She may not have the name recognition of some of her male peers, but Dorothy Fields was one of the most successful Broadway lyricists of the 20th century. Now she returns for one night only in Pippa White’s one-woman cabaret show, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Songs,” a loving tribute to a remarkably talented and prolific, yet relatively unsung, Jewish songwriter. White, who is accompanied by Vince Learned, will appear next Thursday, Nov. 21 at 9 p.m. on Theatre Row.
Fields, born in 1904, was the daughter of Lew Fields (né Moses Schoenfeld) of the vaudeville duo Weber and Fields. Working with composer Jimmy McHugh, she began writing songs in the late 1920s for Cotton Club revues; they included “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “I’m in the Mood for Love,” and “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.”
She went on to work with her brother Herbert on the books for “Annie Get Your Gun” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” to contribute to more than two dozen film scores (including winning an Oscar, along with Jerome Kern, for “The Way You Look Tonight”), and to collaborate with Cy Coleman on “Sweet Charity” and “Seesaw.” She died in 1974, having penned nearly 500 songs.
White discovered Fields while listening to a 1993 recording of her songs by Barbara Cook. She based the show on interviews with Fields (including one from the “Lyrics and Lyricists” series at the 92nd Street Y in 1972), and a 1997 biography by Deborah Grace Winer, “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”
While it was not seen as lady-like for women to write lyrics, White said, Fields managed to bring a “fresh and contemporary feel” to her songs. In writing a song, she started with the title, which she herself defined as a “catchy, interesting combination of familiar words used in a declarative sentence.”
Field’s son, David Lahm, is a musician known for his jazz compositions and song parodies. Lahm’s parents were so secular that he was 39 years old before he first attended a Passover seder, six years after his mother’s death. Nevertheless, for her last musical, “Seesaw,” his mother wrote songs for the character of Gittel “Mosca” Moscawitz, the Bronx Jewish beatnik dancer, played by Michele Lee.
Before that, Lahm noted, “her characters were all out of Protestant America,” reminding one of David Lehman’s observation in his book, “A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs,” that “one distinctively Jewish thing about the authors of the American songbook is the determination to escape from their Jewish origins and join the American adventure.”
“I Can’t Give You Anything but Songs: The Life and Work of Dorothy Fields” will be performed on Thursday, Nov. 21 at 9 p.m. at 410 W. 42nd St. For tickets, $18, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.