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I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby:
Dorothy Fields and Her Life in the American Theater

by Kristin Stultz Pressley

Book Review by Mark Dundas Wood

Kristin Stultz Pressley's spirited but slim new biography of lyricist and librettist Dorothy Fields, I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby: Dorothy Fields and Her Life in the American Musical Theater, contains several photos and drawings depicting groups of successful composers, lyricists and bookwriters. Proudly posing, these Broadway powerhouses huddle together, sometimes around a piano. In all such illustrations, Fields is the only woman present.

At the end of the book, however, Pressley explains that when Fields' lyrics were first heard on Broadway (in Blackbirds of 1928), there were actually more women serving in such creative capacities than would be employed in the earliest years of the 21st century. The names of most of these other trailblazers weren't widely known, even during their lifetimes. Fields is the lonesome anomaly among the likes of Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, and the Gershwin brothers.

At the outset, Pressley defines her intent clearly. "This," she says, "is a book about who [Fields] was, what she did, and how she did it." The author delivers to some extent on all three points, though not with the thoroughness some readers might hope for—especially when it comes to who Fields was when out of the public eye.

The name Dorothy Fields has some ring to it, even now. That's partly because of the longevity of her career, which extended from 1928 until her death in 1974 (on the very day she learned that the score for Seesaw, which she'd written with composer Cy Coleman, had earned a Tony Award nomination). Her lasting renown can also be attributed to the long string of Broadway and Hollywood song standards she co-wrote, beginning with such early hits as "I Can't Give You Anything but Love," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," and "The Way You Look Tonight," extending all the way to late-career successes, including "Big Spender," "Where Am I Going?," and "It's Not Where You Start." How many other lyricists can count both Sigmund Romberg and Quincy Jones as collaborators?

Nor was she a slouch as a librettist. Working with her brother Herbert Fields, she was bookwriter for several Broadway shows, most notably Annie Get Your Gun (1946). It was she, Pressley tells us, who first suggested that Ethel Merman might be right for a musical about sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Fields was originally slated to write the lyrics for that show as well, in collaboration with composer Jerome Kern. The cantankerous but beloved Kern, however, succumbed to a heart attack before work got started on the project, and Fields ceded the lyric-writing responsibilities to his replacement, Irving Berlin, who was famous for writing both words and music. Pressley doesn't touch on the less-than-timeless attitudes in the musical's script that led to significant revisions for the 1999 Broadway revival.

Adept at churning out lyrics quickly, Fields learned early on to write with an ear for the vernacular. In some of her earliest lyrics, she imitated the style of Lorenz Hart, especially his proclivity for crafting clever internal rhymes. Writes Pressley: "She would later call this a 'mistake,' her early inclination to be easily influenced by other writers." The author cites lyricist Sheldon Harnick's praise of Fields' down-to-earth lyrical lines. Harnick applauded her "magical ability to mix sophisticated and imaginative ideas with utterly prosaic ... words and images, resulting in lyrics of a remarkably appealing freshness."

But, as Pressley explains, Fields' career came close to not happening. Her hyper-protective parents might well have squelched it entirely. Dorothy and Herbert Fields—along with their older sister Frances and another brother, librettist Joseph Fields (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Flower Drum Song)—were the progeny of Polish-born Lew Fields, a noted theatrical producer who was most famous as the vaudeville partner of Joe Weber. The Weber and Fields team gained remarkable popularity for their slapstick dialect comedy in the late 1800s and early 1900s. (Dorothy, the youngest Fields child, was born in 1904.)

Some of the best passages in Pressley's book deal with the childhood years of the Fields children. Lew and his wife Rose loved them dearly, but they were determined to prevent them from entering show business. They managed to shield Frances from the limelight (she married young), but they could not keep the stars out of the eyes of Joseph, Herbert, and Dorothy. It didn't help that the couple took the kids along on a 1912 national tour of a Weber and Fields show. Riding on the train with the performers, the youngsters—especially Dorothy, it seems—were tantalized by the exuberance and glamour of show people's lives. The junior Fieldses were as eager to get into the act as Lucy Ricardo skulking around the Tropicana nightclub behind husband Ricky's back. In these sequences, Pressley effectively spurs readers on to root for determined young Dorothy.

Fields originally hoped for a career as a performer, not a writer, and she had some early luck in amateur shows. Her parents thwarted that wish, but in later years, she enjoyed getting up to sing in front of people. In 1933, she even headlined as a singer on a radio series, along with her first songwriting partner, Jimmy McHugh. Pressley covers in some detail the eight-year professional partnership of Fields and McHugh, which produced a huge catalogue of songs, including "Hooray for Love" and "I'm In the Mood for Love." She remains uncertain, though, as to why exactly that partnership ended abruptly in 1935.

Pressley also gives a fairly full account of some of Fields' other significant songwriting partnerships, especially the one with Kern. And she provides relatively bountiful information on projects that became hit shows, such as Sweet Charity (with Coleman, along with bookwriter Neil Simon). But we learn very little about what some of her more limited creative affiliations were like. For instance, Pressley sums up Fields' collaboration with Burton Lane on the 1957 TV musical Junior Miss in one short paragraph and gives us no details as to what the Junior Miss songs were like. (She does, however, provide several valuable lists, tables, and other appendices that document the wide scope of the Fields oeuvre.)

This biography, which grew out of Pressley's master's thesis, focuses primarily on the subject's professional career, so information about the adult Fields' personal life—including her two marriages, her relationship with her children, and her personal habits—is somewhat scant. Pressley acknowledges the assistance she received from Fields' son, David Lahm, in answering questions about his mother's life and work. However, she seems not to have conducted many other interviews. That's understandable, as most of the people who would have worked with Fields, even in her later years, are no longer with us.

The author provides some fascinating tidbits along the way. Those who laughed at the big joke in 2018's musical The Prom about the hapless bio-musical Eleanor! may be tickled to learn that Fields and Coleman—between Sweet Charity and Seesaw—wrote the score for an unproduced musical about Mrs. Roosevelt with that selfsame title (minus the exclamation point). But, again, Pressley gives us but one paragraph about this project, even though Coleman had singled it out as the team's best work.

Also, there are a few bloopers—though the ones identified here seem tangential to the Fields career itself. Writing about how Fields lost the 1964 Funny Girl lyric-writing assignment to Bob Merrill, Pressley describes Merrill as "a pop songwriter with no Broadway experience." Actually, he'd previously worked on New Girl in Town, Take Me Along, and Carnival!. The author also writes about a musical Fields hoped to complete (featuring previously unheard Kern melodies) that focused on the Peace Corps, noting that that Mary Rodgers and Martin Charnin were planning a different Peace Corps musical around the same time. Pressley writes that "both shows were scrapped." In fact, the Rodgers/Charnin project, Hot Spot, starring Judy Holliday, made it to Broadway in 1963.

I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby: Dorothy Fields and Her Life in the American Theater provides a succinct overview for those interested in the work of Dorothy Fields. With only 138 pages of narrative text, though, it won't likely satisfy those seeking a more exhaustive account. It merely whets the appetite for something more definitive.

I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby: Dorothy Fields and Her Life in the American Musical Theater
By Kristin Stultz Pressley
201 Pages
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books
Publication Date January 28, 2021
ISBN: 978-1493050949
Available in Paperback and Kindle Edition