5 Key Takeaways From the Life of Musical Theater Lyricist Dorothy Fields

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Each year, Women’s History Month is a chance to highlight the many creative and worthy contributions of women artists. But it’s also an opportunity to learn from their examples, take their experiences, and apply them to our own personal and professional endeavors. Musical theater lyricist Dorothy Fields is just such an example whom we can all learn from. 

Her name might not be as well-known as the male writers and composers of her time like Berlin, Porter, or Arlen, but her lyrics and librettos are just as substantial and important to musical theater history. In fact, she wrote songs for 15 musicals and 26 movies from the 1920s through the 1970s. This Oscar and Tony Award winner was called “the most important woman writer in the history of ASCAP” by former American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) president Stanley Adams. Fellow Broadway lyricist Betty Comden says, “She was THE woman songwriter [who] never compromised her direct, fresh manner of expressing thought.” Songs like “The Way You Look Tonight,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and “Hey, Big Spender” are just a few examples of the massive hits she accumulated in her 48 years of writing.

Fields certainly left her mark on American musical theater and there are five important takeaways from her long and prolific career that artists should keep in mind.

1. Adversity breeds success.
Throughout her career, Fields wrote with numerous other writers and composers from Neil Simon to Cole Porter. This variety was out of design as she loved working with different creatives, but unfortunately, it was also out of necessity. One of her most famous collaborators, Jerome Kern, died suddenly in 1945 just as they were starting work on a new musical “Annie Get Your Gun,” so Irving Berlin took over as composer and lyricist. She and her brother Herbert also wrote several shows together, but he died in 1958 (the same year her husband passed away) while working on the Gwen Verdon vehicle, “Redhead.” These heartbreaks and setbacks were devastating both personally and professionally for Fields, yet these two shows, in particular, were two of her most successful.

2. Understand your audience.
While the Gold Age of Broadway brought us many standards in musical theater and legendary writers, Fields is one of the few to continue past those early-century decades and find new creative outlets in a changing musical landscape. Irving Berlin, for example, had massive success yet couldn’t recapture his former glory after 1950’s “Call Me Madam.” For the last 30 years or so of his life, he barely wrote and wouldn’t go out much beyond his New York City apartment. In contrast, Fields was constantly writing and adjusting her lyrics to keep up with new audiences and theater demands. It was in her 60s that she wrote one of the biggest shows of her career, “Sweet Charity.” It proved that despite her age and years in the business she had not lost her ability for contemporary slang and phrasing.

3. Find a routine and stick with it.
While there is much to be said for being flexible, it’s still important to know how you work best and what facilitates the greatest productivity. For Fields this was a strict routine of early morning writing with a pencil on a yellow legal pad, taking a lunch break to watch soap operas, and continuing work till mid-afternoon. She kept this disciplined schedule despite grumblings from some of her collaborators. But it was this routine that helped Fields research her shows and characters, and ultimately write more than 400 songs.

4. Know your priorities.
The 1940s were a bit of a slowdown for Fields professionally as she had a son in 1940 and a daughter in 1944. Another reason for and advantage of that strict writing schedule was a chance for Fields to be available to her children once they were home from school. Her son has remarked that he never saw his mother write, and unlike his father, Fields lovingly encouraged her son’s interest and talent in songwriting and performance. 

5. Persistence pays off.
Her father, Lew Fields, was an influential and revered performer and producer in his day, so you’d think that would’ve been a big help as Dorothy was starting out. However, he was adamantly opposed to her going into the family business. Early on, he went behind her back and threatened to never work with anyone who hired his daughter. But despite that obstacle, she had a dedication and belief in herself that drove each new project and collaboration. Fields found a way to keep going and give her all to the very end. Case in point, she passed away on the evening of March 28, 1974, yet earlier that day she found out her latest show “Seesaw” had been nominated for seven Tony Awards…talk about going out on top. 

Collaboration among artists is a key component of working together as well as learning from each other. And it’s important to remember and respect the trailblazers like Dorothy Fields who have come before us. Her constant willingness to adapt and grow through the many ups and downs that came her way is something we can all take to heart as we slowly come out of this pandemic and get back to work we’ve missed for so long.  

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Patrick Oliver Jones
Patrick Oliver Jones is an actor/singer both Off-Broadway and regionally as well as the National Tours of “The Addams Family” and “Evita.” In addition, he adjudicates sessions at the New York Thespian Festival and teaches cold reading audition classes. He’s also host and producer of the Why I’ll Never Make It podcast, a weekly podcast about the realities of this business, all the while challenging the notion of what it means to “make it.”
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