THE WORDS OF CAROLYN LEIGH
August 21, 2019: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Carolyn Leigh was as smart and tough a lyricist who has ever written for the theatre. Better known today for her pop songs, and though only credited with four Broadway shows, she was nonetheless a talent to be reckoned with. Born on this date in 1926, she collaborated with a number of different composers over the course of her career and wrote dozens of songs which bared her distinctive stamp: a mix of the sweet and sour. There was an air of Dorothy Parker about her. Leigh’s lyrics were often barbed and witty, but unlike Parker, she had the ability to be crushingly romantic.
Her best known works for the stage included the Mary Martin Peter Pan (a complicated legacy) with composer Moose Charlap, as well as Little Me, the Neil Simon musical comedy pastiche with Cy Coleman writing the music. That show produced “Real Live Girl,” perhaps the best known song from her theatre work. Another Coleman musical, the Lucille Ball star vehicle Wildcat, offered “Hey, Look Me Over,” which went on to be recorded by such big names as Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland and Rosemary Clooney.
Leigh died at age fifty-seven leaving several musical theatre projects incomplete. One of them, in collaboration with composer Marvin Hamlisch, was Smile, about teenagers competing in a beauty pageant, based on the 1975 film of the same name. The musical continued on without her, opening on Broadway unsuccessfully in 1986, three years after her death. Only by then, her lyrics had been jettisoned and Howard Ashman had taken on the job of writing an entirely new set. It was an indignity that if Leigh had lived to see (in the old joke) probably would have killed her.
I use the word tough in describing Leigh, because it is an accurate one. Born in the Bronx, Carolyn Rosenthal came into this world three years before the Great Depression took hold and had a reputation as a street fighter. Hers was a hardscrabble life from early on, working her way out of a poor family life. She attended Queens College and NYU, but didn’t graduate. She went through a succession of secretarial jobs, keeping her personal ambition fueled by cigarettes and writing stories and poems on the side. With encouragement, she began to figure out how to write songs. It wasn’t easy. As she once said, “There is no course in writing lyrics.”
While at a job she hated, Leigh accidentally dialed a music publisher at Sunbeam Music. It was your average wrong number, but the result of the conversation was the man on the other end of the line agreeing to sign her to a contract to write lyrics. Amazing, right? This was how at age twenty-five, Leigh’s career got launched a short time later when “I’m Waiting Just for You,” written with Henry Glover was recorded by 1950s singing star, Pat Boone. The song became a hit, as did her second one, “Young at Heart,” written with Johnny Richards. Mostly due to Frank Sinatra’s famous recording, it is well remembered today. Personally, I’ve always found a rendition sung by Jimmy Durante on the old 1960s TV variety show The Hollywood Palace, a particularly rewarding listen … as well as a visual (that battered fedora!). But also because it offers the chance to hear the song’s rarely heard intro, even if Durante chooses to speak it (as you can see and hear in the link below):
As a pioneer in a male-dominated field, Leigh was out on the same limb as her fellow lyricist Dorothy Fields. As Stephen Sondheim has written, “they were virtually the only two prominent female practitioners in what was a man’s profession at the time.” He also believed that Leigh was, as he puts it, “not a stage writer.” Sondheim’s belief is that Leigh wrote mainly about aspects of herself, and that “except for gender pronouns, many of her theatre songs could be switched among the show’s characters with little disruption.”
Sondheim is correct that much of Leigh’s top drawer work was written for cabaret and pop stars like Sinatra. “Witchcraft,” was written specifically for his finger-snapping, effortless ‘50s style, that happily brought out the best in both Sinatra and Leigh. The same goes for such other hits with Cy Coleman like “The Best is Yet to Come,” “When In Rome” and “The Rules of the Road,” a song perhaps not as well known as some, but offers these beautifully crafted lyrics:
So these are the ropes,
The tricks of the trade,
The rules of the road.
You’re one of the dopes
For whom they were made,
The rules of the road.
You follow that kiss and recklessly miss
A bend of the road,
Then suddenly this
The end of the road.
So love is a hoax,
A glittering stream
Of little white lies.
But these are the jokes,
And what if they bring
The tears to your eyes?
Well, love often shows a funny return.
The brighter it glows,
The longer you burn.
And lord only knows
Love has little concern for the fools of the road.
But that’s how it goes,
You live and you learn,
The rules of the road.
The truth in these sentiments can’t be argued with. And if Leigh’s skills as a lyricist was often overmatched by what can only be considered her bad luck when writing for theatre, then let’s face it: luck has everything to do with whether a show becomes a flop or a smash. What went wrong with Peter Pan was that its director, Jerome Robbins, a man of limited patience to say the least, couldn’t handle working with Leigh. He insisted that his friends Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green come in to replace some of the songs Leigh and Moose Charlap had written. Luckily, such Leigh and Charlap songs as “I Gotta Crow” with its intricate rhyming and “I’m Flying,” with its joyous and carefree abandon, remained.
While working on Little Me, Leigh was so offended by a song that was cut, the story goes that she left the theatre where the show was rehearsing and returned with a policeman, demanding that its directors — Cy Feuer and Bob Fosse — be arrested! It was no great surprise when the entire Little Me creative team joined forces again a few years later for Sweet Charity, and that between Fosse, Coleman and Neil Simon, Leigh was the only one not invited back. Her replacement: her fellow female in the trenches, Dorothy Fields.
Her final Broadway musical wound up being How Now, Dow Jones, with music by the legendary film composer Elmer Bernstein. It was not a happy affair for most concerned, with critics carping that the title was funnier than anything in the show. But it yielded yet another wonderful song that had a life beyond its 220 performances. “Step to the Rear,” was recorded by Marilyn Maye (another legend), and with some repurposed lyrics (most probably NOT by Carolyn Leigh) it helped sell automobiles in a series of car commercials in the late sixties.
Leigh once said: “The English language has fallen into sad disrepair. But it’s still true that ‘home’ and ‘alone’ don’t rhyme, ‘time’ and ‘mine’ don’t rhyme. And ‘friend’ and ‘again’ rhyme only in the area bound by Nashville and God knows what.”
As funny as that is, it is also the truth. And it’s the truth in Carolyn Leigh’s work which is what alerts you to a Leigh lyric every time.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions, at Ron@ronfassler.org.