This year is looking to be a good one for lyricist DON BLACK. As well as a new West End musical, Mrs Henderson Presents, under his belt, the London Coliseum is to play host to a revival of Sunset Boulevard (for which he co-wrote the book and lyrics with Christopher Hampton and won two Tony Awards) starring Glenn Close. Tell Me On a Sunday, for which he also collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber, is also touring the country. And this week, a revival of his 1978 musical Bar Mitzvah Boy has opened at the Upstairs at the Gatehouse Theatre in London’s Highgate.
Bar Mitzvah Boy is an adaptation of Jack Rosenthal’s BBC TV play of the same name, with a book by Rosenthal and music by Jule Styne.
Here, he is in conversation with Scott Matthewman.
What was working with Jack Rosenthal like?
There was no better man, no more talented man than Jack Rosenthal. He was wonderful, it was a wonderful play. If you saw it on television, the play was just fantastic. Being Jewish, I understood all those people. Also, working with Jule Styne, the man who wrote Gypsy and Funny Girl, was a great honour. All in all it was a phenomenal time.
And we’ve talked for years about doing it again, but it’s not so easy to get these things back on. But we did a workshop in New York about seven years ago. Jack had passed by then, and we had this other writer called David Thompson, who wrote The Scottsboro Boys and the revised version of Chicago. A very clever guy.
We changed a couple of things, and also I wrote some new songs. Jule Styne had passed, but Jule’s widow Margaret gave me access to his music. And so there’s a couple of new tunes in there – I think three new Jule Styne tunes that no one’s ever heard.
So he hadn’t written them with Bar Mitzvah Boy in mind?
No he hadn’t. We’ve used all the ones he did write for Bar Mitzvah Boy, but with a man like Jule Styne, there were dozens of songs that were never used, that were written for other shows and came out of them. So I just went through his catalogue and picked the tunes that would fit this Jewish story.
The original production only ran for 78 performances. Why do you think it didn’t connect with audiences?
No one knows why any one musical doesn’t work. They either do or they don’t. But you know especially with a team like that… history books are littered with musicals that had great stars in them, that then closed quickly.
It’s a funny comment to make, but some people said:, “It’s very Jewish. Is there an audience for such a Jewish piece?” But Fiddler On the Roof was very Jewish, so you can’t tell.
I have my own theory about it. I think it was over produced. It was made to be like a big musical. The director was Martin Charnin, who’d just had a big hit with Annie, and I always felt – and Jack Rosenthal certainly felt – that it was over produced. Too much was made of it, too many big production numbers. Basically it’s a story about a small Jewish family from Willesden, who are getting a bar mitzvah put together. And the smaller the space, the better the musical will be.
I didn’t know [Upstairs at the Gatehouse] but the producer, Katy Lipson, said it was perfect for this. It’s in a Jewish area, it’s small, you’ll get to know the actors. I don’t want it in a big theatre, so I’m delighted about that.
Thinking about the perception of it being ‘too Jewish’, do you think today’s audiences will be more open to its story compared to those of the 1970s?
It’s a universal theme, really, and a wonderful story. In a sentence, it’s about a boy who is becoming a man. That’s what it means in the Jewish religion, when you’re 13 you become a man.
From this boy’s point of view, he looks at the men in his life – his father, his grandfather, potential brother-in-law, and he thinks: “What’s so wonderful about being one of them?” One’s a bit simple, one’s a bit of a fool… it’s all loveable, but why go through all this agony of what you have to go through, to learn the rituals? It touches a lot of nerves.
I understand there was an 1980s Off-Broadway version that relocated the setting?
Well it was never really ‘produced’ as such, it was more of a private workshop. It became about an American family, and it just didn’t work. You have to be true to the piece.
What I’m pleased about now, and I think Jack would have been thrilled too, it’s a very honest and truthful interpretation. There’s no Broadway polish or veneer that Jack was so against. In the West End production we had an American choreographer, a very successful Broadway director, and we made too much of it. I’ve always thought it’s a little gem, and it should stay a little gem.
That happens a lot with musicals. You start with one musical, and before you know it you’ve got enormous sets, a big orchestra – but it sounds better when you’re just listening to it in your kitchen. Just one of those things.
Sunset Boulevard has been a bit like that as well, with Craig Revel Horwood’s revival that pared it down to a small group of player/performers, so a musical which started off huge found a new, smaller sound.
I love small musicals. The more focused they are the better. But I must say Sunset originally was stunning. That set by John Napier, it was mind boggling.
And now of course, it’s going bigger than ever with Glenn Close at the London Coliseum…
Yes, I’m looking forward to that. I had dinner with Glenn when she first came over. She was over the moon, raring to go. And we’ve got a huge orchestra – 57-piece, or something like that. And I think it’ll sound amazing.
It was great hearing her passion for the piece at the press conference. Have you had the temptation to revisit any that musical and give it a little polish?
No, not really, it hasn’t been necessary. It’s a much-loved piece and there’s no reason to change it, other than for a 60-odd piece orchestra. It’ll sound different. And we have the amazing Glenn Close, who’s phenomenal, and who I have great memories of, because she did it in New York for so long. I know what to expect, but the British people have never seen her do it. So they’re going to have a hell of a night.
When it comes to Mrs Henderson Presents, that’s a story based on a true story but is itself an adaptation of a screenplay. Did you use the film as the sole basis for your lyrics?
Well Terry Johnson, who directed and wrote the book, had been working on it for – I’m not sure how many years. It’s been four or five years, certainly, since Norma Heyman the producer came to me and said: “what do you think?”
When I saw the film, I thought, ‘there’s a song there, and there’s a song there’ – the places for songs just stood out.
And of course I started out life as a stand-up comic, so I played places like the Windmill. I knew that world, I was brought up with Max Miller and those kind of people. There’s something about knowing a piece that helps you a great deal and makes you feel very comfortable.
And funnily enough, the musicals we’ve talked about I feel very comfortable with. With Bar Mitzvah Boy, I’m an East End Jewish boy, and I know those people. Sunset Boulevard, I spent nearly all my childhood watching movies, so I felt very at home with Hollywood stories. And with Mrs Henderson Presents, I feel very much at home with this story about a theatre struggling to survive. It’s a wonderful tale, and the fact that it takes place during the war adds another dimension to it.
And it takes place during the Blitz, and of course the Windmill was the only theatre that stayed open. So there’s a bit of history to it. Again, it’s a true story. The people in Bath, they laughed like crazy – because there’s nudity, but in a very tasteful way.
Also, it’s surprisingly patriotic. I thought it was a bit when I was writing it, but it’s only when you get an audience that you see they’re visibly moved by the spirit of people during the war. So that was a bit of an eye opener and a very pleasant one.
When you are writing song lyrics, how do you prefer to work with your composers?
It varies. It’s very, very different. With John Barry [with whom he collaborated on several James Bond theme songs] it was always the music first, but he did like to have a title and an opening line. For George Fenton, who I did Mrs Henderson Presents with, I’d write a title and about ten lines to get him started. Then he’d come back and he’d have changed some of the lines, or said that he didn’t use all of them.
I must say I’m happiest when I have a melody. But it doesn’t matter. With Andrew Lloyd Webber, it’s nearly always a tune first, but not always. He loves titles as well.
You have to get them started. Give them a title and say: “I can write a good lyric if it goes roughly like this.” But it doesn’t matter either way.
On your website, you say that you ‘blame yourself entirely for the death of variety’. What on earth did you do to it?
I was a stand-up comedian, but I said that because I wasn’t very good! I played a lot of places in the country, and somehow or other they all closed.
People do ask me why I stopped. When they do, I tell them that I wrote my first song while waiting for a laugh in Darlington.
You can use that one.
* Bar Mitzvah Boy will run at London’s Upstairs at the Gatehouse Theatre until Sunday 10 April.
* There are also performances on Saturday 16 and Sunday 17 April 2016 at the Radlett Centre in Hertfordshire.
* Don Black’s stage musicals include Billy, Tell Me On a Sunday, Aspects of Love and Stephen Ward and he won two Tony Awards for Sunset Boulevard. Film lyrics include ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, ‘The World is Not Enough’, ‘To Sir With Love’, ‘The Italian Job’ and ‘Born Free’ (for which he won an Oscar). Among his many popular hit songs are Michael Jackson’s ‘Ben’ and Lulu’s ‘To Sir With Love’, both of which were US number one hits.