The Two Jewish Women Who Helped Write the Songs of Broadway’s Golden Age

August 18, 2021 | Terry Teachout
About the author: Terry Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the critic-at-large of Commentary.

As has been frequently observed, Jews played an outsized role in creating what came to be known as the great American songbook. Among the most prominent Jewish composers and librettists were Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Lorenz Hart, and Richard Rodgers. (Oscar Hammerstein II stands out as a practicing Christian born to a Gentile mother and a Jewish father.) Terry Teachout calls attention to two other Jews who, in his view, ought to be listed alongside the others:

Golden-age American songwriting was a man’s game. Without exception, all of the major composers of popular songs who were active in the pre-rock era were men. That was pretty much true of lyricists as well—except for Dorothy Fields (1904–1974) and Carolyn Leigh (1926–1983), both of whom had trifurcated success writing musical-comedy scores, songs for movies, and free-standing pop hits.

Fields also wrote the books for several Broadway shows in collaboration with her brother Herbert, sometimes supplying lyrics as well but often working only on their books, most famously with Irving Berlin on Annie Get Your Gun (1946). Leigh, by contrast, only wrote lyrics and was best known for her pop songs, almost always written with the jazz pianist-composer Cy Coleman, many of which were introduced by such noted singers as Frank Sinatra (“Witchcraft,” 1957), Tony Bennett (“The Best Is Yet to Come,” 1959), and Peggy Lee (“When in Rome,” 1964).

[B]eneath the polished surfaces of their contrasting writing styles, Fields and Leigh (both Jewish girls from New York) were cut from the same distinctive cloth of character.

Unlike Leigh, Fields was born into a show-business family. Lew, her father, started out as a vaudeville comedian, half of Weber and Fields, a “dialect act” portraying two immigrants struggling to master English. The act had its heyday at the turn of the 20th century, after which Fields became a theatrical producer.

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