Backstage with... Alan and Marilyn Bergman

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Photograph: Spike Nannarello

You've written lyrics for some pretty illustrious singers—Sinatra, Pavarotti, Michael Jackson... Do you have a favorite?

Marilyn Bergman: It wouldn't be very discreet of us to answer this! But Streisand has recorded more than 50 of our songs, and in practically every case her version has been the definitive one. Although the brave people that follow her have done wonderful takes on the songs. For example, a young woman named Lari White—

Alan Bergman:Lori White.

Marilyn: It's Lari, Alan. L-A-R-I. She surprised us at Carnegie Hall a few months ago. She came out and introduced herself as the daughter of a Baptist minister and sang a medley of songs from Yentl. It was stunning.

This week's Lincoln Center show celebrates your 50th anniversary as a songwriting team. How did you meet?

Marilyn:We were working with the same composer, Lew Spence—Alan in the morning and me in the afternoon. One day, he introduced his morning lyric writer to his afternoon lyric writer.

Alan: We wrote a terrible song that day—

Marilyn: Awful! You don't want to know what it is. It's better left—

Alan: Unsung! Not only unsaid, but unsung.

You met in L.A. but both grew up in Brooklyn. Do you share a collective memory?

Alan: We were born in the same hospital. Our mothers both took us to children's concerts at Carnegie Hall.

Marilyn: Every Saturday morning. We grew up listening to the same music and going to the same movies—

Alan: Sneaking into Broadway theaters after the intermission.

Marilyn: Our frame of reference about music was very similar.

Would you agree that with hip-hop, there has been a resurgence of attention paid to lyrics?

Marilyn: Oh, yes. Just the other day we were looking at the lyric to "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." It's very serious and extremely interesting. A lot of interesting text, lyrics—whatever you want to call them—are coming from hip-hop writers and the urban community. It's because they're about something.

You wrote the lyrics to the Good Times theme. Have you seen the Chappelle's Show skit "I Know Black People"?

Both: No!

Chappelle played a quiz-show host, testing contestants' knowledge of black culture. The question that stumped them all involved a lyric from "Good Times," "hangin' in a chow line."

Marilyn: Well there's no such line!

Alan: It's "hanging out and jiving."

Marilyn: No, it's "hanging in and jiving." I have to look it up. Norman Lear asked us to write a theme for that show, as he did for...what else?

Alan:Maude!

Marilyn: Yes. But for Good Times, he didn't have a title. We came up with it for the song—

Alan: And Quincy Jones sang the demo.

After living and working together for half a century, is it still rewarding to slog it out every day?

Alan: Absolutely! Wait—slog it out?

Marilyn: [Laughing] I was waiting for you to pick up on that, Alan!

Alan: It's fun. To slog is fun! It's like making snowballs. It's cold, you're—

Marilyn: Making snowballs?

Alan: I don't know—the image gets me!

Marilyn: Just when you think, How are we gonna write another love song?, you come up with a new point of view. And that's enormously rewarding.—Jay Ruttenberg

Marilyn and Alan Bergman: Celebrating a 50 Year Collaboration is at the Allen Room Fri 2.

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