“A Song is a corridor back in time,” began Alan Bergman, half of the Alan/Marilyn Bergman song writing team, in the third Road Scholar “Creative Expression” lecture at the Chautauqua Institute.
Unfortunately, Marilyn was ill, but Alan, interviewed by Roger Rosenblatt, spoke and sang through a rich distillation of how he and Marilyn met in their twenties and in an instant began their creative lifetime of probing music for the words that lay within. “I can’t tell you enough about the melody,” he said. “Melodies have words in them. Melodies have the rhymes in them, and we have to find them.”
The last great contributors to the Great American Songbook, the Bergmans won three Academy Awards, two Grammys and four Emmy Awards. They were the songwriters of Marv’s and my generation.
My gratitude was instant the moment Alan began humming and speaking the words of “The Way We Were,” one of the 64 songs he wrote for Barbra Streisand. Marv and I watched the first time Barbra was introduced on television during The Jack Parr Show in 1961. A favorite of ours, I listened with delight as Alan spoke of his relationship to Barbra, how “you have to give her something to say and to sing.”
The movie, Yentel was a highlight of their collaboration. Barbra bought the story; the Bergmans read the screenplay. Often, Barbra would conduct a rehearsal of the movie in the Bergman’s living room. “They would then go right into the movie,” he said.
At one point, Alan, age eighty-nine, still with wonder in his craggy voice, evoked Dustin Hoffman’s character in Tootsie, a man dressed as a woman, who cannot make a commitment. “Something’s telling me it might be you,” he sang.
I so appreciated Bergman’s clear and artful articulation of the couple’s creative process. “In the writing, we never know where we are going in comparison to great writers like Irving Berlin who always knew where he was going…We just go and see what happens.” His description affirmed my own process, how my themes and storyline evolve as I write.
I marveled at how the Bergmans collaborated with many well-known song-writers, some of whom were close friends who dropped off pieces of music with the implicit request to write lyrics. The couple explore and search for the words within. Alan described it as pitching and catching. “One of us is the creator and the other is the editor, and those roles change in a second. It is very vocal.” At times, he and Marilyn would select a piece from their music “pantry” as the first ingredient in preparation for a new Broadway musical.
About the creative experience, Alan said, “You have to be ready to receive.” Indeed, I was again grateful for the resonance— how similar the Bergman’s writing process is to my own except I don’t sing; I talk out loud as I write. The sound goes right to the page.