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ALAN AND MARILYN BERGMAN ON SONGWRITING: PART 1

Marilyn & AlanAlan and Marilyn Bergman are a lyric-writing team who have won three Academy Awards, two Grammys, one Ace Award and three Emmy Awards. In 1995, Marilyn and Alan were recipients of Honorary Doctorates from the Berklee College of Music, and also received the National Academy of Songwriters Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1980, they were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in June of 1997 received the organization's Johnny Mercer Award. Among many other accolades, Alan and Marilyn have been nominated for sixteen Academy Awards, and in 1983, they became the first songwriters ever to be nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Song out of the five nominated songs.

In 1985, Marilyn became the first woman to be elected to the Board of Directors of ASCAP, and in February of 1994, after serving five terms, she was elected President and Chairman of the Board of ASCAP. In September of 1996, she received France's highest cultural honor, Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters Medal. Alan and Marilyn both serve on the Executive Committee of the Music Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Alan is the President of the Academy's (AMPAS) Foundation.

Some of Alan and Marilyn's credits include: "The Windmills of Your Mind," "The Way We Were," "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," "Yellow Bird," "Nice n' Easy," "How Do You Keep The Music Playing?," "What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?," "Ordinary Miracles," the score to the film Yentl, and "Moonlight," from the film Sabrina. Their long list of television credits includes the theme songs for Maude, Good Times, Alice, and Brooklyn Bridge.

Alan and Marilyn were born in the same hospital, and were raised in the same area of New York City. They met in Los Angeles and later married while working independently with the same composer.

The following is excerpted from the Bergmans' guest spot at the ASCAP Extended Songwriters' Workshop, held in November, 1996. It appears in three installments.

What is your process? Do you write in the same room, or...

Marilyn Bergman: When we're working on a film, it's very different from writing a song out of context. We see the film with the composer, and then we speak with the director to discuss the song's reason for being and function in the film. Then we meet with the composer and decide what style the song should be, from whose point of view, and then sometimes we'll start the process in the same room together, with one of us coming up with a line or a phrase. But ultimately we find ourselves alone in a room with a cassette.

And the melody can change with the flow of the lyrics?

MB: Oh, absolutely. Although it rarely does with Michel Legrand, a composer with whom we work a lot. Maybe it's because of the way he writes. He writes sequential tunes, a sequence that repeats and repeats, and if you take out one brick, it all collapses. We might suggest small adjustments, to which he is always receptive.

Do you and Alan work together?

MB: Always. We're thinking separately when we're not together, so we'll bring something different into the room when we get together to work.

How many projects are you working on at one time?

MB: It depends. When you're working on a show, you really have tunnel-vision and that's your whole world. As you all know, you have to have a lot of balls in the air, because you can't depend on any one piece of work landing where you hope it's going to land. So unless you like to get your heart broken over and over, it's a good idea to have a few things going. But if you're working on an all-consuming project, it's different.

How quickly do you have to write?

Alan Bergman: When you write in a dramatic context as much as we do, we've never had more than a week or two weeks to write a song. Sometimes a weekend. If you've seen the Barbra Streisand picture, A Star Is Born, the song that makes her a star, "I Believe In Love," we wrote that overnight with Kenny Loggins. One night. But, we don't like to do that.

MB: When you have to, you have to. The bad thing about that is, you don't really have time to explore other possibilities, or to let something sit. You have to go with the first thrust.

Which do you think is better, the first impulse, or when something has time to sink in?

AB: What really separates the amateurs from the professionals is the ability to rewrite.

"One of the cornerstones of collaboration is that you're both pleased..."

MB: I believe that's essential, not feeling that anything you write is the only way to say something, particularly when you're collaborating. One of the cornerstones of collaboration is that you're both pleased, and sometimes I'll come up with something, and Alan will indicate that he thinks there's something better. I may make a case for it, but not a terribly strong one!

AB: Our collaboration is so long-standing, and there's such trust and respect here, that I really believe there's a reason why something doesn't hit her, and if it's right we'll come back to it eventually. But in the meantime, her way might not be right and mine might not be right, but there's a third or a fourth way somewhere that's better.

MB: You can't fall in love with anything thinking it's the only way -- there are always other possibilities. Compromises. People say that writers never really finish -- you abandon things or they are dragged from you. You always think later that you could have made it better.

AB: So make it as good as you can --

MB: Or it comes back to haunt you!

Do you find that most of your inspiration comes in flashes?

MB: You live for those flashes! You can't count on them all the time -- if you need something by a particular time, you can't wait for the flash. You do it and you hope it's there, but if it's not, you have to have enough craft so that you can do it by sheer carpentry. That's painful and it's terrible -- when you know that what you're doing is really journeyman carpentry. It'll work and it'll be okay, there won't be any terrible mistakes in it and it will sing and it will be fine, but it'll be just another song, and what the world doesn't need is just another song!. But yes, you live for that inspiration, and you don't know where it comes from, and you don't want to know!

When you're writing a lyric, do you come up with the title first, or a verse, or...

AB: Well, our process has changed over the years. Sometimes you'll get a line and build a whole song around it. But we never know where we're going to end up -- we used to need to know. Irving Berlin is a perfect example of someone who knew exactly where he was going in every song. He had an idea like, "I got lost in his arms," and he knew that the last line in the song was going to be, "But look what I found." And he went from A to Z, and he knew every step. If you analyze his songs, he did that over and over again. We find it more fun just to follow wherever the song takes us. MB: We figure if there's a way in, there's usually a way out, and if there's not, we start over again.

What if someone gives you a melody and you can't fit anything to it? Do you ask them to change the melody?

MB: That did happen once!

"…sometimes there are musical phrases that either don't sing or don't want to be sung."

AB: Melodies are interesting things. For instance, Michel came to us one day, and he had just finished scoring a picture called Picasso Summer. He played a melody to us [hums staccato melody] as a march, and we said, "What if you played that as a ballad?" He came back with [hums same melody slower and easier], and we said, "Okay, we can work with that."

MB: There's a funny story about "Little Boy Lost," which we also wrote with Michel. It had a metric pattern that -- if you were writing the lyric in French with feminine endings, it would have been simpler. [hums melody] Everything that we put on that last note was like a thump. So we sat in the room -- he stayed with us when he came to America to write -- and every time he would walk by, he said he could see us getting greener and greener. Two or three days went by, and he finally said, "You're having so much trouble, what can I do to help you?" So we told him, and he said, how about [hums melody with different meter], and that changed everything. So sometimes there are musical phrases that either don't sing or don't want to be sung.

I want to ask about "You Don't Bring Me Flowers." It seems like a very contemporary thing to say, you know, divorces were becoming very common at the time. It was topical, but very classic at the same time, and I was wondering how it came about.

MB: That's a very funny story. Neil Diamond -- this sounds like a real Hollywood story, but it's the truth -- was at a dinner party with Norman Lear, the television producer, and he asked if Norman had any great television series coming up, because he'd like to write the theme song. And Norman said, "Yes, I've got a show that we're getting ready to do a pilot on called All That Glitters, and I don't have main title for it. Neil offered to write it, and Norman asked that he write it with us. So we wrote this 45-second (because that's all the time we had for a theme) song called "You Don't Bring Me Flowers." The show was about the reversal of roles; a woman-dominated society was the premise of the show. Now, between the time that the song was written and the pilot was filmed, the premise of the show changed, and the song didn't fit anymore. So we scrapped it, and about six or eight months later we ran into Neil, and he said that he was doing the song on the road and that everybody liked it. We said, "What song? It's 45 seconds long!" He said, "Well, I do a little instrumental part, then I come back," and we decided to finish the song, and he recorded it. And I guess Barbra heard it and liked it. She recorded it, and she and Neil had unknowingly recorded it in the same key, and a disc jockey in... Tulsa? Someplace like that... intercut the two versions --

AB: He was getting divorced, and he made it as a present for his wife. The station started getting calls asking where they could get the record, and of course there was no record, but Neil and Barbra went in and recorded it. Anyway, the show died a very quick death, and perhaps the song would have gone with it if it had been used.

Part 2 >>>


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