50 years, always with the right words

Special to The Times

Their friend, writer Larry Gelbart, calls them "Alanandmarilyn," the heralded lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Their collaboration -- both professional and personal -- has lasted more than half a century.

Inspired by Alan Jay Lerner, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and Yip Harburg, the couple -- who today celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary -- has kept the tradition of the American Songbook alive. Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand and Sting have sung their songs, which include Oscar winners "The Windmills of Your Mind," "The Way We Were" and the score for "Yentl."

"More than one person has told me that they were married to 'What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?' broke up to 'Where Do You Start?' and divorced to 'The Way We Were,' " Marilyn said, putting her feet up in the studio of their Tudor home in Beverly Hills. "That's a great responsibility, being the soundtrack for people's lives."

They've been the subjects of all kinds of honors and accolades, from their induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1980 to a Lincoln Center tribute last year.

Their careers, meanwhile, remain alive and well. Two years ago, Universal Music Group President Zach Horowitz set up a lunch with the couple, hoping to establish a bond.

"They're a songwriting duo as good as any in the modern era," he noted.

Alan had just cut his first album at the urging of a German record executive who heard him perform. Horowitz asked for a copy and released "Lyrically, Alan Bergman" on UMG's Verve label in June. Jazz Times called Bergman's voice "a revelation, suggesting the wise, elder Sinatra and the astutely mellow Fred Astaire with a touch of the offbeat dreaminess of Chet Baker." The editor-publisher of Performing Songwriter selected the CD as the top release of 2007.

Alan, who has appeared at New York City's Feinstein's and the Algonquin in the last 10 years, sang locally at Vibrato last week. Perched on a stool, the 82-year-old delivered soft, unadorned renditions, accompanied by piano and bass, to a power-packed audience.

"That I'm here tonight singing in front of Streisand is a testament to my chutzpah," he told the sell-out crowd. The singer, whom they call their "muse," has recorded more than 50 of their songs.

"It's not about being Pavarotti but about being connected to the emotion and reason for each song," said composer-producer Quincy Jones, a longtime friend who collaborated with the Bergmans in 1967 on Norman Jewison's "In the Heat of the Night." "Alan created those words and can express them better than anyone. He's like a junkie -- he can't wait for the next job."

Making the connection

Alanandmarilyn were born in Brooklyn -- in the same hospital, in fact. Both headed out West after graduation. An aspiring songwriter since the age of 11, Alan hooked up with Johnny Mercer, who took him under his wing. Marilyn had abandoned plans to be a concert pianist and was rudderless at the time.

Arriving in Los Angeles in a cast after breaking her shoulder, Marilyn phoned Bob Russell, a lyricist and mentor, whom she'd met in New York. He directed her to composer Lew Spence, for whom she wrote lyrics in the afternoon. In the ultimate "meet cute" scenario, the composer introduced Marilyn to Alan, his morning lyricist, and the three wrote a song that day.

The couple embarked on a series of exercises, pretending they were on assignment. Using newspaper pieces or scenes from a play, they devised an appropriate song. Through the years they discovered: Write for the human voice as you would for any instrument, aware of its limitations and range. Rather than repeating the narrative, use it -- and the imagery -- as starting points.

"You have to reach for their songs -- they don't talk down to you," noted producer Norman Lear, for whom they wrote the themes for "Maude" and "Good Times." "Many of them are love stories. Alan and Marilyn are very romantic, together so much and so dearly."

A cash-starved Alan wrote "That Face" as an engagement gift for Marilyn, who is four years younger than he. That it was recorded by Astaire, Marilyn's childhood idol, added some panache. The Bergmans' first hit, "Yellow Bird," surfaced in 1958, "Nice 'n' Easy" two years later. Written for Sinatra, it was a "custom-made suit," Alan said.

Their feature film breakthrough was the Academy Award-winning "In the Heat of the Night," set in a racially polarized South. "Stars with evil eyes stare from the sky all mean and bright," Ray Charles sang, setting the stage for the conflict. When Jones and the Bergmans demonstrated the song to Charles, the blind singer was sure the writers were black because the material had such soul.

In 1968, the pair wrote "The Windmills of Your Mind" for Jewison's "The Thomas Crown Affair." The mission: to reflect the anxiety of a playboy who masterminded a bank robbery. The song conjured up the circular nature of the emotion, the feeling that his brain wouldn't shut off. It was their first outing with composer Michel Legrand, with whom they continued to collaborate. They've also worked with Dave Grusin, Marvin Hamlisch and Johnny Mandel.

"In those days, original music played a very important part in film," Jewison said. "It was almost a part of the writing. Now a music supervisor often compiles a soundtrack."

Marilyn too bemoans the evolution of the craft.

"Film students can talk about frames in John Ford movies," she observed. "But young songwriters don't know a Cole Porter song. How do you know where you're going if you don't know what came before?"

'With someone you love'

And how do the Bergmans "keep the music playing," the title of one of their classics.

"Effortless," Marilyn contended.

Working hard can keep couples apart, but it irons out wrinkles for the Bergmans. He has a daily tennis game. She spends most Saturdays with daughter Julie or friends. It doesn't hurt that he's a feminist -- and that they like each other a lot.

"Writing with someone you love is two-thirds of the battle," Alan explained. "We don't know who wrote what. First you're the creator, then the editor. It's like pitching and catching, we switch roles in seconds."

Photos of the couple with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and President Clinton sit unobtrusively in an office upstairs. A founder of the now-defunct Hollywood Women's Political Committee, Marilyn is a respected Democratic voice. She sleeps with an earpiece tuned in to talk radio and, as president of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) since 1994, fights for "fair compensation in a Digital Age."

"She's my leader," said Alan -- himself a board member of groups devoted to artists' rights and film preservation.

It's a balancing act, the Bergmans concede. Still, winding down isn't an option. They're working on a musical with Legrand, another with Hamlisch and raising money for "Up Close and Musical" -- a collaboration with Gelbart and the late Cy Coleman. There's also talk of bringing "Yentl" to Broadway and another stage production of TV's "Queen of the Stardust Ballroom" (one of their four Emmys).

"Fifty years went much too fast . . . ." Alan concluded. "Went?" Marilyn interjected.

"We don't have a past tense -- it's 'The Way We Are,' " she said.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday, February 15, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction Songwriting Bergmans: An article in Saturday's Calendar section about songwriters Marilyn and Alan Bergman misquoted a lyric to the song they wrote for the film "In the Heat of the Night." It is, "Stars with evil eyes stare from the skies all mean and bright," not "stare from the sky."
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