MARILYN BERGMAN: ‘Drifted’ Into Songwriting

Marilyn Bergman’s title is president and chairman of the board of ASCAP, but to many people she has touched over the years with her songs, she will always have the title of songwriter.

Videos by American Songwriter

She and her husband, Alan Bergman, are co-writers who took home Oscars in 1968, 1973 and 1984 for “The Windmills of Your Mind,” “The Way We Were,” and for the score of “Yentl.” Other Oscar nominations have been for “It Might Be You” from Tootsie, “How Do You Keep The Music Playing? From Best Friends, and “What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life?” from The Happy Ending.

“The Windmills of Your Mind” and “The Way We Were” also received Golden Globe awards and “The Way We Were” earned two Grammys. The couple has four Emmys for “Sybil,” “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom,” “Ordinary Miracles” and “A Ticket to Dream.” Marilyn and Alan also collaborate with Michel Legrand, Marvin Hamlisch, Dave Grusin, Henry Mancini, André Previn, Johnny Mandel, John Williams, Quincy Jones and James Newton Howard.

In 1996 they were nominated for a Golden Globe Award, an Academy Award and a Grammy Award for their song “Moonlight,” performed by Sting for the Sydney Pollack film “Sabrina.” In 1998 they wrote the title track for Tony Bennett’s album The Playground with music by the late Bill Evans. For the Val Kilmer/Mira Sorvino film At First Sight they wrote the love theme “Love is Where You Are” with music by Mark Isham.

In 2001, Alan and Marilyn were commissioned by The Kennedy Center to write a Jazz Song Cycle, which they wrote in collaboration with Cy Coleman. Portraits in Jazz: A Gallery of Songs was performed at the Kennedy Center on May 17, 2002. Marilyn was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1980 and was a recipient of the Crystal Award from Women in Film in 1986. In 1995 she received a National Academy of Songwriters Lifetime Achievement Award and an honorary doctorate degree from the Berklee College of Music.

In 1996 Marilyn received the first Fiorello Lifetime Achievement Award from New York’s LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. In June of 1997, she received the Songwriters Hall of Fame Johnny Mercer Award. Trinity College presented Marilyn with an Honorary Doctorate in 1998. In 2002 she was awarded the Creative Arts Award from the Kaufman Cultural Center and, with Alan, the National Music Publishers Association Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 1994, she and Alan scripted the Barbra Streisand Concert Tour and HBO special for which they were nominated for a Cable Ace Award. They also received a Cable Ace Award and an Emmy Award for their original song “Ordinary Miracles” from the HBO special “Barbra Streisand: The Concert.” Together they wrote, and Marilyn co-executive produced, the acclaimed “One Voice” concert starring Barbra Streisand and executive produced a PBS Special, “The Music Makers: An ASCAP Celebration of American Music at Wolf Trap.” Marilyn has appeared on numerous talk shows and panels and hosted a PBS special, “Women in Song.”

Marilyn was originally a musician who went to New York City’s High School of Music and Art (now LaGuardia School of Music and Art). She says she drifted into songwriting by accident, though she had already made up her mind that she didn’t have the discipline or talent it took to be a concert pianist.

“I was an English and philosophy major (at New York University) but never knew what I wanted to do really,” she admits. “I know the wonderful lyric writer, Bob Russell, who wrote lyrics to those great (Duke) Ellington songs like “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.’ When I came to California he and his wife, Anna, were the only two people I knew out here. I drifted into songwriting really by accident because I had a fall and broke my shoulder and couldn’t play piano so I started writing lyrics. The first song I wrote was published and I got an advance and I thought ‘This is easy.’ And then it was a long time before I got another one cut.”

Marilyn and Alan came so close to crossing paths numerous times because they were both writing with Lew Spence, but for some reason they never met until Spence decided they needed to all write together.

“We wrote ‘Nice And Easy,’ and continued writing together for a couple years and then Alan and I got married. We had so much time on our hands because we were together all the time that we started writing with a lot of different composers. Alan used to write music and lyrics, but as he says, we felt that his lyrics were better than his music, so when it became possible to write with all the great composers we write with, it was wonderful. The fact that we are both musicians enables us to be good sounding boards for composers and good collaborators, in the sense of understanding the category and being helpful.”

Most of Marilyn’s songs are for specific projects, so her approach to writing a song is a bit different from someone who is writing for an upcoming recording project, or a songwriter who is pitching to artists.

“It’s not my usual mode of working to just have an idea and write a song,” Marilyn explains. “If we are inspired to write a song we usually do it when we hear a melody we love and we know we want to write it. We are inspired by a movie, a play or a piece of music. Or by an artist calling and saying would you write a song for me, I’m doing an album of such and such kind of songs.”

Marilyn says she writes every day, comparing a songwriter to an athlete who must work out and keep in shape. “I do my ASCAP work in the morning – luckily I live in California, so by 3 or 3:30 p.m. I can put my songwriter hat on. We write nights and weekends, and when we are on a deadline there are always e-mails and other things that can wait until the end of the day. But I’m available for ASCAP from 6 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.”

When writing for a movie or television show, Marilyn says she has to see the program or read the script to know exactly how the song will fit in the scene. “You have to weave your way through it as if you were there from the beginning. We would start usually by seeing the movie if it’s been shot and having a conversation with the director to discuss the function of the song. Does it underline a mood or some other level than what the screen is showing? Unless you are going to add something why is the song there?”
“And we’ll talk about the function and from whose point of view is the song -a character in the movie or a pristine observer? And what do they want the song to do? Usually a director can articulate that very well. The more savvy a director is about music and songs, the better. And there are some who are very sophisticated and know what they want and don’t want when they hear it.”

Once the song is done they go back to the director with it and it is up to that person to decide whether it will work or not. If they don’t like it, it’s back to the drawing board for the writers.

“Things are not written, I believe, they are re-written,” Maryiln points out. “That is the difference between an amateur and professional songwriter – the ability to rewrite. Not to have fallen so in love with what you have written that you can’t find a better way. I’m always weary of someone who says this is the only way, the way it has to be.”

Her influences come from what is referred to as the golden age of songwriters and include Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, the Gershwins, Dorothy Fields, Hoagy Carmichael, Yip Harburg, as well as latter-day masters such as Stephen Sondheim.

“I think there is an originality about all of them, she says as she explains the popularity of these writers’ lyrics over the years. “I don’t know how many thousands of love songs there are in the world, but when you think of ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face,’ what an original way to write a love song. They found original ways to say things that are universal, describe feelings which are universal in origin and new ways to say these things with great craft.”

Craft is not a bad word to Marilyn. “It’s not a word that is as popular today as it used to be because people think a song is contrived if it is crafted – maybe not accessible and not the way people talk. I still think a perfect rhyme is more satisfying to one’s ear than an imperfect one. I think ‘mind’ and ‘find’ sound better than ‘mind’ and ‘time.’ I know that’s old fashioned but it works.

“I think that’s one of the challenges and part of the fun of writing lyrics, to keep digging until you can make it as pure as it can be, as crafted as it can be. Sometimes the word which is exactly the word you mean doesn’t sing quite right and you have to go back figure it out and figuring out is fun.”

In offering advice to songwriters, Marilyn said “I can only go back to my experience as a young writer, and even now I will go back and listen to the great songs that we talked about before. I don’t think you can really know where you are going unless you know where you are coming from. How do you know what you’re writing hasn’t been written before, and better, if you don’t listen to the masters? I think there are lessons to be learned from things that endure.

“And also you have to listen to the writers today who are saying important things about the world you live in. That’s the contribution of the rap writers; I think they are making a big contribution, the entire controversy aside. I think reading is important. Reading stimulates language. Read everything – poetry, novels, plays. And be open. Again I go back to not thinking there is only one way to do everything.”


Leave a Reply
  1. Wednesday, April 15, 2009

    Dear Marilyn and Alan,

    I am so in love with all your works!! I have one of your song books, “The Alan and Marilyn Song Book” and it is dog eared, torn and has split in half, but I still play my old 1889 Weber 7′ Grand piano, using your book!

    I am a hopeless romantic. Here’s what has happened to me. My husband, Bill Morris, and I were married 53 years. He passed away last March 21st, 2008. I am bereft to say the least. I miss him so much and I am so lonely. I have written a song – about it – I wonder if you could put it to music and please change the words to fit! I have tried but can’t get the music and timing right.

    I am 74 years old and still work a full 40 hour week, and I am also the church organist at my church for the 7:15 a.m. services.

    I know I probably won’t hear from you, you are waaaay to busy, but it sure would be nice. I’ll send you the words as they are now, if I hear from you.

    Love you guys to pieces,

    Lee Morris

    I live in St. John, the U.S. Virgin Islands! Come stay with me in my little 1 bedroom apt, Sugar Bird Nest.

    My e-mail address is: [email protected]

    Thanks a bunch, hope to hear from you.

  2. I love your music, thanks for a lifetime of work. Music is like breathing. I wanted to say I saw you on Travis Smiley show 06/25/12, I wanted you to try and see a special I saw on PBS called THE Durrs of MONTGOMERY

Leave a Reply

SUZANNE VEGA: Idea and Creation Most Thrilling