Hail the Women Songwriters at the 92nd Street Y

BY ROB LESTER **** This week, in their Lyrics & Lyricists concert and Will Friedwald’s Clip Joint, it’s Women’s History Month and, happily, the 92nd Street Y is reminding us of the great women who contributed to the Great American Songbook. The long-running L&L series’ latest opened Saturday and ends with matinee and evening shows on Monday, March 20, with the next day at noon bringing rare film clips of the work of several of the same top female writers.  

Lyrics & Lyricists. Singers Kenisha Miller,Nancy Opel, Margo Seibert, Emily Skinner, with Special Guest Marilyn Maye (pictured). Musical Director John Oddo. Directed by Mark Waldrop.  Run concludes Monday, March 19 and 20 with afternoon and evening shows.

Clip Joint hosted and curated by Will Friedwald. Tuesday, March 21 at Noon.  Rare film not on Youtube honoring great women songwriters such as Dorothy Fields, including an interview with her from 1960.

With sublime female vocalists, the concert series’ Artistic Director and host/narrator Deborah Grace Winer used the work of the great Dorothy Fields as the anchor, the most prolific and long-careered of what she called these “pioneers” in a highly entertaining show that also gave nods to the talents of wordsmiths Carolyn Leigh and many others, going back nearly a century all the way up to Lynn Ahrens.  The original spotlight focus of Lyrics & Lyricists was broadened in order to include women whose composing of music rather than words brought them to musical theatre celebrity, such as Jeanine Tesori and Mary Rodgers.  And those who wrote their songs outside this genre were acknowledged, too– including those who also were singers, like Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, and Carole King (whose Beautiful life story happens to be still on the boards as a theatre piece).  In many cases, these women’s writing partners were men, hardly surprising in theatre, where it was a heavily male-dominated field.   

Fields, whose bio was written by our polished, poised, prepared yet conversational host, was the first female to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame; she also worked as a librettist.  Like Carolyn Leigh, another mega-talent, Fields had multiple successes working with composer Cy Coleman.  The program is named after one of Fields’s lyrics from their Sweet Charity, namely the concert-opener: Baby, Dream Your Dream.  The “Baby” address represents one of the notable trademarks of the writer who, it was pointed out, had a special ear for incorporating slang into songs.  That particular word, we’re reminded, also follows the title line in her early success “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.” (A rare word substitution was made in the obviously lyric-respecting operation here, replacing the original “diamond bracelets” with “diamond watches” since it was, we assume, being sung to a man by a woman in this all-female cast.  But the place the singer can afford to shop was not updated from the now-departed store chain “Woolworth.” (We don’t need that switched to “K-Mart,” even though it would scan, thank you.  But otherwise, the Fields lyrics sound fresh as today.)  Betty Comden, another giantess (and let’s not forget that she also co-wrote scripts and was a performer) had a career-long partnership in words with Adolph Green, their “who thought of what” separation of contributions often reported to be as indivisible as their partnership.  Their composer collaborator also included Coleman (On the 20th Century, The Will Rogers Follies), but we were instead treated to samples of their earlier teamings with Jule Styne and Leonard Bernstein.  Hardly chopped liver!    

As usual in these programs, the repertoire didn’t stray far from the most recognizable hits of these heavy-hitters, numbers still heard in clubs and on disc. With time allowing only one or two samples from many of the writers, choosing something obscure wouldn’t be representative, although little-known gems or unknown cut songs are the treasures I’d most long for.  In more than a few instances, the sound was not up to the usual standards on opening night, and I would have missed some lyrics if I didn’t know these numbers so very well. For those with less lyric-drenched brains, I suspect that’s why some of the comical lines didn’t garner as much laughter as they otherwise would have, especially when witty words came in torrents or the excellent band was at fuller steam and fuller sound.  With her excellent mic technique and attentive diction, nightclub veteran Marilyn Maye had no problem making every crisp and well-colored word delivered with loving care and heard without a problem.  


As the Special Guest (introduced as “the rose in our bouquet” of vocalists), she came with several numbers long under her belt and benefiting from her belt and savvy delivery in well-constructed arrangements that build dramatically.  These included “You’re Gonna Hear from Me” (lyric by the late Dory Previn to music by her once-husband Andre Previn), recorded on an early Maye LP about 50 years ago! (But who’s counting?)  Another husband-and-wife team, Alan & Marilyn Bergman–”the other Marilyn,” if you will—- were represented with Maye mastery: the torchy and touching “Fifty Percent” (music by Billy Goldenberg).  Musical tour guide Winer pointed out that this 1978 number about a woman’s open-eyed commentary about her affair with a married man would not have been explored so honestly in musical theatre in earlier decades.   One suspects that Fields could have had a field day with the topic if times or projects’ plots had allowed, and indeed a man with two wives is the final punchline for one of the numbers included from her oeuvre.  (There were two others, tips of the metaphorical chapeau to ladies who were also songstresses:  “Bye Bye Country Boy” to salute Blossom Dearie, whose co-writer for this effort was Jack Segal; and an intensely  hot “Fever,” mainly written by men, but with additional words by its cooler presenter of many years, Peggy Lee).  While all the singers were well and warmly received, no one brought the cheers and prolonged applause (or dropped jaws and raised expectations) as did the dazzling clarion octogenarian.  


The musical theatre-experienced quartet of co-stars trotted out many highlights, although their group numbers with strikingly pleasing harmonies made the whole more than the sum of the primo parts. In the quite full, two-act program, two of the standout solo moments were the simpler and more thoughtful pieces: from Emily Skinner, a wistfully on-the-money  “It Amazes Me” (Coleman/ Leigh); creamy-voiced Margo Seibert’s lamenting “The Party’s Over” (Styne/ Comden/ Green).  Kenita Miller of Ragtime seemed to be the designated go-to gal for whatever needed the adrenaline of energy or sass, and gamely took such cues.  Nancy Opel would get the nod for the most versatility on display, as her solos ranged from the jokey, fun pieces to a searing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” with an uncompromising wailing rock/soul sound.  Its presentation owed too much to its iconic hit version, back-up vocals and all, to feel genuinely enveloped, and not much digging would have been needed to find a King-sized hit by King alone or with a female co-writer, rather than this oldie with not one but two male collaborators.  But Opel’s voice was so in the zone when she began the Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty Ragtime anthem “Back to Before”—soon joined by the other three as the specific-to-character piece quickly was spine-tinglingly generalized to all women’s progress in all eras….   Even if, as our host mentioned, when the theme was planned last year, it was expected to dovetail with another glass ceiling for women to have been broken in America the preceding November.  

Tuesday’s cornucopia of clips in music historian Will Friedwald’s salute to women songwriters include many of those honored in the concert–and more (Abbey Lincoln, Edith Piaf, for starters).  

Among those represented in the L&L show, but not mentioned above, were Ann Ronell, of “Willow Weep for Me” fame, but her other —and very different— hit was presented on stage: Allowing the band’s bassist Jay Leonhart a male token vocal moment, the saga of “The 3 Little Pigs” for the Disney cartoon got a cutely jazzy boost from the four singers taking turns and harmonizing on the chorus for “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”  Fun!!  And Kenita Miller presented “Can’t We Be Friends” represented the work of Kay Swift, the first woman songwriter represented with a full score on Broadway, Fine and Dandy— back in 1930, written with her husband, James Warburg, using the pen name of Paul James.


Interestingly, I happened to stumble onto some info on the internet just before writing this, about the premiere shows of hosts of The Tonight Show.  Its first host, Steve Allen, had as the first song presented on that late-night variety show’s first national broadcast “Fine and Dandy.”  And in the 30-year Johnny Carson reign, which included 76 appearances by Marilyn Maye, Tony Bennett (a Clip Joint appearance will be by him on Tuesday) was on Carson’s first show and debuted a number by Johnny Mercer who gave 50% of the royalties to an Ohio housewife who gave him the verbatim suggestion for its first (and key) line: “I wanna be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart.”  Sadie Vimmerstedt was her name.  


When one muses about musical theatre writers who died young (Lorenz Hart, George Gershwin, Vincent Youmans, Richard Whiting, Jonathan Larson, Howard Ashman), we often wonder what they might have gifted us with had they lived a full life.  We can also wonder about how many women had songs in their hearts and squirreled away in drawers back in the day because they were told that songwriting was not an OK career choice.  Thank goodness the world is more accepting of such women and we are in a different era with talented voices of both genders heard, as well as the perspective in lyrics which arguable only could have been written by those who spent their whole lives as females, rather than male theatre wordsmiths trying to get into the head of a woman character.  To give Dorothy Fields the last word(s) here:  “It’s not where you start/ It’s where you finish.”

See www.92y.org for all events at the 92Y at 1395 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.   

Photo of Miss Maye: Kevin Alvey