’t give you anything but love, baby’, quickly followed by ‘On the sunny side of the street’. Moving from revue to movies McHugh and Fields wrote for films including Love in the Rough, Singin’ the Blues, Cuban Love Song, Dinner at Eight and Clowns in Clover. In 1935 ‘I’m in the mood for love’ and ‘I feel a song coming on’ appeared in Every Night at Eight. Had Fields only written those four numbers with McHugh, they would be worthy of a place in the Musical Hall of Fame, but there was so much more.
For the 1935 film of Roberta with Fred Astaire, McHugh and Fields provided a new lyric for a Kern song he had written with Oscar Hammerstein II. It became ‘I won’t dance’ and remains a classic. With Kern, Fields also wrote for the next Astaire & Rogers picture, Swingtime, in 1936, which has such marvellous songs as ‘A fine romance’, ‘Pick yourself up’, ‘Waltz in swing time’ and ‘The way you look tonight’, the last winning an Academy Award.
Back in the theatre she wrote for Romberg’s Broadway operetta Up in Central Park and teamed up with Arthur Schwartz on his musicals A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1951) and By the Beautiful Sea (1954). With Albert Hague she wrote Redhead for Gwen Verdon, a Broadway show that garnered six Tony Awards in 1959. Success pursued Fields to the end of her life. In 1966 she collaborated with Cy Coleman on Sweet Charity, a musical based on the Fellini film Notte di Cabiria, with a book by Neil Simon and Bob Fosse directing. It was filmed by Fosse with Shirley MacLaine. From it came the songs ‘Big spender’ and ‘If my friends could see me now’. In 1973, another collaboration with Coleman, Seesaw, was not a success but did include terrific songs, of which ‘It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish’ and ‘Nobody does it like me’ are showstoppers.
They are all included in The Sunny Side of the Street compilation show for which Tim McArthur and Sarah Travis have collected three-dozen of Fields’s total output (less than a tenth), a good selection that shows the lyricist at her very best. There is no attempt to cover her life in any biographical way for the songs sing for themselves. The show is set in a ladies hairdressing salon called Dottie’s (what else?) which is about to receive notice to quit. The cast plays the staff and customers and the songs are performed with hardly any breaks as solos and ensembles or medleys. There is no dialogue and it’s a nifty way of getting across the feeling and style that Fields had for words. Not for her the obvious rhyme or the stereotypical phrase. Fields’s writing is carefully concise, apt, adept, to the point and as fluent as conversation but executed with a poetic turn of phrase. Her lyrics stand up without the music.
The compilation jumps back and forth in time. However, the quality of songs never waivers, showing no diminution in staying power. She can be witty and playful and tragically romantic. ‘Close as pages in a book’, written by Fields with Sigmund Romberg for Up in Central Park, and ‘Make the man love me’, written with Arthur Schwartz for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are Fields at her torch-song best, her words describing the yearning nature and the regrets of being in love. Shona White sings them both and the feelings of emotion are palpably felt.
The placing of one song next to another produces some beguiling moments, such as when Helen Hobson sings ‘Terribly attractive’ (from Schwartz’s Stars in Your Eyes) to be followed immediately by Jane Milligan screaming down the phone ‘I won’t dance’ which is a preamble to ‘This is it’ sung by White followed by Rosemary Ashe and ‘Blue again’ – running the gamut of every emotion going. Other highlights include Mesdames Ashe, Milligan and White in ‘Love is the reason’, a delicious ‘list’ song originally sung by Shirley Booth.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has a great score including ‘He had refinement’ in which Ashe’s character recalls her husband Harry and his funny little ways. A good sprinkling of the early hits such as ‘Pick yourself up’, ‘Blue again’, ‘Lovely to look at’, ‘Remind me (not to find you so attractive)’ and ‘I feel a song coming on’ compares favourably with later material, not least Sweet Charity, another great score with terrific, punchy lyrics.
Tim McArthur handles the material well and enhanced by Sarah Travis’s splendid arrangements. Phillip Aiden’s choreography keeps the five divas on the move and David Shields’s costumes and set designs evoke the female world of the beauty salon and its atmosphere of pulchritude.
The kind of lyricist that Fields was does not exist anymore, apart from Stephen Sondheim. It’s rare these days for theatre-songs to become hits in their own right. The early shows are long forgotten but the melodies linger on and with them the superb lyrics of Dorothy Fields. Direct your feet to the sunny side of Jermyn Street.
- The Sunny Side of the Street is at Jermyn Street Theatre, 16b Jermyn Street, London SW1 until Saturday 7 July 2012
- Tuesday to Saturday 7.30 p.m., matinees Saturday & Sunday 3.30
- Tickets 020 7287 2875