Singer-Songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman

The lyricists discuss the world premiere of their latest project, Chasing Mem’ries: A Different Kind of Musical.

The songs of Alan and Marilyn Bergman have been enriching the great American songbook for over five decades. As lyricists for film, stage and television, they have created many unforgettable images with their lyrical mastery. Theirs is one of the most successful songwriting collaborations in an era of great popular music.

They have earned numerous awards, including 16 Academy Award nominations, multiple Emmys, Grammys, and three Oscars for "The Windmills of Your Mind", "The Way We Were", and the score for "Yentl. Alan and Marilyn continue to contribute to the world of songwriting. Please browse this website to learn about their current and upcoming projects, as well as their vast body of work.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight a trip down memory lane for those nostalgic about the way we were. Renowned lyricists, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, are back on this program. This time, they’ll tell us about the world premier of their newest project, “Chasing Mem’ries: A Different Kind of Musical”.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. Alan and Marilyn Bergman coming up right now.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: I’m not just pleased or honored. I am always tickled when Marilyn and Alan Bergman come to this program. This month was the world premier of their latest project called “Chasing Mem’ries: A Different Kind of Musical”, at the Geffen Playhouse here in Los Angeles.

It’s a new take on many of their classic songs and stars Tyne Daly and Robert Forster. Before we start our conversation, here now a highlight from Tyne in the project.

[Clip]

Tavis: So a little birdie told me that this has already been extended at the Geffen because the tickets are so hot.

Alan Bergman: Yeah, that’s what they tell us [laugh]. Isn’t that nice?

Tavis: How cool is that?

Alan: It’s really cool.

Tavis: Yeah. Let me shut up for a second and I’ll let the two of you explain to me what this is. I have not seen it as yet, so I’m dying to see it. What is it exactly?

Alan: Well, it’s a play…

Marilyn Bergman: With music.

Alan: A play with music. It’s not a musical, you know. It’s a different kind of musical and that’s what they’re calling it, many of the songs that occurred to the characters that they know them from their lives and they’re not performance songs. Usually in a musical, somebody sings to the audience. It’s not like that. They’re all inner thoughts, inner dialog. There are four or five old songs and four or five new songs.

Tavis: That you wrote.

Alan: That we wrote for them, yeah.

Tavis: Right, right.

Alan: All the songs that we wrote. You know, people ask us, “Well, who did you write it with?” Well, for instance, Michel Legrand, who we’ve been writing with for many years…

Tavis: Absolutely, yeah.

Alan: We have a library of these melodies. Every time he comes to the house, we say, “Give us some melodies” and put them away. In this case, we found two melodies that really worked with what the story was telling. We wrote new songs with him…

Marilyn: “Across the Miles”, yeah.

Tavis: I know this because I know the two of you and I know that every day you wake up. You wake up first and go play tennis…

Alan: Absolutely.

Marilyn: Exactly.

Alan: I still do that.

Tavis: You still do every day?

Alan: Yeah.

Tavis: At what age?

Alan: I’m 92.

Tavis: 92. He wakes up every day and still plays tennis. Mrs. Bergman wakes up just a little bit later.

Alan: Yeah.

Marilyn: Because I’m much younger than he is [laugh].

Tavis: Because you’re much younger than he is [laugh]. And then you…

Marilyn: I don’t need as much…

Tavis: You don’t need much exercise or sleep. I got it, yeah. Then you head upstairs to the writing room.

Marilyn: That’s true.

Alan: Yeah.

Tavis: I love that room. First of all, as you know, I’ve been through them a few times.

Alan: Yes, you have.

Tavis: Oh, my God. There’s something surreal about being in that space where you two write every day. And the very first time you invited me and I walked in that room, it was like something came over me. I started thinking about all of the genius, all of the great…

Marilyn: Oh, come…

Tavis: No, I’m serious.

Marilyn: Oh, come now.

Tavis: All the genius that you guys have — like that’s come out of that room. I just hoped that some of it would rub off on me a little bit. But I think about the fact this is where you guys create every day.

Marilyn: We rubbed it off already.

Alan: I mean, you’re a genius at what you do.

Tavis: Oh, you’re too sweet, you’re too sweet. But every day, you guys wake up and you don’t have any way of knowing on any given day whether something’s going to come, do you?

Marilyn: No, we don’t.

Alan: No, we don’t, unless we’re working on a specific project, you know. Then we know. But, you know, people ask us about our ages. “Are you still writing?” And the answer is, “We’re breathing, we’re still breathing.” That’s what we do.

Tavis: I love it, yeah. It’s all we do, yeah.

Alan: What we do.

Tavis: Yeah. But the fact that it still comes to you, Alan. That’s the tricky part. You could still be breathing, but that don’t mean you still got thoughts and…

Alan: Well, hopefully, you still have something to say, hopefully, you know. And we try to find — you know, for years we’ve always tried to write a different way to say I love you. That still occurs to us.

Marilyn: It better.

Tavis: It better, huh [laugh]? What have you learned, Marilyn, all these years later, to Alan’s point, what have you learned all these years later about the inexhaustibility of the subject of love? Here you are, all these years later, and this is just the two of you to say nothing about the other writers around the world. But all these years later, you’re still finding new ways to say something about love. What do you make of that?

Marilyn: Well, it helps to be in a love-filled marriage and to be working with really good composers. That’s really the trigger that sets us off.

Alan: Yeah, that’s the inspiration is the melodies, you know. And they’re harder and harder to come by these days because the melodies…

Tavis: That’s a good point. Whatever happened to melody? Why is it disappearing?

Marilyn: I know.

Alan: And, also, another disappearing act is the way to express the young people, I love you. They don’t say I love you in these songs.

Tavis: They say everything but I love you, yeah.

Alan: Yeah. It’s a shame.

Tavis: Let me tell you all the ways I want you. I can’t tell you I love you, though. Yeah, here’s how I want you.

Alan: Yeah.

Tavis: I think, though, we’re missing something because of the absence of melody.

Alan: Oh, absolutely.

Marilyn: Of course, we are.

Tavis: What is that thing that we’re missing? What are we missing because of its…

Alan: Well, for us, it’s the inspiration, you know. Writers, the rhymes are in the melodies. They’re there. You have to find them.

Marilyn: The text is in the melodies as well.

Alan: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: We’ll come to the old songs in a second. But I’m curious to know more about the new songs that you wrote for the stage play.

Alan: Well, this is a wonderful playwright. Josh Ravetch is his name, terrific. And about two years ago, he said, “I’ve just listened to all of your songs and it suggests an idea for me.” Well, we said we don’t want a jukebox musical. He said, “I don’t want that either.”

So there were a few old songs because of the context in which we find them working and then there are four or five new songs. You know, it’s not a musical. It’s a play with music and, as I said, I think the songs are interior dialog through the dialog of the play.

Tavis: Take one song. Just pick any one of the new songs and tell me about it. Just grab one of them.

Alan: New songs?

Tavis: Yeah, of the new songs you wrote for this.

Alan: Yes. There’s three character plays, the widow, the husband who appears, and the son. And the son is having, as most of his generation, trouble committing. There’s a commitment that he can’t — so he is a product of a beautiful marriage of his mother and father.

So he sings this song about whatever happened to moonlight and roses? Whatever happened to romance? That’s one of the songs that he sings, and new, you know.

Tavis: I was telling you earlier I saw your friend, my friend, our friend, Norman Lear. About a week ago, he did my podcast so we were together for a couple of hours. He loves you all and he told me you guys just wrote a new song for him for one of his projects.

Alan: Yeah. He’s got a project called “Guess Who Died?”

Tavis: Exactly.

Alan: And he called us and said, “Can you write a song for…” and we said, “Sure.”

Tavis: Here’s what’s great about that story. So Norman Lear is 95. He calls his friends, the Bergmans, who are in their 90s and says, “I got a new project. It’s a pilot…

Marilyn: Am I in my 90s?

Alan: Not yet.

Tavis: Not yet.

Marilyn: Not me, please, for the record.

Tavis: Your husband is, your husband is.

Marilyn: Yes, he is.

Tavis: He calls the Bergmans and says, “I want you to write a song for me. This is a new show called “Guess Who Just Died”…

Alan: “Guess Who Died”.

Tavis: “Guess Who Died”. I think NBC, you told me. NBC has picked it up as a pilot and so, here he is, another network deal for Norman Lear at age 95. And he goes to his old friends to write another track for this pilot.

So my mind immediately — I said to Norman in this conversation, “You know, it just kills me how beautiful and how long-lasting this friendship is that you’ve had with the Bergmans.” I was saying to him, “Last night I turned my television on and I found this new cable channel called FETV. It stands for Family Entertainment Television. Every night at 9:00, they’re doing reruns of “Maude”.

Alan: Yes, we wrote that.

Tavis: Exactly [laugh]. I was cracking up. So here Norman Lear is telling me, “I just had the Bergmans write me a new song” and the night before, I just watched “Maude” and I had forgotten — I said to Norman Lear, “I had forgotten that you all did that song.” But what really blew me away, I’d forgotten that Donny Hathaway sang it.

Marilyn: I did too.

Alan: That’s right.

Tavis: It was amazing to me [laugh]. It was amazing. I’m like you think about “Maude” and what it was, what the character was all about, and Donny Hathaway was hotter than fire back then. But I just never — I mean, we see all your other stuff.

We see “Good Times” and all the other stuff you’ve done all the time, but “Maude” isn’t on like every night. But when I saw that and I heard that Donny Hathaway kill that opening song and, sure enough, credits roll: Bergmans. I was like, “Man!” [laugh]

Alan: You know, when we wrote “Good Times”, you know who sang the demo for Norman to hear?

Tavis: Who sang the demo?

Alan: Quincy Jones.

Tavis: Quincy sang the demo?

Alan: Yes [laugh].

Tavis: The connections you all have are just mindboggling. I think Quincy told me one time that he — speaking of that room in your house — he came by to visit you all one day as he apparently often does as you’re friends, and either he heard or saw laying around…

Alan: No.

Tavis: You know the story I’m about to tell?

Alan: Yes.

Tavis: Tell the story. Tell the story, yeah, yeah.

Alan: Well, we had just finished — Michele Legrand wrote the music and he was living with us at the time.

Tavis: That’s right.

Alan: On the piano was “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?”

Tavis: That’s the story [laugh].

Alan: And Q said to us, “Well, would you sing it?” And I sang eight bars and he took it off the piano…

Marilyn: “It’s mine”, he said.

Alan: And he said, “It’s mine.”

Tavis: “It’s mine”, yeah.

Alan: And he produced the record that was in the movie, you know. Well, you know, it’s in his book too that I saved his life once. He called me and said, “Alan, I can’t move.” He lived up the street from us. He said, “Alan, I can’t move.” I said, “I’ll be there in a minute.” I put him in my car, took him to his doctor, and he had a ruptured appendix. And the doctor said, “45 to an hour more and he would have been…

Marilyn: In real trouble.

Alan: Not with us anymore.

Tavis: It wasn’t enough to give the guy a bunch of great music over the years. Then you went and saved his life. Alan Bergman’s a great guy [laugh]. But Quincy says to me, though, he says to me that for him, that is the greatest song ever.

Alan: Yeah, he loves it.

Tavis: “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” He says, “Tavis, when you listen to the lyrics of this song, the lyric, the melody, it is… — you ask me, he’s done everybody, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, you name it, he’s done them all. He says it’s the greatest song ever.

Alan: Well, you know, we wrote a wonderful song with him, “In the Heat of the Night”, for Ray Charles. That was a wonderful experience.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. I guess you’re forced to do this when you come on shows like this and you got a guy like me who’s such a fan of yours and wants to talk about all the hits you guys have had, but I assume you guys are so busy every day, you don’t ever take the time to like look back on your career, do you? You don’t take time — I guess you’re so busy looking forward, you don’t really realize what you’ve really done, do you?

Marilyn: Well, there’s a lot to look back on. Let’s put it that way.

Tavis: But you don’t ever take the time to do that, do you? You guys are so…

Alan: Not really. You know, people ask us to write a book. Marilyn doesn’t want to write the book about anything. She wants to look forward, not backward.

Tavis: But why not write the book, Marilyn? Come on.

Marilyn: Not yet.

Tavis: Not yet [laugh]?

Alan: There you go. That’s the perfect answer.

Tavis: You gotta love the way she thinks [laugh]. I got plenty of time, I got plenty of time. Not yet.

Marilyn: Yes. That’s the way to gain more time.

Tavis: Yeah, to think that way.

Alan: Yeah, absolutely. But I’ll tell you, going back to this play, to see it — and we’ve seen it every night and making notes and so forth, the reaction people have from live theater to Josh’s work which is just great, and our work with great composers like Michel and Dave Grusin has a song and Johnny Mandel, a young…

Tavis: Marvin Hamlisch has got some stuff in it.

Alan: Marvin Hamlisch and a young team of Bill and Mary. It’s wonderful that you get a chance to write these things.

Tavis: You said earlier in this conversation, Alan, that when you were first approached by this, you didn’t want to do a box musical. You didn’t want to do…

Alan: Jukebox.

Tavis: A jukebox musical, yeah, yeah. You didn’t want to do the traditional standard…

Alan: Stringing songs together.

Tavis: Yeah. Why did you not want to do that? Why did you not want to do it and how did you know you didn’t want to do it?

Alan: Well, we’ve had one or two attempts. People have asked us to do that and we say, “We’ll look at it in workshop and see if we like it.” And we don’t like any of them. They don’t have a point of view. They don’t have — you’re listening to songs that we wrote.

It’s not theatrical enough for us. It has to be a fresh — if somebody comes with a fresh idea of how to do it, fine. But we’d rather work to a story and write for characters.

Tavis: When Prince died, we learned of all the songs in his vault that he’d never put out. Michael Jackson had a bunch of songs in his vault. I suspect that most persons who do what you do have stuff they haven’t put out. You guys have a vault full of stuff that you haven’t…

Alan: No, we don’t.

Tavis: You don’t?

Marilyn: We don’t? I’m shaking my head yes.

Alan: We don’t have a bunch of stuff that’s in the trunk…

Marilyn: We don’t?

Alan: No, darling, we don’t.

Tavis: You thought you did [laugh]?

Marilyn: I thought we did.

Alan: The only big…

Marilyn: Now I’m scared.

Tavis: Now you’re scared [laugh].

Marilyn: What happens if we wake up dry one day?

Alan: Oh, we’re not going to wake up dry.

Tavis: You won’t wake up — not the way you guys are still writing, yeah.

Alan: You know, there is one project that has 18 songs in it that is in a trunk. It’s about jazz, and it played at the Mark Taper Theater for 10 weeks and we wanted to go the next step and we’re working on it now because there are 18 songs that we love that we don’t want it to be in the trunk.

Tavis: So there are two ways to take what you’ve just said. If Alan is right and Marilyn is wrong, which I find hard to believe, but anyway, I don’t want to break up this marriage after 60 years. But if Alan is right and Marilyn is wrong that you don’t have a vault with a bunch of stuff in it, that means that you just haven’t been judicious in your writing.

It means that you have written stuff that people liked enough to use. It means that you wrote stuff when you were asked to do it. It means that every day you wake up and write stuff, it’s not in vain. I mean, that’s a level of efficiency that’s rare to find.

Alan: Well, there are some, but it’s not big like what happened with Prince and Michael…

Tavis: Yeah. 7,000 songs, yeah, yeah.

Alan: I mean, yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s better to write new ones.

Tavis: Better to write new stuff that works, yeah. Have you found over the years that — let me ask this question of Marilyn first. You said earlier, Marilyn, and I take your point that it helps to be in a marriage where there’s a lot of love when you’re writing love songs.

Have you found over the years that your inspiration, the place where you get the ideas, the motivation for the stuff you write, has that changed over the years?

Marilyn: Hmm. I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about that. I’m sure it’s changed, but I can’t think of how.

Alan: I’ll tell you how it’s changed.

Marilyn: Ah.

Alan: You know, when we started to write years ago, they used to write I love you, I don’t love you, I used to love you, I don’t love you anymore [laugh]. You know, that’s what the subject matter is.

Tavis: Right, right.

Alan: Now that not only is a 32-bar song, but it’s now that the gates have been opened and you can write longer songs and so forth. But the subject matter has also — the fences are broken. You can write about anything.

Tavis: Anything, yeah.

Alan: Yeah. Now we’ve written in the last year or so songs about the world. You know, they haven’t been exposed yet. That’s part of the tracking record, but they will be, we know, because there’s a song, for instance, that starts out, “If your holding hands, you can’t make a fist.” That’s the beginning of the song, so you can see what it’s about. Peace and things like that occur to us, so we try to develop them.

Tavis: Have the times that you have lived through inspired you to write different kinds of stuff?

Alan: Absolutely.

Tavis: In what ways? I mean, you…

Alan: Well, for instance, we just finished a song which we hope will be soon be recorded called “We the People”.

Tavis: Hmm. I’ve heard that phrase before, yeah [laugh].

Alan: Yeah.

Marilyn: I’m sure you have. We didn’t invent it.

Tavis: Yeah, I’ve heard that once or twice, yeah, yeah.

Alan: And another song that we just rewrote because, in the history of this particular song, when Mandela was in prison, we wrote a song about him. It was never finished. It was unfinished. It said, “You can cage the singer, but not the song.” That was the title and that was about Mandela.

Tavis: That’s a great lyric. “You can cage the singer, but not the song.” Ooh.

Alan: And now we rewrote it without Mandela being the subject matter. And we hope that will be — we have a wonderful composer who’s doing it and I hope that will be exposed, you know. We hardly ever talk about songs that are incubating at the moment, but that’s an example and that came from, you know, that idea which she came up with because of Mandela.

Tavis: Because of Mandela, yeah. Give me — another impossible question. If I were to ask you the range of how long you typically have to work on a song to get it right, is that like — does it sometimes happen where you get it, you nail it in 10 minutes or it takes 10 weeks? Like what’s the range of…

Alan: I don’t know what the time is.

Tavis: What’s the fastest you’ve wrote? What’s the fastest you’ve written a song that you loved? It just came out like that.

Alan: I don’t know. Let me think. I’ll tell you, the fastest song because we had to do it fast. They told us on a Friday and they were recording it on Monday was “It Might Be You” for “Tootsie”.

Tavis: No!

Alan: Yeah. We wrote the…

Tavis: No! Hold on! Hold on! Hold up! Hold up! Hold up, wait a minute. “It Might Be You” was written over a weekend?

Alan: No. We wrote it — luckily, there were people — Dave Grusin had the melody.

Tavis: Right, right, right.

Alan: And he gave it to us on a Friday and they recorded it on a Monday, yeah.

Tavis: You mean “Something’s telling me it might be you”?

Alan: That’s it.

Tavis: Over a weekend?

Alan: Yeah.

Tavis: Jesus. That’s scary [laugh]. You guys are good. You should stick with this. You might make something of yourself one day [laugh].

Alan: I’ll tell you another story, fast story.

Tavis: Gee whiz.

Alan: There’s a song that Streisand sings in “A Star is Born”. She called us on a Friday and she said, “You got to write a song for me. It’s the song that makes me a star.” She said, “I have a melody that Kenny Loggins wrote.”

So we said, “Okay” and Kenny Loggins came over to play it for us and he sang it for us. We said, “Okay.” We wrote that Friday night and Saturday afternoon. Sunday, we played it for her and they recorded it on Monday or Tuesday. “I Believe in Love”.

Tavis: Yes! I mean, come on, yeah [laugh].

Alan: But we don’t like to do that.

Tavis: But you’re good at it [laugh].

Alan: Well, you know. We don’t like to do that because you don’t get a chance to go down different streets to see what is maybe this idea or that idea.

Tavis: You know, it’s clear that you have been each other’s muse, the Bergmans and Ms. Streisand. That relationship…

Alan: Oh, yeah. we’re very lucky.

Tavis: Oh, my goodness.

Alan: Very lucky.

Tavis: I mean, it’s a blessing for both of you. I mean, it’s just been — that relationship.

Alan: Oh, yeah, well, she’s the best.

Tavis: I just read somewhere I think she’s doing — she just announced she’s doing something for Netflix or something.

Alan: Yeah. On the 22nd…

Tavis: She’s gonna be singing a bunch of your stuff, I’m sure. I’m sure she will.

Alan: I hope, I hope. But, you know, she’s just wonderful. The great singers and there are very, very few, but great singers have it in the mind and intelligence and in the heart and in the…

Marilyn: And the larynx.

Tavis: In the larynx, yeah [laugh].

Alan: And the instrument. She has a fourth dimension because she’s an actor and a director and all of that plays into how she sings her songs.

Tavis: You guys, you don’t come here often enough. You should come like every other week because you got so many stories and you’ve lived so much life that there’s so much to talk about, but I’m always honored when you take the time to get in the car and come over here to see us. I really appreciate it. I love you both. You know that.

Marilyn: It’s a pleasure. It’s a great pleasure.

Tavis: It’s called “Chasing Mem’ries: A Different Kind of Musical”. It’s now at the Geffen. You will want to see it. Alan and Marilyn Bergman are two of the greatest people on the face of the earth. I am always honored to have them on this program. Love you both. Thanks for coming out.

Marilyn: Thank you.

Alan: Please. Our pleasure.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

[Clip]

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: November 20, 2017 at 6:09 pm