Shades of Black: Putting Words to MusicDate: 14 April 2003
What makes a lyric perfect? Lyricist Don Black reveals all to Mark Shenton, including the hits & flops in a lifetime of song writing come full circle with a new production of Tell Me on a Sunday, his first collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber.
No one bounces back quite so fast as lyricist Don Black. 2002 saw him collaborate on what were arguably the year's best and worst new musicals (Bombay Dreams and Romeo and Juliet, respectively) and now he begins 2003 with a new production - featuring five new songs - of the show that marked his songwriting debut with Andrew Lloyd Webber a quarter of a century ago, beginning a relationship that has continued ever since.
Black is sanguine about the flops over the course of his career, because some of those flops have led directly to many of his hits. "I've had a lot of things happen as a result of failure," he reflects. A musical called Bar mitzvah Boy, written with the great Broadway composer Jule Styne, flopped quickly at Her Majesty's Theatre, but garnered Black some welcome attention. "It got bad reviews, but I got two fantastic telegrams from Hal Prince and Michael Bennett, who both liked my work on it. It wasn't successful, but it changed my life, because Hal spoke to Andrew Lloyd Webber about me and he called soon after and invited me to lunch."
A personal way
Over lunch, Lloyd Webber told Black he wanted to do something small next, and the lyricist suggested an idea about looking at an English girl's experiences in New York. That afternoon, Tell Me on a Sunday was born. "We came back to my flat and he played me a couple of tunes. Those became 'Come Back with the Same Look in Your Eyes' and 'Tell Me on a Sunday'. Once we wrote a third song, 'Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad', it just came together. It has always been one of my favourite pieces, because it was done in such a personal way. It was just a composer and a lyricist writing a bunch of songs together; and with all due respect to directors and choreographers, it was the result of two guys sitting around a piano writing songs."
While most people associate Lloyd Webber most strongly with his original writing partner Tim Rice, over the years since then, the composer has actually collaborated more frequently with Black. Following Tell Me on a Sunday, Black wrote the lyrics to Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love and Sunset Boulevard, as well as providing additional material for Starlight Express and Whistle Down the Wind. It was Lloyd Webber too (acting as producer, not composer) who called Black in to write words to AH Rahman's music for Bombay Dreams, currently at the Apollo Victoria.
Black - a 64-year-old veteran of pop, film scores and musicals that have won him an Oscar (for the theme tune to 'Born Free') and a Golden Globe, two Tony's, and five Ivor Novello's - is always naturally modest and self-effacing about his output. "It's been a busy year", he agrees, "but even though it's been busy, I'm not as busy as people think. I think about people like Michael Parkinson or Terry Wogan - they're busier. It's not like I have to turn up at the BBC at a specific time to do my job - I can write at my leisure. And what exactly have I done? Written the lyrics for about 20 songs! I may be simplifying it, but it's not exactly Trojan work!"
Back on the horse
Words seem to come as effortlessly to Black for the stage as they flow very freely in conversation. "That's because I enjoy it. It's a joyful thing to do." Even, it seems, when it goes wrong. When I spoke to him last year about Romeo and Juliet, Black called the adaptation of the French show "a dream assignment" - because the music was already written, he mischievously said "there was no need to work with composers, and that took the stress out of it!"
Speaking to him again last week, however, he now admits, "What was wrong with Romeo and Juliet was the idea of doing it at all. Alan Jay Lerner said that the mistake is usually done on Day One - it's not how you do it, but what you do. I was seduced by its success in France. I went to see it there, and there was an audience of 6,000 people singing every word of it. It sold three or four million CDs and had five Top Ten hits. My rationale for joining the team to bring it here was because it tells the identical story to the Shakespeare play, but no one ever reads the Shakespeare and I thought we could get it to a whole new generation.
"But I was wrong, and as we got nearer to the opening night, I could see that there was a great cynicism about it - no one bought the concept at all over here. I was sorry I did it, but on the other hand, I didn't think my work was terrible! When you have a failure, you can cut your wrists or you can move on. I chose to get back on the horse!"
Rewinding & rewriting
Getting back in the saddle this time meant returning to Tell Me on a Sunday, and he cites similar reasons to Romeo and Juliet in seeking to look at the show anew. "We thought we could bring it to a new generation, but we decided to look at it in a different way." Whereas the solo piece was originally written around Marti Webb who first sang it, it's now been re-written around Denise van Outen.
"The main pillars of the piece haven't changed," Black explains. "It's still the letters home to mum from the girl in New York, but Jackie Clune - being an Essex girl like Denise - has contributed some new ideas, like the one that she doesn't just write to her mum but also to her friends back home. We've also got some new songs, including one about speed dating, the latest fad in New York, and another about a married man she meets who has a daughter."
Tell Me on a Sunday is something, he says, that Lloyd Webber and he wrote "just for ourselves, and that's a lesson to be learnt as we get older". Black quotes Alan Jay Lerner again: "Alan said you mustn't follow what others want but always write for yourself so you can be proud of what you do." Nowadays, musicals tend to be produced by committee and corporation - and he credits Tim Rice now in discovering how, even though they've both been doing what they do for a very long time, "people who've only been in it for five minutes like to tell you how to do it. Everyone has something to say."
Compression & clarity
Not least, of course, the critics. Black is right to point out that "it's much easier to criticise lyrics than it is to criticise music. So you're either criticised or dismissed, saying that the lyrics are banal or serviceable". But actually, it's invisibility that's a plus in lyric writing. Without calling attention to itself - like good theatre design - a good lyric should simply tell the story (but hopefully not tell the story simply!).
According to Black, the key to a great lyric is "compression and instant clarity." Originality is another: "One always tries to find a fresh way of saying something new about the human condition. Of course, everything has been said, but you're always trying to find a fresh glimpse."
Though the life story is far from complete, later this year sees the publication of a biography of Black, by theatre critic James Inverne. Meanwhile, the lyricist is also busy preparing a new musical for Broadway, Dracula, written with composer Frank Wildhorn and writer Christopher Hampton.
Black has worked with many different composers, but he says, "They're all the same at the piano. They are all looking for the same thing - they're sitting there trying to find solutions. Of course, when they get up from the piano, there's a world of difference between them! I like working with different people, and I always enjoy working with Andrew, not just because of who he is and what he represents, but because of his enthusiasm and his uncanny instincts for finding theatrical solutions."
Tell Me on a Sunday opens at the West End's Giegud Theatre on 15 April 2003, following previews from 4 April.