Thursday, July 22, 2004

Carolyn Leigh

Among the many books that I may have to try to write myself because no one else is going to, the one I think is most needed is a biography of the song lyricist Carolyn Leigh (1926-1983). I even have a title: "You Ain't No Eagle Scout," a line from one of her best songs. Leigh was, in my opinion, the most talented lyricist of her generation, which is saying a lot when you consider that her generation included Sheldon Harnick (born 1924) or Stephen Sondheim (born 1930). But I think Leigh's work is special. Normally I divide lyricists into two types: the over-rhymers and the under-rhymers. The "over-rhymers" are the ones who use go for complex rhyme schemes and trick rhymes, fool around with word meanings and obscure references, lyricists whose cleverness is always apparent. Lyricists who usually (not always!) fall into this category include Sondheim, Larry Hart, Yip Harburg, Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter. The "under-rhymers" tend to place more of an emphasis on making their lyrics sound deceptively simple and natural, without calling attention to their cleverness. Oscar Hammerstein, Irving Berlin and, more recently, Fred Ebb are examples of lyricists who tend to try to keep it simple.

Now, these categories are incredibly reductive and don't apply at all to a lot of great songwriters. But I bring them up as a preface to saying that Leigh sort of combined the two categories. She was one of the greatest rhymers of all time, with exceptional mastery of trick rhymes, internal rhymes, multiple rhymes ("You can go to extremes/With impossible schemes/You can laugh when your dreams/Fall apart at the seams"). But her lyrics also sound simple even as they dazzle with their rhyming virtuosity; she used such clear, direct language that her lyrics sound conversational -- brilliantly rhymed conversation. She said once that a lyricist should have "an intuitive feeling for language to be sung, rather than read like poetry," and her best songs, like all the best lyrics, don't work as well on the page as they do when sung. But here are some examples of her work:

So love is a hoax,
A glittering string
Of little white lies,
But these are the jokes,
And what if they bring
The tears to your eyes?
Well, love often shows
A funny return,
The brighter it glows,
The longer you burn,
And Lord only knows
Love has little concern
For the fools of the road.
But that's how it goes,
You live and you learn
The rules of the road.
(from "The Rules of the Road")

From now on
I promise to behave,
I'll pack my gear and disappear from view.
From now on
I'll huddle in a cave,
But if in case ya miss the face that used to pester you,

Just give a little whistle, ring a little bell,
Crook your little finger, honey, give a little yell,
I'll leap over fences,
I'll even leave my senses
And I'll take, for your sake, to the air.
Just give a little whistle,
Say you want me, and I'll be there.
(from "Give a Little Whistle," Wildcat

I've got your number,
I know you inside out,
You ain't no Eagle Scout,
You're all at sea.
Oh yes, you brag a lot,
Wave your own flag a lot,
But you're unsure a lot,
You're a lot
Like me.
Oh, I've got your number
And what you're looking for,
And what you're looking for
Just suits me fine.
We'll break those rules a lot,
We'll be damn fools a lot,
But then, why should we not,
How could we not
When I've got your number
And I've got the glow you've got,
I've got your number
And, baby, you know you've got

Leigh started out working as a copyist and secretary who, in her own description, "couldn't take dictation." When she was 25 years old a music publisher gave her a contract, and at age 28 she had her first huge hit, "Young at Heart." Most of her hits were written in the late '50s and early '60s with composer Cy Coleman. They wrote two Broadway shows, both of which promised to be big but weren't: Wildcat with Lucille Ball (who introduced "Hey, Look Me Over") and Little Me with Sid Caesar. But they were primarily pop songwriters, writing for singers such as Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and, especially, Tony Bennett.

Leigh was apparently a difficult person to work with. When Cy Feuer, the co-director of the Broadway show Little Me, decided to cut one of the songs, she (so the story goes) went outside, came back into the theatre with a cop, and tried to have Feuer arrested. Here's a quote from the newsgroup, a post from someone who knew Leigh:

She was a classy lady, a funny and articulate lady, and came out with expressions I never heard from anyone else. A huge talent, she was also a perfectionist, a breathtakingly heavy smoker, and could be a little unyielding. She and Coleman did some heavy-duty fighting. Still, they did great work together.

Why she and Coleman broke up isn't completely clear -- that's what a biography would have to reveal -- but it seems like what happened was that people wanted to work with Coleman but not the brilliant but "difficult" Leigh. So Sweet Charity, a 1966 hit musical, reunited most of the key people from Little Me, director-choreographer Bob Fosse, writer Neil Simon, and composer Cy Coleman. But Fosse didn't want to work with Leigh again, so the lyricist was Dorothy Fields, a superb lyricist with forty years of experience. Coleman wrote a few more songs with Leigh; they contributed two new songs to a 1982 revival of Little Me. But they never were a team again, and Leigh never found a satisfying new partnership.

Her only Broadway show after Little Me was How Now, Dow Jones, a strange and kind of unpleasant musical comedy about a woman whose boyfriend tells her he won't marry her until the Dow Jones average hits a certain level, so she issues a fake report about the Dow Jones average. Hilarity ensues. The unfunny book was by Max Shulman (Dobie Gillis) with an uncredited rewrite from Neil Simon; the dull music was by Elmer Bernstein, a fine film composer who didn't have the knack for writing show tunes. Leigh's lyrics, though not her best work, were the best thing about the show, but she had come up with the idea for the show (a tiny credit read "story by Carolyn Leigh") and she sort of got blamed for its failure.

She wrote some songs for TV productions; wrote (with Morton Gould) a bicentennial tribute to the American worker; signed to do a bizarre project called "Flyers" (something about world peace, I think) that was to have starred Tommy Tune but didn't get produced. At the time of her death from a heart attack, she was working on an adaptation of the movie "Smile" with composer Marvin Hamlisch; it was left uncomplete, and Hamlisch wound up writing a new score with another lyricist who died too young, Howard Ashman.

Leigh never really recovered from the loss of Coleman, but I think, too, that she didn't recover from the death of the popular song market she wrote for. Unlike her contemporaries, she wasn't primarily a theatre lyricist; she started in pop and was always best at writing in her own unique voice, rather than the voice of a character in a show. Once the pop market was completely lost to rock n' roll and variants thereof, there wasn't much for her to do.

Here's a quote from Leigh, on lyric writing, that suggests an intelligent, skilled and talented person, but not perhaps a particularly nice one:

The English language has fallen into sad disrepair. But it's still true that "home" and "alone" don't rhyme, "time" and "mine" don't rhyme. And "friend" and "again" rhyme only in the area bounded by Nashville and God knows what.

Bits of trivia about Leigh:

- Around 1980, she briefly appeared as a cabaret artist, performing her own songs at Mike's Pub in New York.

- She and Coleman were among the songwriters who were considered by the producers of Gypsy. They wrote several songs to audition for the show; one of them, "Firefly," later became another hit for Tony Bennett, and another, "Be a Performer," wound up in Little Me.

- Probably Leigh's most famous Broadway show is one for which she only wrote half a score: Peter Pan. She and the composer, Mark Charlap, wrote the best songs in the score: "I Won't Grow Up," "I'm Flying," "I Gotta Crow" (with its wonderful internal rhymes: "When I discover the cleverness of a remarkable me..."). But the director, Jerome Robbins, threw out several other songs written by the young team, and brought in the veterans Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write new, not particularly distinguished songs. Leigh never worked with Charlap again, perhaps feeling that he hadn't done enough to stand up to Robbins. One of the best of the cut songs was "When I Went Home," a song where Leigh directly addressed one of the darker themes of Barrie's original play: that Peter's life is essentially incomplete and that abandoning the ties of home and family isn't so great (that's why he wants Wendy around to replace the mother he abandoned). Robbins cut it and replaced it with a gentler song, "Distant Melody," by Styne/Comden/Green. But Leigh's song is more in tune with Barrie, and I think it has been reinstated in some productions:

When I went home, I thought that certainly
Someone would leave the door or window open wide for me,
And surely there would be
A welcome light.
When I went home, I counted so upon
Somebody waiting up to ask me questions on and on
To ask me where I'd gone,
Was I all right?
But the door was barred and the window barred
And I knew with an awful dread
That somebody else, some other boy
Was sleeping in my bed.
When I went home, I found that sad to say
You must expect to be forgotten once you've gone away,
And so I couldn't stay
That lonely night when I went home.


cyrano said...

Bravo for the kind words for Ms. Leigh. She is all but forgotten today, and a biography is needed. Just from the stories I have heard, it could be quite spicy and humorous--with a touch of absurd, words which also describe her personality. She was a master (mistress?) of the vernacular. Interestingly, her lyrics were sexier than those of the men writing at the same time. So many favorites, but I love the insouciance of "Pass Me By"--how about that for a bio. title?

Anonymous said...

I founmd that carolyn is such an inspiration and is a very amazing composer. I chose heras a school project and have found so many great facts.

Sh is a real woman!

W. Scott Smoot said...

Go ahead and write that book: I'll sign up for Amazon to send me a copy when it's published. Her songs with Cy Coleman, performed by Bobby Short on a 1963 LP called "My Personal Property," delight. They are endlessly surprising, pleasing, spirited -- they seem to come from a world distilled from the best elements of ours.

In a book I once owned (a special printing, never commercially available), lyricists and composers wrote short essays about their favorites lyricists, most wrote about Stephen Sondheim, but Sondheim himself wrote with unmitigated admiration for Carolyn Leigh (after paying homage to Hammerstein). He particularly admired her ability to use slang so effectively and cleverly, with such apparent ease.