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November 1997

Max Wilk
They’re Playing Our Song: Conversations with America’s Classic Songwriters

The breezy, amusing dialogues in this slim tome give insight into the character and personalities of 26 great writers of the American songbook. The machers of New York musical comedy and Hollywood film are puffed and polished: Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser; famous teams are met with separately: (Rodgers & Hart [& Hammerstein], Styne & Cahn). Wilk talked with them all in 1971-2 when Kern and Berlin were already in their 80’s and Sondheim the youngster. Only three essays are lively eulogies to Vincent Youmans, Vernon Duke; singer Margaret Whiting comments on dad Richard and on others throughout. In his preface, Jule Styne—one of the few subjects still living—verifies the authenticity of the interviewees and celebrates the longevity of their songs. To overhear Wilk’s awestruck chats with them, Tin Pan Alley’s famous denizens make a big, genial Jewish fraternity, talking about songs, deals, shows, and each other with voluble affection and creditable respect. That’s appropriate—like lyrics of a hit song.

Want to learn how these guys write? (Only lyricists Dorothy Fields, Betty Comden are women; only Richard Whiting, Johnny Mercer are goys [Yiddish for non-Jew]). They’re not telling; you gotta figure it out from how they talk. Personalities invariably come through: Mercer’s generous good humor, Harold Rome’s engaging wit, Berlin’s brisk sarcasm. Though Leo Robin attributes his success to luck and others to kind mentors and/or brilliant collaborators, none admits to the obvious combination: hard work and poetic genius. In fact, no one presumes to define a formula for what makes a hit. “If you find out the secret,” Betty Comden cracks, “call me—immediately.”

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