If the name Dorothy Fields doesn’t ring immediate and appreciative bells, you are not alone. But, chances are, you know this lyricist’s work a lot better than you think.
Everyman Theatre provides an opportunity to get better acquainted with the lyricist in its winter concert presentation, “Keep on the Sunny Side of the Street: A Tribute to Dorothy Fields,” which opens this week.
The cast includes Nancy Dolliver, James Gardiner, Katie Nigsch-Fairfax and Delores King Williams. Howard Breitbart is musical director.
Gardiner, the engaging singer and actor who has appeared in Everyman’s Irving Berlin celebration a few seasons ago, wrote the book for this year’s salute.
“When I tell people I’m doing a show about Dorothy Fields, they go ‘Dorothy who?’ But mention ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street,’ and they go, ‘Oh, yeah,’” Gardiner said. “She doesn’t have the name recognition of Ira Gershwin or Irving Berlin, but she definitely was one of the best lyricists in the 20th century.”
Born in 1904 in New Jersey, Fields enjoyed a long career that produced more than 400 songs, from such standards as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” in 1928 to “Big Spender” from the hit musical “Sweet Charity” in 1966. She collaborated with a who’s-who of composers, from Harold Arlen and Jerome Kern to Cy Coleman and Quincy Jones.
That Fields could start in the business when she did says a lot.
“She was a female in what was kind of an all-boys club,” Gardiner said. “Her father even said to her, ...
‘Ladies don’t write lyrics.’ Dorothy said, ‘I’m not a lady, I’m your daughter.’” Lew Fields, a successful vaudevillian and producer, was fighting a losing battle. He and his wife were steeped in the theater milieu, so their daughter was bound to be bitten by the show biz bug.
“She wanted to prove to everyone that she was talented enough to do it,” Gardiner said. Previous tribute concerts at Everyman have been long on song, short on bio. But in the case of Fields, a change in the ratio seemed in order.
During his pre-curtain remarks for performances of the company’s recent production of “Private Lives,” artistic director Vincent Lancisi would ask the audience how many people had heard of Dorothy Fields.
“There were never more than four or five hands going up,” Lancisi said. “This is the first time we’ve done a show about someone who was not a household name. We’re hoping it’s a nice surprise for our patrons.”
Gardiner calls Fields “very elusive figure. There is not a lot of information about her life, and she elaborated some things herself,” he said. “We tried to stick to what the actual facts were.”
Those facts include interesting details about how Fields was working with Jerome Kern on a show called “Annie Get Your Gun.” When Kern died, the producers brought in Irving Berlin to write the songs.
“But he agreed only on the condition that he write the lyrics as well,” Gardiner said. “Dorothy still wrote the book for that show.”
The songs that Fields did provide lyrics for include some of the best-loved pop standards: “The Way You Look Tonight,” “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “A Fine Romance,” to name a few. The Everyman show has room for at least 20 of them.
“We found a Christmas song, too, which we tried to work in,” Gardiner said. Added Lancisi with a laugh: “There’s a reason we don’t hear it.”