The New Digga Digga Doo
Performers dust off the songbook of legendary lyricist Dorothy Fields
By Jerry Tallmer
There was once a day when you could walk out of a Broadway show singing some song (or two, or three) you’d just heard for the first time. Tune, words, and all.
The same thing happened to me recently, only I wasn’t on Broadway, I was at the Algonquin, and it wasn’t until I hit the pillow that the words to “On the Sunny Side of the Street” appeared in my head. And when I woke up, I heard “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby … ”
Which was, as it happens, a reverse of the order in which Mark Nadler and K.T. Sullivan, strumming ukeleles, open and close their richly rewarding digga digga doo at the Oak Room in celebration of the 100th birthday (this past July 15) of the woman who thought up the words of those two songs and a huge harvest of others that are woven into the emotional fiber of many people’s lives.
Her name was Dorothy Fields. Her profession: lyricist. Her lifetime: 1905-1974. “A Fine Romance” is what the skillfully meshed Nadler/Sullivan team – he at the piano and she at the mike in pink-clad glamour – call their centenary tribute to the woman who has fed so much wit, brains, love, longing, regret, style, class, and on-the-mark American slang into so many Broadway shows and Hollywood movies over so many years.
The composers she teamed up with back then are another catalogue of the greats. The ones Mark and K.T. call upon: Jimmy McHugh (the first, and most prolific), Jerome Kern (the biggie), Morton Gould, Arthur Schwartz, Oscar Levant, Albert Hague, Cy Coleman. Some of the others: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harry Warren, Harold Arlen.
And here is one of many anecdotes with which Sullivan and Nadler salt the hour and a half of song and history with which they open the 25th fall season of cabaret at the Oak Room of the Algonquin: Radio’s Jonathan Schwartz, son of Arthur Schwartz, was out strolling with his father one day when papa suddenly said: “Let’s walk on Dorothy’s side of the street.”
This being the Algonquin, it’s fitting for its present performers to recall one of that hotel’s most famous denizens, another Dorothy who had a way with words, Dorothy Parker. “The two Dorothys had a lot in common,” says Nadler. “Both Jewish, both liked parties, both liked to drink. I have that in common too.”
But the Mark Nadler you meet here is not Mark Nadler the wild man and gay caballero bouncing off the walls of cabaret clubs uptown and down. It is the restrained, respectful, almost at times the omniscent Mark Nadler – until, in a flash, he breaks free and wild in something like “Digga Digga Doo” (McHugh & Fields) or an almost impenetrable rapid-fire Cockney-accented patter song, “ ’Erbie Fitch’s Dilemma,” from the Fields and Albert Hague musical “Redhead.” (“The worst Cockney accent since Dick Van Dyke,” Nadler proudly confesses.)
And K.T. Sullivan? Well, she’s a beauty and a pro who can swing from tenderness to torch song (“I Must Have That Man,” McHugh & Fields) in the flicker of an eyelash.
Dorothy Fields’s life had great highs and deep lows. She was the daughter of Lew Fields, the formidable comedian (Weber & Fields) and Broadway producer who didn’t want any of his children going into show business. So she became a teacher. But showbiz was in the blood.
At 23, she had the breakthrough hit – a kid, working with Jimmy McHugh — of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” even if some long-forgotten sour-faced critic put it down as “sickly” and “puerile.” At 30, she (with Jerome Kern) won the Oscar for “The Way You Look Tonight,” forever to be with us in George Stevens’s great “Swing Time,” via, of course, Astaire and Rogers.
But … but … she was married at 19 to a Park Avenue heart specialist with whom she never spent one night or, it would seem, one moment in bed (“A fine romance, my dear, this is / A fine romance, with no kisses”). She was subsequently long and happily married to businessman Eli Lahm, with whom she had two children (one of them the singer David Lahm), but in the 1950s she lost two beloveds, one after another, her brother Herb and her husband Eli, and after that she did not work for seven years.
It was only when, at a cocktail party in 1965, a young squirt of a piano player named Cy Coleman came up to her and nervily proposed they collaborate, that life began anew. You will remember the result. It’s on Broadway (again) at this very moment and it’s called “Sweet Charity.”
“If My Friends Could See Me Now” K.T. Sullivan and Mark Nadler proclaim, with zip, toward the close of their show. You can see them now, K.T. and Mark, and if you close your eyes you can see Dorothy Fields with them.
A FINE ROMANCE. K.T. Sullivan and Mark Nadler in a tribute to Dorothy Fields. Through September 24 at the Oak Room of the Hotel Algonquin. Tuesdays through Thursdays at 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 9 and 11:30 p.m.. (212) 419-9331. $50 cover plus $20 minimum, or $50 prix fixe dinner.