Songwriting duo Alan & Marilyn Bergman, Part 1

The legendary songwriters highlight stories and the evolution of writing, spanning their 50 years of working together, and share how Barbra Streisand became their muse.

With more than 50 years of collaborating on the music and lyrics for numerous TV shows, films and stage musicals, Alan and Marilyn Bergman are two of the most respected names in the Great American Songbook. During their careers, they've won multiple songwriting accolades, including Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, Golden Globes and several Lifetime Achievement Awards, and are responsible for many of Hollywood's classic tunes. They were born in the same Brooklyn, NY hospital, but their first meeting didn't take place until each had relocated to L.A. The Bergmans were inducted into Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1980.


Tavis: What a pleasure to welcome Alan and Marilyn Bergman to this program. She was telling me her granddaughter, as she always does. I can’t get the introduction out because she’s bragging about her grandbaby again, who I know and adore, and their daughter, Julie, her mother.

Marilyn Bergman: Yes.

Tavis: Over the course of their 50-plus year career, 53 of those – five-three – as husband and wife, they have teamed up on some of the most memorable songs of all time, including classics for Barbra Streisand, of course, like “The Way We Were” and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.”

All told they have earned 16, 16 Oscar nominations, a slew of wins in there, and a slew of other awards as well, including induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Alan and Marilyn Bergman, I am honored after all these years to finally have you on this couch.

Alan Bergman: It’s our pleasure.

Marilyn Bergman: We were on a couch of yours, but it was somewhere else.

Tavis: We’ve been on many couches. I tell you, every time I see them anywhere in town, I’m anxious – I will run across everybody else, run past everybody to get to the Bergmans, and I’m always interested to learn more and to listen more and to love more, because you are just two wonderful and special people, to say nothing of your immense talent, so thank you for finally getting on this couch.

Alan Bergman: Yes.

Marilyn Bergman: Pleasure to be here.

Tavis: Let’s just start with this and (unintelligible) first and then move on. How did Barbra Streisand become your muse – and that’s your word, Marilyn Bergman. How’d that happen?

Marilyn Bergman: Well, we have a lot of history together. We were taken to hear her sing when she was 18 years old by Julie Stein, a composer who wrote “Funny Girl” for her later. I think from that very first night we knew that we heard a singer that was unlike any other we’d ever heard, and we became friends as a result of that night, shortly afterwards, and have really never been out of each other’s lives since then.

Alan Bergman: You know that we were born in the same hospital.

Tavis: In Brooklyn?

Alan Bergman: Yeah.

Marilyn Bergman: Yes.

Tavis: Yeah.

Marilyn Bergman: So –

Alan Bergman: Marilyn and I and Barbra.

Tavis: Yeah, so you guys are born four years apart in that hospital.

Alan Bergman: Yes.

Tavis: And Ms. Streisand born in the same hospital.

Alan Bergman: Same hospital, yeah, yeah.

Marilyn Bergman: Many years later.

Tavis: Yeah, many years later. So this was meant to be, obviously. All born in the same hospital.

Alan Bergman: Must be something in the water.

Tavis: (Laughs) When you say, Marilyn, when you say that you heard a voice the likes of which, the sound of which you had never heard before, obviously you’ve worked with great artists. There are many great singers who you admire and love.

Marilyn Bergman: Of course.

Tavis: But what was it about that voice as composers that so resonated with you?

Marilyn Bergman: Well, first of all, I think, in addition to the wonderful equipment, vocal equipment that she has – forgive me, I’m a little hoarse – she’s a storyteller. She’s an actress. She’s a director. But she always has to put songs in a dramatic context for herself.

What is this about? Who is singing? What is the relationship? I think that affects the whole performance. It makes the performance.

Tavis: The two of you are so modest, though, Alan, because I think part of what Ms. Streisand and others who’ve been honored to sing your music, what they get handed to them is such rich lyrical content that if they have any kind of song styling that they can bring to that content, it’s going to be magical. But so much of it has to do with the wonderful lyrics you write.

Alan Bergman: Well, that’s very nice, but let’s not forget the melody.

Marilyn Bergman: Can’t have one without the other.

Alan Bergman: The great composers that we work with, and we prefer to write to the music. People always ask, “Which comes first?” We prefer the music to come first.

When you have people like Michel Legrand and Marvin Hamlisch and John Williams and –

Marilyn Bergman: Dave Grusin.

Alan Bergman: – Dave Grusin and Johnny Mandel, people like that, Hank Mancini, there are – how we feel about it, when the melody is there and it’s wonderful, that there are words on the tips of those notes. We have to find them. That’s our explanation, our discovery.

Tavis: You know they’re friends when Henry Mancini becomes Hank Mancini. (Laughter) You know there’s a friendship going on there – Hank Mancini.

Alan Bergman: He was a wonderful man.

Tavis: Yeah, one of the greatest, exactly. One of the best.

Alan Bergman: Terrific, oh yeah.

Tavis: So how did – I know this story, but for those who don’t I have to ask it again, because I love hearing these stories. How did the two of you meet? After being born in that hospital four years apart in Brooklyn, how’d the two of you actually come together?

Alan Bergman: Well, we were writing with the same composer. I was writing with him in the morning and Marilyn was writing with him in the afternoon.

Marilyn Bergman: And (unintelligible).

Alan Bergman: One day he decided to introduce his a.m. lyric writer to his p.m. lyric writer. (Laughter) We wrote a song that day, a terrible song. (Laughter) But we enjoyed the process. That was in 1956, and we’ve been writing together ever since.

Tavis: You’ve said before to me in conversation, and I suspect to others, that you suffered a severe injury; that had it not been for that injury, you might not have ever gotten into songwriting. Tell me that story again.

Alan Bergman: Yeah.

Marilyn Bergman: Yes. I was living in a fifth-floor walk-up in a tenement building in the village in New York, and it had marble stone steps that were worn from years of traffic. It had been raining that day and the top step was wet, and I took a header down those steps and I broke both my shoulders.

I was going to college in New York at the time, and my parents had moved to L.A. while I was in college, and I never wanted to come out here. I was a New Yorker and I thought this place was beautiful but dumb. (Laughter)

Tavis: Beautiful but dumb.

Marilyn Bergman: Yeah. But I had to come out here to be nursed back to health by my mother, and the only friend I had here was a songwriter, a very successful songwriter, lyric writer, named Bob Russell, who wrote “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” and “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me.” He wrote – was a great writer.

I visited him in a body cast, and I said, “What am I going to do out here? It’s going to be weeks and weeks and then physical therapy and all that.” I said, “I can’t drive, I can’t do anything.” He said, “Well, why don’t you write songs?”

I said – because I had been a piano player – I said, “I can’t play the piano. I can’t even comb my hair or anything.” He said, “Well, write lyrics. You can talk those into a tape machine.”

He introduced me to this young a.m./p.m. songwriter named Lou Spence, and we wrote a song together that day. Those were times when you could write a song in a day, Alan, because your standards were so much lower. (Laughter)

He didn’t know, (unintelligible) he didn’t know. We wrote a song that day and Peggy Lee recorded it about a week later, and we got an advance from the publisher. I remember thinking this is like taking candy from a baby.

I was going to go back to school and become a clinical psychologist. That was stopped dead in its tracks.

Tavis: So those two broken shoulders –

Marilyn Bergman: That’s right.

Tavis: – have led to all this beauty and gift that we are the beneficiaries of.

Marilyn Bergman: And for my life.

Tavis: And your life.

Marilyn Bergman: And your life. You made the point a moment ago that when your standards were lower back in the day you could write a song in a day. Now all these years later, Alan, that your standards, I assume, are much higher, what’s the songwriting process like now?

I assume it takes longer now? You tell me what it’s like writing together now versus 50 years ago.

Alan Bergman: Well, it depends upon really the assignment, how difficult it is, the things that are wanted by the producer or director of a film. For instance, “The Windmills of Your Mind.”

Tavis: Classic.

Alan Bergman: The director wanted us to – the scene was the Steve McQueen character was flying a glide and he had just masterminded the robbery of a bank. He didn’t participate but he designed it, and he was flying this glider which he did usually for fun, and he was very grim, very anxious.

The director, Norman Jewison, wonderful director who knows about how to use songs, said to us, “I want you to write a song to underline the anxiety the character was feeling.” Well, you don’t write that in a day. You think about it. Michel Legrand, who wrote the music, he wrote eight melodies for that spot in the picture. So we listened over and over.

Marilyn Bergman: And we saw the film several times.

Alan Bergman: Yes, and we saw the film. We all decided to spend the night thinking about which melody would be the right one, and we all, the three of us, came up with the same one. We chose the same one, a very baroque melody that kept – like circles, that kind of, you know.

Marilyn Bergman: That’s your theory. (Laughter) He always thinks that the motion of the glider turned us onto this circles and spirals. I don’t think that’s true at all. (Laughter)

Alan Bergman: But it is.

Marilyn Bergman: We have this conversation every time the question about that song comes up.

Tavis: So what do you think?

Marilyn Bergman: Well, I think that the circles had to do with – I think anxiety was the key word there, and anxiety to me is circular. You say, “Okay, I’m going to feel fine. I’m not going to be anxious. I’m not going to think about that anymore.”

The more you try and do that, the more you get wound up in this, I don’t know, I can’t explain it. I wrote it, but I can’t explain it.

Alan Bergman: Like when you want to go to sleep and you can’t turn your mind off.

Marilyn Bergman: And you can’t turn your brain off.

Tavis: See, now we’re back to agreement. I love this.

Marilyn Bergman: That’s right.

Alan Bergman: You can’t turn your mind off.

Marilyn Bergman: That’s right.

Tavis: Yeah, see, I love –

Alan Bergman: Well, it goes – you see, it’s part of this circular thing of the glider.

Tavis: I think both are plausible. (Laughter) I accept both. I accept both. Since you went there, Alan, mentioning the film, how is it – I know I’m bouncing around here because your career is so rich.

Marilyn Bergman: Bounce around, that’s okay.

Tavis: We’ll bounce around here. How did you all get into film composition? Starting out as lyricists doesn’t mean you’re – and as composers – doesn’t mean you’re going to end up into film scoring.

Alan Bergman: No, but when we started out we were not interested in writing records. We were more interested in writing a dramatic context. That’s what we wanted to do.

Tavis: Why?

Alan Bergman: Well, because the literature of popular music, the most important and interesting songs were written by people who did write in a dramatic context, like the Gershwins.

Marilyn Bergman: They write for the stage or for –

Tavis: The Gershwins.

Alan Bergman: Like the Gershwins, Kern, Oscar Hammerstein.

Marilyn Bergman: Johnny Mercer, all these people.

Alan Bergman: Johnny Mercer. Those are the people you study.

Marilyn Bergman: They’re all gone.

Alan Bergman: I was lucky enough to have Johnny Mercer as a mentor for a few years, and he looked over my shoulder and listened to what I was doing. But that’s where we learned, and those were the great songs for us, and that’s what we wanted to emulate. That’s who we wanted.

Marilyn Bergman: I have to back up a minute.

Tavis: Sure.

Marilyn Bergman: You said that I said our standards were low. It wasn’t that our – that we could write that song in a day. It’s that we knew much less about the craft, so that we were less – I was going to say responsible, but that’s not the word I mean. I’ll find the word before we’re through.

But our standards were always very high because we listened. We grew up listening to the greatest songwriters.

Tavis: You can’t do what you have done as well as you have done without obviously a wonderful imagination, but words are so terribly important. What makes it work is the right word and putting that word in the right place – oversimplified, obviously. But how did each of you develop such a love of words?

Alan Bergman: Well, oddly enough –

Tavis: And language.

Alan Bergman: And language. My father and I, when I was five, six, around in there, my father taught me a game called anagrams. We played anagrams two or three times a week until I was about 11 or 12, and then he says, “You’re getting too good for me.” (Laughter) But you can’t be a writer, really, without being a reader.

Marilyn Bergman: That’s the point, I think.

Alan Bergman: We read. We read a great deal.

Tavis: You read incessantly, both of you.

Alan Bergman: Yes.

Tavis: What kind of stuff you read?

Marilyn Bergman: And as children we read a lot.

Tavis: What kind of stuff you read now? You read magazines?

Marilyn Bergman: This was pre-television.

Tavis: Books?

Marilyn Bergman: Everything.

Alan Bergman: Marilyn reads magazines and –

Marilyn Bergman: I read newspapers.

Alan Bergman: – and newspapers much more than I do.

Marilyn Bergman: It takes me hours to read newspapers.

Alan Bergman: I read books.

Tavis: Right.

Alan Bergman: I read novels and biographies.

Marilyn Bergman: But it’s true about reading, I think, being – because anagrams is about word play, but reading is really about the falling in love with words and storytelling, and I think pre-television, when we were children, I don’t think that can be underestimated.

The way one would spend an afternoon or an evening was to read a book. I think what Alan says, that you can’t’ be a writer without being a reader, it’s a pat phrase, but it’s true. It’s really true.

Tavis: One could argue, then – I will, for the sake of debate – to your point, Marilyn, one could argue that the grand tradition that you all have continued to advance is on life support if you have to be a reader – because who’s reading these days like you all did back in the day, number one.

To a point you’ve made countless times already in this conversation, whatever happened to melody? So what’s the future of the American songbook?

Marilyn Bergman: I don’t know.

Alan Bergman: I don’t know.

Marilyn Bergman: I’m not terribly optimistic, but I think we’ve become such a visual society – again, I go back to television and I know we’re on television and I love television, and I’m an inveterate watcher myself. But not at the expense of not reading.

Because I think there is a certain kind of experience, learning experience, that one has visually by reading at your own speed and going back and re-reading a passage that intrigued you, that you can’t have either in film or any visual medium, where it’s somebody else’s pace and it’s going by you.

Alan Bergman: Also, the young writers today, they don’t have an opportunity to hear –

Marilyn Bergman: You mean songwriters.

Alan Bergman: Songwriters. They don’t have the opportunity to hear and learn what we learned from those great writers, composers and lyricists that we were talking about. You can’t like or learn what you can’t hear, and it’s very difficult to hear the great things from the great American songbook.

Marilyn Bergman: Think what we grew up on. The theater in those days, and I think we mentioned this to you once when we were waiting for Quincy Jones one night and he didn’t show up.

Tavis: You always wait for Quincy.

Marilyn Bergman: Yes. (Laughter)

Tavis: Quincy, Stevie, there’s a bunch of them. You always wait.

Marilyn Bergman: That’s right, waiting.

Tavis: Love you, Q. Anyway, you were saying, I’m sorry.

Marilyn Bergman: Remember, we had to kill time one night.

Tavis: We had to kill time waiting on Q, yeah, I remember that now.

Marilyn Bergman: So we talked a lot. Anyway, we grew up poor in Brooklyn, but when we were old enough to go on the subway into Manhattan we would sneak into theater, particularly musical theater, in the second acts, because we couldn’t afford to buy tickets and it was a craft, really.

You would find out when intermission was in every show, and we knew (laughter) exactly where the act breaks were in every show. No matter what the weather, it could be freezing out, you would take off your jacket or your coat and you would stand with it over your arm and look like you just came out of the theater, and mix in with the crowd.

If it was a sold-out show or if it was standing room, then it was a cinch. You just stand in the back. But otherwise, it became a trick to figure out where the empty seats might be, if there were empty seats.

Anyway, so even though we couldn’t afford to see the whole show, and there’s – I (unintelligible) the kind of poetic justice because very often now we walk out of shows (unintelligible). (Laughter)

Alan Bergman: So there’s a symmetry.

Marilyn Bergman: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: That’s funny. (Laughter)

Marilyn Bergman: It balances out somehow.

Tavis: If you live long enough, it balances out.

Marilyn Bergman: That’s true. And you get to value time so much. But we grew up on great musical theater, all these writers you mentioned wrote for the musical theater, and on great films. Film musicals.

Alan Bergman: Yeah.

Marilyn Bergman: We were talking earlier out there about Fred Astaire and about the great songs that never would have been written if not for Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly and all those great –

Alan Bergman: Judy Garland.

Marilyn Bergman: Judy Garland. There was a great tradition of musical theater and musical film that we were students at that time.

Alan Bergman: We went to school on those.

Tavis: So when you and Marilyn finish a piece of work, what allows you to sit back and say, “Mm, that’s good?” What’s that barometer? What’s that standard when you’ve written something and you know this is a good song?

Marilyn Bergman: I know the answer.

Alan Bergman: Go.

Marilyn Bergman: If it sounds good in the morning.

Tavis: If it sounds good the next morning?

Alan Bergman: The next morning, yeah.

Tavis: Then it’s good.

Marilyn Bergman: Also if it –

Tavis: I like that.

Alan Bergman: We’re always looking for an original way to say “I love you.” That’s a big challenge for us.

Tavis: See, I’m glad you said that, because – I’m not a songwriter, thank God, but that – although I’d love to be – that would be a huge – that’s a tall order. Love, on the one hand, is an inexhaustible subject matter.

On the other hand, one would think that everything about love has already been said, so as a songwriter, how do you find a new way to say it?

Marilyn Bergman: That’s the challenge.

Alan Bergman: Ah, that’s the challenge.

Tavis: Ah. (Laughter)

Alan Bergman: That’s the challenge.

Marilyn Bergman: That is the challenge.

Tavis: If that were my assignment every morning when I woke up, I’d be scared. (Laughter) I’d be intimidated to start my day if that were my – at least, see, when I come to work every day I know I’m talking to a different guest about a different subject matter.

Even if they’ve been on here five times over my career, different project, different book, different movie. There’s so much stuff to grind into. But you guys, that’d be tough.

Alan Bergman: Yeah, but you see, you do your homework, and songwriters can do their homework too, and reading, and listening, and observing. All of that goes into what you try and tell, the story that you’re trying to tell.

Marilyn Bergman: When we have a movie, a film to write for, there’s a very specific master to serve. You have a script, you have relationships, you have a context in which to write. I think some of the songs that we’re most proud of that we’ve been part of would never have been written without the film for which they were written.

“The Way We Were” would never have been written not only without that film but without Arthur Lawrence’s title. It was the only time I think outside – no, we’ve gotten titles handed to us before. But that was a particularly memorable one. But look at the relationship in that picture and what the role for the song was, the part that the song had to play.

If you had a good, articulate director who can really tell you what the function of the song is, you’re way ahead.

Alan Bergman: Like Sydney Pollack in “The Way We Were.”

Tavis: Oh, yeah. My time is up for tonight, and because I’ve been working for years to get my friends on this couch, trying to find the right day or the right time, they’re here, so I’m going to keep them for another show. This was not planned, but I’m just going to –

Marilyn Bergman: Oh, good.

Tavis: – hold them captive for another night. I’m going to put them on the spot, but they have a whole day to figure out this until we see you tomorrow night, which is when you talked about finding a new way to say love, I’m curious from both of you on this program tomorrow night as to the lyric, or a couple of samples of lyrics that you have written that you think best describes love, the condition of love.

Now you don’t have to answer now. We’re going to come back and do this later.

Alan Bergman: Oh, I can give you an answer now.

Tavis: Well, hold it. I want the audience to tune in tomorrow night.

Alan Bergman: Okay. (Laughter)

Tavis: Not that they weren’t anyway. But I want to continue our conversation tomorrow night with two of the great lyricists, two of the greatest composers of our time, and you talk about the American songbook, they’re in there over and over and over again.

They are Marilyn and Alan Bergman. I’m delighted to have them on this program. We’ll see you back here tomorrow night for part two of our conversation with the Bergmans. Until then, thanks for watching and keep the faith.

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Last modified: July 31, 2012 at 7:54 pm