In my 20s, I lamented that despite being well-schooled in American literature, I’d ended up a failure at knowing much of our nation’s poetry by heart. But when I set out to entertain myself and a friend while on a long road trip in a car with a busted radio, I sang song after song from my memory of the American Songbook, prompting my friend to ask how on earth I could remember that many words. That’s when I realized I did know plenty of verse, just that it was set to music. Further, I realized that among the verses I loved best were those written by the American Dorothy Fields.
It was my abiding love of Fields and her hallmark wit that drew me to attend the IN Series Dorothy Fields Cabaret. In the midst of the IN Series Women Composers Festival dedicated to discovering and promoting what is new, the Fields tribute cleared a bit of space for the roots of American women songwriting. It was an unfussy evening of clean listening to Fields’ impressive catalog which has provided source material for countless singers who tend to zhoozh up her works rather than leave them as is.
Playing and singing the songs as they were written at this GALA Theatre performance were music director and pianist Reenie Codelka, soprano Jennifer Timberlake, and baritone Kenneth Derby. Brian J. Shaw directed and narrated the evening’s historical tribute to the woman he referred to as a “first-generation American, but a second-generation entertainer.”
Fields was born in New Jersey in 1904 and raised in New York City. Her father was Polish-Jewish immigrant Lew Fields, known to many as The King of Musical Comedy for his work first as a vaudeville performer, then as a theater producer. He objected to his only daughter’s desire to follow in him and her two older brothers, into the family business, saying it was no place for a lady. “I’m not a lady, I’m your daughter,” Fields quipped, going on to collaborate with most of the 20th Century’s most enduring film and musical composers such as Cy Coleman and Jerome Kern, among many others.
In 1971, three years before her death, Fields was the first woman to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame on the strength of her more than 400 songs which she began writing in earnest in 1926, collaborating in New York first with Jimmy McHugh (“I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” “Exactly Like You,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street”), and eventually moving to Hollywood where she was in demand with many composers, but the preferred partner of Kern with whom she won an Oscar for their song, “The Way You Look Tonight” sung by Fred Astaire in the movie, Swing Time.
The Broadway hit, Annie Get Your Gun (“There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”) was Fields’ idea conceived especially for singer Ethel Merman. Though Annie was written and composed by Irving Berlin, Fields and her brothers served as creative consultants on the show. As a librettist, Fields went on to win a Tony for her work with Albert Hague on Redhead, and other successes such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn with Arthur Schwartz (“Make the Man Love Me”) and Sweet Charity with Coleman (“Hey Big Spender,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now”).
As was in evidence with Shaw’s song selection for the cabaret, Fields was a funny lady. With uncomplicated yet clever rhymes, she led with her shrewd observations of how women had to navigate a man’s world, and with her dry humor effectively flashed that there was more happening in a woman’s heart than lust, longing, and a desire to raise a family.
Among my personal favorites included in the cabaret is “Remind Me.” The lines, “Remind me not to mention that I love you, remind me to be sorry that we met,” rejects the beloved before the beloved has a chance to reject the one slyly confessing interest. Such savvy! Another, “You Couldn’t Be Cuter,” tells a wider story of family dynamics in just one line: “My ma will show you an album of me that’ll bore you to tears, and you’ll attract all the relatives we have dodged for years and years.”
These days, the American Songbook is once again in fashion, with singers ranging from James Taylor, to Rod Stewart, to Lady Gaga and k.d. lang pairing with veterans like Tony Bennett to interpret the works in a variety of ways that, however entertaining, stray far from what the composers originally intended. While such innovation is at the heart of all that is marvelous about American music, rarely is it possible to hear the works performed as actually written.
What made this tribute notable was that Codelka, Timberlake, and Derby hewed close to the original scores, presenting the selection of 16 songs and one encore largely as they would have been heard by original audiences. It was a chance for American music history enthusiasts to hear a live performance of the original source material of the many contemporary popular revivals of our national musical canon.
Being a devotee of the canon, I am glad I went.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Dorothy Fields Cabaret, presented by the IN Series Women Composers Festival, performed March 6, 2020, at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. The IN Series Women Composers Festival continues through the weekend, with numerous performances of works by contemporary American women composers. For more information and for tickets, call 202-204-7763 or go online.
The setlist for this performance included:
- It’s Not Where You Start (Coleman, Fields)
- I Can’t Give You Anything but Love (McHugh, Fields)
- Exactly Like You (McHugh, Fields)
- On the Sunny Side of the Street (McHugh, Fields)
- I’m in the Mood for Love (McHugh, Fields)
- Don’t Blame Me (McHugh, Fields)
- Lovely to Look at (Kern, Fields)
- Pick Yourself Up (Kern, Fields)
- You Couldn’t Be Cuter (Kern, Fields)
- Remind Me (Kern, Fields)
- A Fine Romance (Kern, Fields)
- April Snow (Romberg, Fields)
- Close as Pages in a Book (Romberg, Fields)
- Make the Man Love Me (Schwartz, Fields)
- I’m Way Ahead (Coleman, Fields)
- If My Friends Could See Me Now (Coleman, Fields)
- Encore: The Way You Look Tonight (Kern, Fields)