Oscar-winning lyricist behind two James Bond themes: ‘My songs always sound better in my kitchen’
- Credit: Suzan/EMPICS Entertainment
Don Black starts our interview on a high note. It’s the morning after the press night of his latest musical, Mrs Henderson Presents, and the 77-year-old – anyone’s idea of a songwriting legend, born in Hackney and made in Hollywood – is in a jubilant mood.
“I’ve just read a review in The Times saying it can’t imagine in what universe this musical is not going to be a hit,” he gushes. “I don’t like to dissect the reviews but you can’t hide from them – the family drive you mad – so it’s nice to hear about good ones.”
Glowing reviews are nothing new for one of Britain’s best-loved, most versatile lyricists, who has written to the tunes of megastars ranging from John Barry to Jule Styne and provided words for such diverse vocalists as Michael Jackson and Tom Jones.
Yet, the positive press is a welcome return following the misfortune of Stephen Ward two years ago, which opened and promptly closed. The premiere of the much-anticipated Profumo musical marking his fourth collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, was overshadowed by the collapse of the ceiling at the nearby Apollo.
“You would be stupid to say that it doesn’t affect you if you get bad publicity,” he says sharply. “It’s painful. You start thinking of all the work – all those wasted meetings you had and all those nights you stayed up – and whether it was really worth it.”
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The flop was a rare disappointment for Black, having enjoyed 50 years of successive hits since winning an Oscar for the title song of Born Free – a “life-changing” moment which smoothed
his path from the East End to the West End, while he sustained his film repertoire with the Bond themes ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ and ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’.
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Now though, he’s back, with four shows on the musical merry-go-round. There’s Mrs Henderson, an adaptation of the 2005 Britflick starring Dame Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins, which celebrates the renowned Windmill Theatre in Soho and its role as a refuge for the people of wartime Britain, remaining open amidst the bombs and sirens of the Blitz.
“There’s so much to sing about,” is Black’s refrain as he cites the illicit romance, free spirits and stiff upper lip which punctuate the production. Mind you, the depiction of the first Moulin Rouge-style revue in Britain means nudity is a protruding theme.
Also in the West End, April sees the revival of Sunset Boulevard, a triple Tony award-winning tale of love and tragedy, which charts the big screen comeback of a faded film star, Norma Desmond, (played by Glenn Close) after meeting a young screenwriter.
Undoubtedly for Black, it’s the musical he loves best, created by one of the composers he admires most. “It’s a wonderful score. The word is overused but Andrew Lloyd Webber is a genius. I can’t think of anyone who feels for musicals like he does.”
Black raves about his virtually telepathic working relationship with Lloyd Webber, with whom he first collaborated on the 1976 song cycle Tell Me on a Sunday. He points out, in parenthesis, that the one-woman show version starring Jodie Prenger, following the romantic misadventures of a young girl from Muswell Hill in America, is on tour as we speak.
“It’s very stimulating to work with Andrew because every
pore in his body is to do with musicals. You can’t help being touched by such childish enthusiasm. As long as I’ve got his melody in my head, I’ll work alone in a room and call him later.”
He compares the connection between lyricists and composers to a marriage, except that Black has never argued across the piano. “If you spend day after day working on a musical with someone, you’re joined at the hip. You change minds together.”
When it comes to working with directors, however, he believes in the friction behind the creative spark. “One thing I have learned is that you have to stand your ground. There’s no blood-curdling shouting and screaming but there are creative differences.”
Which brings us to his fourth show: a revival, and antithesis, of the 1978 musical Bar Mitzvah Boy. Adapted from the teleplay by Jack Rosenthal with music by Jule Styne, it focuses on a north London family anxiously preparing for their son’s coming-of-age ceremony, only for him to commit Jewish heresy by running away from the synagogue.
Black is vocal about disliking the “over-produced” original, directed by Broadway blue-eyed boy Martin Sharman, and is eager to reset the tone. “There was no reason to have the caterers dancing on tables. No one loves a tap dance more than me when the story calls for it, but you don’t want to see it in an intimate, truthful little family musical.”
For the revival which runs Upstairs at The Gatehouse in Highgate until April 9, he has worked with the new director, Stewart Nicholls, to create a cosy, eavesdropping effect. “We are aiming to stage a ‘musical play’ rather than a big, brash Annie-type show, where so much was going on that the story got lost,” Nicholls states, courteously. “By cutting it to a cast of eight, we want to show the slightness of the tale.”
Indeed, Bar Mitzvah Boy exemplifies the great paradox of Black’s career. Despite writing tracks fit for the most successful and flamboyant of musicals, for the A-list lyricist, it’s all about the story. “Speaking personally,” he confesses, “whenever I create or demonstrate a song in my kitchen, somehow it always sounds better than it does anywhere else.”
Invigorated by his renewed success in the West End, Black’s crossover into warmer, lower-key compositions may be his proudest exploit yet.