ASCAP Founders Award
Alan and Marilyn Bergman
ASCAP honors Alan and Marilyn Bergman, visionary lyricists whose meticulously crafted poetry of love and life has immeasurably enriched American song and cinema
By Erik Philbrook
Alan and Marilyn Bergman
"If what you are writing is true for the character or the situation, then there's something universal about it. The job of the lyric writer and the composer is to find that universal nugget. Then one hopes it will work anywhere." – ALAN BERGMAN
"The kind of trust and openness that our relationship affords us as writers is the luxury of being able to say anything to each other. In order to get to a given place, you need to be able to say stupid things. We cut through all of the stuff that you need to work through to get to the good stuff. The diamonds are at the bottom of the mine, not at the top." – MARILYN BERGMAN
"How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" is a question posed in one of Alan and Marilyn Bergman's most beloved songs. In their legendary career as songwriting partners, they've answered that question by example, collaborating for over 50 years on lyrics for film, television, musical theatre and recording projects. In the process, they've created some of the most memorable and lauded songs in modern music history. Nominated for 16 Academy Awards, they won Oscars in 1968, 1973 and 1984 for the songs "The Windmills of Your Mind" and "The Way We Were," and for the score for Yentl. In 1996 they were nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for their song "Moonlight," performed by Sting from the film Sabrina. "The Windmills of Your Mind" and "The Way We Were" also received Golden Globes and "The Way We Were" earned two Grammys. Their four Emmys are for "Sybil," "Queen of the Stardust Ballroom," "Ordinary Miracles" and "A Ticket to Dream." They've collaborated with some of the leading composers of the modern era, including Michel Legrand, Dave Grusin, Cy Coleman, Johnny Mandel, Marvin Hamlisch, Henry Mancini, John Williams, Quincy Jones, and James Newton Howard. The Bergmans were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and were subsequently presented with the Songwriters Hall of Fame Johnny Mercer Award. They have also received the National Academy of Songwriters Lifetime Achievement Award, and numerous other industry awards.
Whether writing for film, TV, the stage or any number of recording projects, the Bergmans' work is defined by a universal eloquence that has made them prolific contributors to the Great American Songbook. A Bergman song often transcends the media for which it was written to become, simply, music that transcends time.
In a recent interview, Alan and Marilyn discussed highlights of their incredible career and shared some insights into their collaboration and craft.
Although from the East Coast, you both migrated early in your lives to Los Angeles. Was there more opportunity for songwriters in Hollywood when you began? What brought you there?
MARILYN: Well, there was more opportunity in film, which is what we were interested in. We grew up on the Hollywood musicals and those great scores and songs. The Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and Gene Kelly movies - all those wonderful films.
Norman Jewison, Marilyn and Alan
After you were introduced by composer Lew Spence, you immediately began co-writing. What about the other inspired each of you?
ALAN: When he introduced us, we wrote a song that day. It wasn't a very good song, by any means, but we enjoyed the process. We had a good time. And we've been writing ever since.
MARILYN: Collaboration is always about chemistry. The spinning of ideas in a room. It was immediately a very productive partnership.
Did you have projects that came along that you were able to sink your teeth into?
ALAN: That took awhile. Before we met, Marilyn was writing with Norman Luboff. They were writing children's songs for Golden Records. Norman also had a series of albums of folk songs. I joined Marilyn and Norman and we wrote new lyrics for traditional songs. He also had folk songs from around the world for which we would write English lyrics. The first big project was 1958. Norman had a very successful choir on Columbia Records. Calypso music at this time was very big and Norman was asked to do a calypso album very quickly. He called us and said we needed to write eleven calypso songs in a week! We did and one of those songs was "Yellowbird." The song took off.
Marilyn and Sydney Pollack – 1984
Shortly after "Yellowbird" you wrote a song, "Nice 'N' Easy," for Frank Sinatra. Although quite different in style and tone, both of those works demonstrated that you had a knack for writing a great song for a specific project, a perfect skill for writing for film. Did those two back-to-back successes set you up for some real film work?
MARILYN: "Yellowbird" allowed us to continue writing songs so we didn't have to go out and get what our parents called "real jobs!" "Nice 'N' Easy" did get us our first movie. There was a picture at 20th Century Fox for a then popular star in England who was coming to America, Frankie Vaughn. Nobody knew him here and the picture, called The Right Approach, was rather undistinguished. But we were asked to write a title song. They wanted a song like "Nice 'N' Easy." We said "we can't guarantee you that," because writing for Sinatra was very specific. It was like writing for a character in a theatrical piece. But that was an introduction. Then we got another picture at Fox right after that, another undistinguished picture, The Marriage Go Round. But Tony Bennett sang the song, and it was our introduction to Tony, which has been a friendship that has lasted all these years.
What happened next?
ALAN: Jule Styne heard a couple of our songs and called us. He asked if we would write a Broadway show with Sammy Fain which he would produce.
MARILYN: Jule thought the idea of putting together young songwriters with a veteran composer like Sammy Fain would be a nice idea.
ALAN: That show opened in 1964 and was not very successful, so we came back to California.
MARILYN: With our tails between our legs.
ALAN: We left out something very important. In 1960, Marilyn and I got an idea to write a concept album for Jo Stafford. It was called A Ballad of the Blues and it was in four movements, so to speak. It contained original material and traditional songs.
MARILYN: It was beautiful. Jo sang like a dream.
ALAN: Paul Weston, her husband, who was a wonderful composer and orchestrator, wrote the music. It was actually just recently re-released on CD. In 1961, she asked us if we would go to London with her and write thirteen one-hour musical variety shows. Which we did. It was called The Jo Stafford Show and we wrote everything: the sketches, the continuity, the lyrics to the music that Paul Weston created.
MARILYN: It was on ATV, which was the big British commercial network at the time.
ALAN: We got a chance to write for so many of the leading performers of the time: Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney, Mel Tormé, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Peter Sellers. They were all on the show. It was an invaluable experience.
You had theatre work, film work, TV work. Did you have the luxury at this point to steer your interest in the direction you wanted? Or did you take the work for work's sake?
MARILYN: Some of the work was taken because it was there. By this time, we had a child.
ALAN: All of these things, though, were great learning experiences for us.
MARILYN: We were writing songs and getting records, and the money was dribbling in. But we were really learning.
ALAN: Yet we were most interested in writing in a dramatic context. And interested in honing that craft. We were brought up in the theatre with the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Those were our teachers. We tried to emulate them. We tried to write the best songs we could.
Marilyn, Quincy Jones and Alan - 1968
So would you say that the Great American Songbook was being challenged at that time?
MARILYN: Yes. It was a great period of transition. Writers like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, The Beatles and Paul Simon really stretched the possibilities. The song form, the length of the form, the structure was liberated by these people. They were very interesting to us.
ALAN: The goal was never to write a hit song, which isn't to say that if it happened it wouldn't have been terrific.
Your first significant film success was writing the song for In the Heat of the Night. How did that come about?
MARILYN: Quincy Jones was a neighbor of ours. He literally knocked on our door one day, and it wasn't to borrow a cup of sugar. It was to ask us if we wanted to do a movie with him that Norman Jewison was going to direct and that Ray Charles would sing the title song. That was really the beginning because the picture did well and the song did well. It was a marvelous film.
Dave Grusin, Marilyn and Alan
In the Heat of the Night was also interesting because there were four or five source songs in that movie and Norman said, "A song that somebody chooses to listen to on the radio tells as much about the character as what they're wearing, what they say." He wanted all original source songs. He didn't want the audience to bring their associations to a song that's known. So it was also a chance to write for four or five different characters in that piece. Everything was falling into place in terms of getting the assignments to do the kind of writing we were interested in.
Would you say that Norman was more musically astute than most film directors?
ALAN: We've been lucky that way. There are a handful: Norman Jewison, Sydney Pollack, Mark Rydell to name a few. We were fortunate to get associated with them.
MARILYN: They know about music and how to use it.
Does writing on assignment for a film improve the chances that you'll write a great song because of the parameters placed on the material?
MARILYN: No, hardly. But rather than those things being fences or limiting, they are broadening and inspiring. First of all, when you have Ray Charles to write for, it doesn't get any better than that. That beautiful title sequence that Norman shot for In the Heat of the Night, with the headlights of the oncoming train and a sign with the name of a Southern town and its small population, you know you have great material to work with.
ALAN: Norman wanted the title song to have a real function. That song lays the groundwork for the kind of place you're going to: the environment, the atmosphere. When he – a black man in a suit - steps off that train, you know he's stepping into trouble.
Alan, Marilyn and Marvin Hamlisch win the Academy Award for "The Way We Were" in 1973
Does a title song typically have to convey so much information?
MARILYN: Often. That was true for The Way We Were as well. Sydney Pollack asked us to write the title song that would serve to take you back in time to when these two people met in college. It had to be in period. In this case, Marvin Hamlisch wrote the melody first, because it appears in a nightclub scene where the theme was played live on the stage. It had the feeling of the late '40s, early '50s.
ALAN: Also, for The Thomas Crown Affair, Norman Jewison shot the glider sequence knowing that he wanted a song that underlined the anxiety the character was feeling at the moment. We wrote "The Windmills of Your Mind," trying to capture the feeling of the inability to turn your brain off when you're trying to go to sleep.
Johnny Mandel, Alan and Marilyn
The song has such a flowing, stream-of-consciousness effect. Did it come out that quickly and easily?
MARILYN: It is so hard to nail down how long it takes to write something. From the time you get the assignment to the time you actually sit down and write, there's an awful lot of formulating going on. We knew we wanted to write something that was like a mind-trip. We knew that. And we did think in terms of circular motion because of the glider.
It was written freely, unlike almost any other song we've written. When we got through with it, we knew it was very close to what we wanted. We thought "what are we going to call this song?" We looked at it and there was one phrase that appeared only once. We thought, well, that's provocative. What happens if we call it "The Windmills of Your Mind"? How does that change the lyric? When we went back as we do to rewrite, countless times, it was with that idea in mind as a title.
Cy Coleman, Marilyn and Alan at the Kennedy Center presentation of "Portraits in Jazz: A Gallery of Songs" in 2002
As lyricists, you are in love with words. But you must marry those words with music. Do you find that a great melody eases the pressure of coming up with just the right words, or do you feel added pressure to match the quality of the music?
MARILYN: Yes, and yes!
ALAN: We feel that there are words on the tips of those notes and we have to find them. That's our challenge. A great melody speaks to us. Maybe not instantly. There are certain songs we write out of context, like "Where Do You Start?" That was an orphan song, a melody that Johnny Mandel brought us and played for us. We said "leave that with us, please." Every once and awhile we would take it out and listen to it. We couldn't find an idea but we knew an idea was lurking there because the melody really intrigued us. Finally we got an idea and wrote the song. It's usually clear to us by this time when a melody speaks, and when it has in it what the song should be about.
You believe that the emotions are there for you to put into words.
MARILYN: To us! The same melody might mean something completely different to another lyric writer. To go back to your first question about what was special about our collaboration, there is and has been from the very beginning a real chemistry. By this time there is a lot of unspoken stuff that goes on. Shortcuts. Reading of each other's minds.
Do you actually get into working together line by line, word by word, where one of you suggests a line and the other will say 'that's good, but how about this?'
ALAN: Pitching and catching, back and forth. One is the creator, one is the editor. And that role changes every few seconds.
MARILYN: There's also a lot of What Ifs? "What if we did this? What if we said that?"
Alan, Marilyn and Michel Legrand receiving the Academy Award for Yentl, 1984
You have worked with so many great composers – Michel Legrand, Marvin Hamlisch, Cy Coleman, Dave Grusin, to name a few. When collaborating, do you actually work in the room with your composer?
ALAN: That's rare. We prefer to get the music and go off on our own.
MARILYN: We find that even when we're in a room with a composer we know so well, like Michel, we'll find ourselves in a corner whispering. I don't know why. There's something very private about it. The only composer we've ever written almost a whole project with together in a room was Cy Coleman.
I guess since you two have your own process as lyricists, you need that space and time, if you have it, to work out the material in the best way that works for you.
MARILYN: The kind of trust and openness that our relationship affords us as writers is the luxury of being able to say anything to each other. In order to get to a given place, you need to be able to say stupid things. We cut through all of the stuff that you need to work through to get to the good stuff. The diamonds are at the bottom of the mine, not at the top.
Marilyn, Barbra Streisand and Alan
What has been one of your more challenging assignments? And why?
ALAN: A song like "What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life?" The writer-director, Richard Brooks, told us he was writing a part for a song in his film, The Happy Ending. He said the song will be heard twice. The first time you hear it is behind a love montage.
MARILYN: He wanted something that almost sounded like a proposal of marriage.
ALAN: But, he said, the second time you hear that song is sixteen years later. The two people are married. The husband is a workaholic. The wife is an alcoholic. She leaves her husband and her child, never to go home again. She goes to her favorite bar, puts a dime in the jukebox and orders a martini. The same song is heard. But Richard said "you can't change a note, you can't change a word. This time it has to be ironic."
MARILYN: The song needed to mean something entirely different the second time.
ALAN: It was a wonderful challenge. We loved that.
MARILYN: Richard was so smart. He was another example of our luck with directors for whom we've worked. He said he wanted an anonymous singer to sing the song. He said he didn't want another star up there on the screen. So we had to turn down some very good singers. Michael Dees sang it in the film. Unfortunately, Michael, who was a wonderful singer then and a wonderful singer now, remains anonymous. I think he's the most valued demo singer in L.A.
The song itself, however, went on to become a very big star in your canon.
MARILYN: Barbra Streisand heard the song, and understood why she couldn't do it in the film, but she later made the first record. And what a record it is.
You've won three Academy Awards. One is for the score to Yentl. Does that Oscar hold special meaning because it was for such an extensive work?
ALAN: We had such joy in writing and making that piece.
MARILYN: It was a labor of love. If you look at that film today, and you will be able to soon, because the 25th Anniversary DVD is coming out. It not only has Barbra's commentary, but it also has some footage that was cut from the film. She talks about why. There is some video that was shot funnily enough in our house. She blocked all the musical numbers before she got on the stage in London. So those videos show Alan and I playing parts, as well as our daughter, who happened to be there! She included those videos in the DVD and then cuts to the scenes of the songs in the film. You see from the get-go that she saw the whole thing in her head, even the complicated wedding sequence. I think it is probably the most brilliant film debut by a director.
Billy Goldenberg, Marilyn and Alan receiving the Emmy for "Queen Of the Stardust Ballroom"
Your work with Barbra continues to be an integral part of both of your careers. What makes your collaboration so enduring and productive?
ALAN: You have to go back to the chemistry again. Something about her singing our words and the melodies of all these great composers - Michel Legrand or Marvin Hamlisch or Dave Grusin.
MARILYN: We truly love each other. She's like our muse.
Let's talk a bit about your work for TV. You wrote the theme songs to some of television's classic shows, including Maude and Alice. I think a lot of people are perhaps surprised when they discover you wrote the theme song to one of the 70's most iconic urban sit-coms - Good Times. How did you get the assignment?
ALAN: It came from Norman Lear. He showed us the pilot. We wrote the song with Dave Grusin. They didn't have a title for the show, so they chose the title of our song.
What have you enjoyed about writing a theme for TV that may be different from writing for film?
ALAN: What's interesting about writing TV themes, in those days at least, is that you had 45 seconds to write an entrance for a character such as Maude or for the character of what you are going to see. "Good Times" sets it up. Just like "In the Heat of the Night."
MARILYN: Only in this case it has to be a song you can stand to hear week after week. It must be welcoming.
What was another memorable television assignment?
ALAN: I would say Sybil. They wanted us to write a song for a film about a woman with multiple personalities. We said to the director Dan Petrie that what we'd like to do is write the song so that you hear fragments throughout the film, and then at the end of the film, when you put them all together, you'd hear the song. He said, "That's great. Do it." That's a case of a director who was willing to take a chance.
MARILYN: We also had a very great composer in Leonard Rosenman.
Quincy Jones, Marilyn, Henry Mancini and Alan when Henry received an ASCAP award in 1988
Much of your career has been writing for characters, whether in a film, on TV, or for iconic singers like Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand. But in most cases, they were somebody else's character. When you listen to your material, do you experience a whole other layer of meaning that is specific and central to your lives – messages that only the two of you can appreciate?
MARILYN: Over the years there are lines here and there that perhaps please us, because we love that we came up with a way of saying something. Usually we don't remember who wrote what. Or even the writing process. Although, there are certain parts of certain songs where I can remember exactly where we were when we wrote them.
ALAN: People have asked us, because we have been writing for 52 years and married for almost as long, "How do you write a song like 'Where Do You Start?' What do you know about that? About separation. About love lost." It has to do with the music.
MARILYN: Again, if you are writing for a dramatic situation or for theatre, you just have to be able to empathize and be able to understand what a character is feeling. That's the fun of it.
ALAN: If what you are writing is true for the character or the situation, then there's something universal about it. The job of the lyric writer and the composer is to find that universal nugget. Then one hopes it will work anywhere. It will speak to people outside of the context for which it was written.
Alan and Marilyn Bergman's List of Works
FILMS (partial list)
* Academy Award
þ Academy Award Nomination
Golden Globe Award
¤ Golden Globe Nomination
¢ Grammy Award Nomination
Emmy Award Nomination
± Cable Ace Award