Dorothy Fields

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

  • Biography
  • Back Stories
  • The Great Songs

The baby of a famed theatrical family, Dorothy Fields was born in Allenhurst, New Jersey, on July 15, 1901. Her father was Lew Fields, half of the vaudeville and musical comedy team of Weber and Fields. Dorothy’s brother Joseph became a well-known playwright in collaboration with Jerome Chodorov. Brother Herbert was one of Broadway’s top librettists. Dorothy overcame much sexism to become one of Broadway’s top lyricists. One of her great strengths was her ability to incorporate current slang into her lyrics, creating colloquial, up-to-the-moment songs. Throughout her long career she remained in the vanguard of the musical theatre, always able to keep up with popular taste. She was the only member of her family to make a successful transition to film, writing scores with such great composers as Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen.

Of all the Broadway lyricists, Dorothy Fields was the most able to keep up with her times, using contemporary idiomatic phrases without sounding forced or trendy. 

Fields made a splash on Broadway on Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1928, in collaboration with composer Jimmy McHugh. Their hit tune was “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.” The aptly titled Hello, Daddy! (1928) came next, produced by and starring father Lew in his last Broadway appearance, and with a libretto by brother Herbert. Fields and Jimmy McHugh provided a few songs for the show. Her final Broadway collaboration with McHugh was on The International Revue (1930). They contributed one smash hit, “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Their Clowns in Clover closed out of town in 1933 but it did contain the future standard “Don’t Blame Me.”

Fields and McHugh joined many of their fellow composers and lyricists in Hollywood for most of the 1930s, placing a number of individual songs in mostly dramatic films. By 1935 they were writing complete film scores, and that year was a banner one for Fields. She and McHugh wrote “I Feel a Song Coming On” with additional lyrics by George Oppenheimer, and Fields collaborated with Jerome Kern on I Dream Too Much. She also provided some additional songs for the film version of Roberta, including “Lovely to Look At” and “I Won’t Dance,” the latter with Oscar Hammerstein II. In 1936, she and Kern wrote songs for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to sing in Swing Time. That exceptional score included “Bojangles of Harlem,” “A Fine Romance,” “Never Gonna Dance,” “Pick Yourself Up,” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” Kern and Fields wrote one more film score, The Joy of Living (1938), with wonderful songs including “You Couldn’t Be Cuter” and “What’s Good about Good-Night?”

Fields returned to Broadway in 1939 with Stars in Your Eyes, music by Arthur Schwartz. The score was excellent although no standards emerged (very strange, considering that the great Ethel Merman starred). Their first project as a team was Cole Porter’s Let’s Face It! (1941). The siblings supplied a mischievous script to match Porter’s equally sassy music and lyrics. Another Porter show, Something for the Boys, followed in 1943. Herbert and Dorothy again wrote lines for Merman in the Michael Todd production. Herbert, Dorothy, Porter, and Todd next collaborated on Mexican Hayride in 1944.

European-style operetta, pronounced dead at the end of the 1920s, made a surprisingly successful return to Broadway with Up in Central Park (1945). Sigmund Romberg wrote the music and Dorothy returned to lyric writing for the occasion, also collaborating with Herbert on the book. To everyone’s surprise, the Mike Todd production enjoyed a long run. The songwriters had come up with a lovely, melodious score including the breakout hit “Close as Pages in a Book.”

Herbert and Dorothy’s entertaining but minor efforts on Porter musicals didn’t prepare Broadwayites for the genius of their next show, Annie Get Your Gun. Originally, Dorothy was to write lyrics to the melodies of Jerome Kern. She went so far as to title some of the songs. When Kern died unexpectedly, he and Dorothy were replaced by Irving Berlin, who kept some of Dorothy’s song titles.

She returned to Hollywood in 1951 and worked on a few pictures including Mr. Imperium, Texas Carnival, and, with Arthur Schwartz, Excuse My Dust. Fields and Schwartz collaborated again on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a vehicle for Shirley Booth. The 1951 production boasted a charming score with real emotional power. “Make the Man Love Me” became a hit and has remained a favorite of pop singers.

The next year she wrote Lovely To Look At with Kern. It was a remake of Roberta. In 1953, Fields paired up with Harold Arlen for the Betty Grable film The Farmer Takes a Wife. Fields and Schwartz brought out the best in each other and they next collaborated on By the Beautiful Sea (1954), also starring Shirley Booth. This time Herbert joined Dorothy on the script, but the results were weak. The brother and sister then wrote the libretto to the first murder mystery musical, Redhead (1959), with a score by Dorothy and Albert Hague. Gwen Verdon starred and the hit this time was “Merely Marvelous.”

Upon Herbert’s death in 1958, Dorothy took a seven-year break from the theatre, returning in top form with the 1966 smash hit, Sweet Charity. Dorothy’s lyrics perfectly matched Cy Coleman’s jazzy rhythms, providing exactly the right tone for the alternately romantic, salty, and sentimental score. “Big Spender” emerged as the big hit, but the rest of the score is much more sophisticated and worthy. Fields’ last Broadway show, Seesaw (1973), was another Coleman collaboration, but the result wasn’t nearly as satisfying as Sweet Charity.

Of all the Broadway lyricists, Dorothy Fields was the most able to keep up with her times, using contemporary idiomatic phrases without sounding forced or trendy. Her more poetic lyrics never become cloying and her imagery remains sharp, fresh, and hip. It’s to her credit that she could collaborate with composers as wildly diverse in style as Arthur Schwartz, Jerome Kern, and Cy Coleman. And, perhaps most noteworthy of all, in a field largely dominated by men, she always held her own and defied categorization as a “female” songwriter. (KB)

Second time's the charm

“I Won’t Dance” was written by Jerome Kern, Otto Harbach, and Oscar Hammerstein II for the 1934 London musical Three Sisters. The show was not a hit but Fred Astaire happened to see it and admired the song. When it came time to film Roberta at RKO, he suggested that the song be used in the film. Dorothy Fields amended the lyrics for the 1935 Hollywood version.I Won't Dance

Who wrote the tune?

Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields were reportedly outside Tiffany’s jewelry store when they heard a swain tell his girlfriend, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” They took the phrase, added “Lindy” (referring to Charles Lindburgh) and wrote a song. Perhaps realizing that the addition would date the song, they replaced the name with “baby.” Or maybe not. Fats Waller claimed he wrote the tune and sold it to Jimmy McHugh, along with “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” We do know that later, when Fields wrote additional lyrics for the film remake of Roberta, titled Lovely to Look At, she kept McHugh’s name as co-author on the songs although he had nothing to do with writing them.I Can't Give You Anything But Love

First multiple recording

Jimmy McHugh claimed a first for this song, “For the recording, I had Lawrence Tibbett make a harmony record of himself (overdubbed), and on the screen it showed the real Tibbett as a soldier and his image as a ghost standing beside him. This was the first multiple recording in record history.”Cuban Love Song

Bookmark and Share

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

The 3 part PBS Series
Own the DVD