Dorothy Fields: The Pioneering Female Lyricist of Countless Musicals
by Ellis Nassour
Pick Yourself Up: Dorothy Fields and the American Musical by Charlotte Greenspan [Oxford University Press, Broadway Legacy Series; 298 pages; 16 pages of vintage photos; Index, Song index, 17-page section of source notes; SRP $28] is a lively biography of one of the most prolific and pioneering lyricists in American popular music history.
Dorothy Fields penned the words to more than 400 songs, among them mega-hits such as "Big Spender," "Hooray for Love," "I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, " "If My Friends Could See Me Now," "Make the Man Love Me," "Nobody Does It Like Me," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "It’s Not Where You Start," and "The Way You Look Tonight."
In Pick Yourself Up, Greenspan, with her research and using countless sources, offers the most complete treatment of Fields’s life and work to date, as she traces her rise to prominence in a male-dominated world.
Born in 1904 into a show business family. Her father, Lou Fields, was a famed stage comedian turned Broadway producer. She first teamed with songwriter Jimmy McHugh in the 1920s and went on to Hollywood collaborations with Jerome Kern, including the Astaire-Rogers classic Swing Time.
With her brother Herbert, she co-authored the books for several Cole Porter’s shows and Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun. Fields’s lyrics -colloquial, urbane, sometimes slangy, sometimes sensuous – won her high praise from later generations of songwriters including Sondheim. Most importantly, her stellar career opened a path for other women, among them Betty Comden and Dory Previn.
One aspect of the bio is the creation of Annie Get Your Gun.
After their success with Up in Central Park, Herbert and Dorothy Fields had thought that their next show would be produced by Mike Todd, however, he wasn’t high on Ethel Merman, whom he called "that old broad. She’ll never work again." Merman had been known to rub some colleagues the wrong way but had brought in a smash for Todd in Something for the Boys.
Undeterred, the Fields took their idea to Rodgers and Hammerstein, who were asked what they thought of Merman in a musical about Annie Oakley, Rodgers said, "Go home and write it." The composers opted to become producers. There was one problem: Merman hadn’t been asked. She’d just come off a difficult pregnancy and the birth of her daughter.
Fields visited her and popped the question. Merman said, "I’ll do it." Now, all was in place, except the composer. The first choice was Jerome Kern, who had recently had a heart attack. In New York, to begin work, he collapsed and was hospitalized. [He died that November.]
Irving Berlin was approached, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Pick Yourself Up is the first definitive account of Miss Fields’s career and its interactions with her famously-accomplished family, colleagues such as Rodgers and Hammerstein, and collaborators Kern, Berlin, Fosse, and Coleman. It’s quite a fitting tribute to Dorothy Fields’ indomitable optimism and enduring career.
An excerpt from Pick Yourself Up: Dorothy Fields and the American Musical by Charlotte Greenspan:
~ ~ ". . . As far as Dorothy Fields was concerned, Annie Get Your Gun was not especially a story about Annie Oakley, but rather Ethel Merman impersonating Annie Oakley. It’s one of Merman’s most notable roles, but far from a typical one . . . Merman usually played a tough, urban broad. Part of that persona is transferred to Annie — the feistiness, fearlessness, and the awareness of her own talent. But Annie is a romantic innocent, inexperienced and vulnerable, and portraying this part of a woman’s personality was uncharted territory for Merman . . .
The rapid pace with which Berlin turned out his songs did not preclude tinkering with them and making small adjustments . . . "You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun" was once titled "You Can’t Get a Feller with a Gun" and "I Cain’t Git a Man with a Gun" before the two possibilities were combined. "They Say It’s Wonderful" was first titled "They Tell Me It’s Wonderful" . . . the number that would become a show business anthem, "There’s No Business Like Show Business," is indicated only as "Quartette–Annie, Frank, Charlie, Buffalo Bill" . . . Disappointed by the reactions of Rodgers, Hammerstein, and [director Joshua] Logan to it when he first played it for them, [Berlin] intended to drop it from the score . . .
The cast of Annie Get Your Gun is very large . . . 37 characters plus "a full cast of singers and dancers." Of course, there was only one star in the show, Ethel Merman. But even she needed someone with whom . . . Annie could believably fall in love at first sight and for whom she could pine until they are united at the end of the second act . . .
[Filling] the role of Frank Butler was Ray Middleton, who had a successful career on Broadway for more than 30 years. Merman and Middleton were well matched in terms of Broadway experience . . . The romance in Annie Get Your Gun is not between an ingénue and a juvenile. Annie and Frank have both had life experiences, but not ones that would prepare them for an easy relationship with each other. And perhaps the real love affair for both of them is with show business.
Dorothy and Herbert were pleased with the book . . . They wrote that Irving Berlin "gave us a superb score, a score which never once deserts the mood or the story. The book didn’t get in Irving’s way. He strengthened it."
[It’s been pointed out] that there were some differences in Berlin’s and the Fields’ conceptions of the relationship of Annie and Frank . . . Berlin’s songs give Annie a softer side . . . [and he] allows himself flights of fantasy, whereas the book is more anchored in accuracy . . . Berlin wisely allowed himself some poetic license.
The Fields also had high praise for director Josh Logan. "He has such great humor and such a sensitive quality that he has made scenes look and sound much better than they are. With Josh we were able to leave rehearsal for a cup of coffee and be absolutely certain when we came back we wouldn’t have to say ‘Annie’ doesn’t live here any more!"
Rehearsals began in March, but there were a few bumps in the road before the Broadway opening. At the New Haven tryouts, it was decided that the orchestrations by Philip Lang were unacceptable . . . Rodgers, who had hired Lang . . . acknowledged the problem and went about fixing it. [Russell Bennett was hired and] reorchestrated the entire score" . . .
A few days before the New York opening, the Imperial Theatre began to fall apart–literally. A steel girder holding up the roof of the stage buckled, and a wall of scenery fell. Richard Rodgers was on stage when it happened and was protected from what could have been a serious injury by an alert stagehand who pushed him out of harm’s way. The show went back on the road–this time to Philadelphia–for two more weeks until repairs could be made on the Imperial.
Annie Get Your Gun opened at the Imperial Theatre on May 16, 1946. The reviews were generally
excellent . . . The critics were unanimous in their praise for Ethel Merman both as a singer and as a comedienne. Reviews of Irving Berlin’s music were initially more mixed. [One] wrote, "Irving Berlin’s
score is musically not exciting–of the real songs only one or two are tuneful" . . . [Another] had a very different impression . . . "Irving Berlin has outdone himself this time. No use trying to pick a hit tune, f
or all the tunes are hits . . ." ~ ~
Annie Get Your Gun became a musical theater perennial in the U.S. and abroad. It ran 1, 147 performances on Broadway. The musical ranks in the Top Five show licensed annually by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Mary Martin made her mark in the role of Annie in the touring company; Dolores Gray, for four years in London. The 1966 Lincoln Center revival included a new Berlin tune, "An Old Fashioned Wedding," and once again Annie was played by Merman, indefatigable at age 58.