Jack Feldman: Lyricist

JACK FELDMAN is a lyricist.  Along with composer Alan Menken, he wrote the songs for the musical “NEWSIES,” with book by Harvey Fierstein.  Jack Feldman has also written many lyrics for songs appearing in Disney animated films.  Along with fellow lyricist Bruce Sussman, Jack Feldman wrote many songs with recording artist Barry Manilow.


Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to welcome our special guest.  He’s a very talented lyricist, Mr. Jack Feldman.  Along with Alan Menken and Harvey Fierstein he is the creator of the new musical, ‘Newsies.’  Thanks so much for joining us.
My pleasure Paul.

Who is Jack Feldman?

(Laughs)  Well, I’m a guy who grew up in the New York area on Long Island and I got to see a lot theater while I was growing up cause my parents would go and I remember going also with my grandmother when I was just a little kid and I always loved it.  It was at the center of my life since I can remember in terms of what I enjoyed to do and what I enjoy doing and working in the theater was always what I aspired to do.

What would you say it is about theater that captures you so much?
I think originally it was musical theater and the way that songs were used to tell the story of whatever piece it was.  Whatever show it was.  And I remember that also from animated movies like the classic Disney animated movies which at that time, and even up until not that long ago, were done very much the way songs in a show function, that is to illuminate character, tell part of the story, advance a relationship, tell you what the character might be thinking, in what in a straight play might be a soliloquy  or a monologue and that suspension of disbelief that seem to come so easily on stage where a character or characters could be talking and then singing and you would buy it and so even though in a real life situation it sounds like it would be silly on stage, it was perfectly natural and I think part of the reason why movie musicals don’t work on screen as much is because screen is so much, uh, the movies are so much more literal and the artificiality of breaking into song is that much more noticeable and hard to accomplish.

Can you remember specific songs or recordings that you especially liked growing up?
Well I listened to a lot of stuff that all kids listen to, or that most kids listen to in terms of stuff that was on the radio and pop music of the time.  I was always interested in that and I always was familiar with it but what I was really drawn to in a much more profound way were original cast albums from shows.  At first, the ones that happened to be in the house because my parents had bought them after seeing a show and later, those that I would go out and buy myself or ask my mom to get for me and I use to literally memorize, not on purpose, but I’d listen to them so much that I ended up memorizing virtually whole original cast albums of shows, a lot of which I could still sing from memory or write down from memory if I want to.  For some reason, it just always, they always stuck in my mind.

Were you always a writer?
I wasn’t always a writer in, in a discipline sense.  I think I always wanted to be.  I remember telling a neighbor of mine when I was about five or six years old…we were both about five or six…that I wanted to be ‘Rodgers and Hammerstein.’  I don’t recall that much of the conversation but for some reason I recall saying that.  I even remember exactly where we were out in my backyard when I said it.  But I really didn’t start to write in any kind of a disciplined way till high school and the first thing I wrote of that nature was when I was a senior in school.  Every year the seniors would put on an original show basically lampooning school life and when I was a senior I wrote a good deal of that show, the script and lyrics and music and along with some other people but it was definitely, I took the lead, in that and that was the first project that resembled even in its, you know, most amateur form the structure of a show and songs that fit characters and story.

You’ve written a lot of songs with Bruce Sussman.

How did you meet him?
We met in songwriting workshop that was called the ‘BMI Workshop’ that was started by a very successful, and at the time, well-known Broadway conductor by the name of Lehman Engel.  When I got out of college I went into the workshop…you had to audition for it…and that’s where Bruce and I met.  We weren’t working together at the time.  I was writing my own lyrics and music and Bruce, as a lyricist, was working with another composer.  But at some point, a couple of years after we met we started to work together as well, doing the lyrics together and my writing the music.  We worked on one project actually with a playwright by the name of Wendy Wasserman who achieved considerable fame.  Won the Pulitzer Prize , matter of fact, and died tragically young about, oh goodness, I don’t know, eight years ago now, maybe more and that got done at a not-for-profit theater here in New York and that was the one full-length show that we worked on together, Bruce and I.

What was he like to work with?
Bruce was great to work with.  We had a very similar sensibility, very similar sense of humor, we both tended to admire the same writers and, and shows and we just got along really, really well and it was a very smooth collaboration.   It always was.

You wrote the lyrics along with him, Bruce Sussman, to one of Barry Manilow’s most well-known songs and that song is ‘Copacabana.’

Tell us a little bit about writing that song.
What happened was Barry had been to Rio de Janeiro and in Rio there’s a beach called the Copacabana Beach and he had remembered a line from a movie that he saw, that he had seen on TV many, many times , an old movie where they used, where they were talking about that beach and the line was something like “Copacabana, there’s music in that name” and when he came back from Brazil he said it would be great to write a song called ‘Copacabana’ and he didn’t really give us any direction in terms of what it should be about and I remember the hardest part of the song for us was deciding on what the approach to it would be.  What we started out with the beach and after a little while thought well there’s no reason why we can’t do it about the club which was legendary at that point.  It had passed its heyday but it was really still very well-known and at that point it was a dance club and we thought if we set it back in the 40’s and did it like it was an old movie and had sort of a melodrama plot, kind of tongue-in-cheek and that sort of gave us a handle on how to, on how to write the song and once we had fashioned a little story, and a few characters, the rest of it was fun.  Once we, once we cracked it and decided how we were going to approach it.  It only, I think we, we did it basically in two nights’ working, two evenings and then gave it to Barry.  I think we even called him and we sort of dictated it to him over the phone and he wrote the music very quickly and that’s how the song was written.

It certainly has endured.  Still a very well-known and well-loved song.
Yeah, I mean it was never meant to be anything but a, an album cut to sort of change of pace on one of Barry’s albums because so much of what he had hits with were ballads, love songs, and so he thought if we could, if he could mix it up and put a song that had a real dance beat to it and a little bit of humor it would make for a better variety on the album and, but basically listeners called into radio stations asking for it to played and that’s how it sort of broke out but it was never meant to be a single.  It was always meant to just sit on the album but it was kind of forced out which was great.  It was a surprise and it was terrific to have that reaction to it.

A personal favorite is ‘Why Don’t We Try a Slow Dance,’ which you co-wrote.
What was the inspiration?
We wrote that for a, a TV special that Barry was doing.  He did a bunch of them and I honestly don’t remember what the impetus was for that in particular.  I can’t remember whether it was something that was mapped out in the script of the show and they envisioned it.  We wrote it to be sung, you know, for him to sing on the show so there would be, he would be seen singing it. It wouldn’t … it wouldn’t just be on a record but he eventually put it on a record.  I always thought that was a neat song too.  It was kind of a throw-back type song.

Do you have a favorite Manilow song that you had a hand in writing?
Well, I guess despite virtue of the fact that it was the first song for Barry that we all wrote together, I would have to say ‘Copacabana.’  It did achieve a popularity and it was literally a pop, the first pop song that I ever wrote.  Bruce had written with Barry for a year or two before I joined the collaboration so he had already gotten his feet wet but I never had.  It was quite special to sit down and the first one we did together ended up being successful.  That’s not necessarily my favorite Manilow song but my favorite one that I had a hand in doing.

The ‘Newsies’ musical has

Has a new cast recording out.

And I wanted you to tell us how did you first come to hear of the ‘Newsies’ project?
I heard of the ‘Newsies’ project through Alan Menken who I also met in the BMI song writing workshop where I met Bruce.  Alan was a year ahead of me but we became friends and eventually he started to work, of course, with Howard Ashman and they were a brilliant, brilliant team.  They did ‘The Little Mermaid’ together and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ and part of the ‘Aladdin’ movie and Howard was ill and he was originally slated to do ‘Newsies’ but he was really too ill to do it and so Alan called me and asked if I’d be interested in, you know, meeting about it and see if was something I’d like to do and that’s how I got involved. 

What is it Alan Menken like to work with?
Alan is incredible to work with.  He is…he is so gifted and it all sort of comes from his gut as he’s fond of saying.  He gets an instinct for the way something should sound and once he does he writes pretty quickly and it’s pretty amazing to be in the room with him when he’s working on music because as a composer I know that I don’t, I never work with that kind of sort of, I don’t know if you’d call it inspiration or just instinct.  He just…it just sort of pours out of him and that’s not to say that he’s not flexible or won’t make changes.  He’s very collaborative.  He’s an inspiration to work with cause of how gifted he is and I think when you work with somebody that good it tends to make you better.

How did the process of writing songs with him work?
It varies.  Well, usually we would…we would come up with what the purpose of the song was going to be.  If a scene had already been written we knew we wanted to put a song in we would start from that which is always a little easier.  It’s always easier to write when there are limits and you know whose singing it, what they’re feeling, what you want to say.  And I guess once we had all that settled and we had talked about all that and talked about it with Harvey, obviously, who wrote the script I think if he’d had his druthers, Alan likes to write the music first or at least some of the music first just to get a feel for it and we often did that.  He would rough out a melody or a chorus and then we would find a title and then I would go home and work on a lyric draft and then we would get together again and refine it.  But there were also times when he was doing something else or he needed to be somewhere else and I knew that we had a song that we wanted to do so I would sketch out a lyric and bring that to him and he would set music to that.  There was no…there’s no strict way that we go about doing it.  It’s really sort of as it comes which is great because I enjoy writing to music and he has no problem setting the lyric if it’s put in front of him.  I mean it’s not to say that we didn’t have a lot of false starts and stuff like that.  You always do.  But we never had a problem with the process in terms of it needed to be a certain way or in a certain order which is great  Very freeing.

You mentioned Harvey a second ago.  What is Harvey Fierstein like to work with?
I had never met Harvey.  I was only a fan, a huge fan, of both his writing and his acting and I was a little intimidated at first because, because he is Harvey Fierstein and I guess I would have felt the same way about Alan if I hadn’t known him but because I had known him for so many years it wasn’t like that but Harvey completely puts you at your ease.  He is also unbelievable collaborative.  If he fashions a scene and we have an idea for a song and they may not absolutely mesh, he would always say “You guys write the song and I will adjust the scene to make sure that the song and the scene fit together.”  He was always…and it’s very hard when you’re the difference between being a playwright and being a book writer for a musical.  As a playwright you’re in charge of everything that’s said and done on the stage.  As a book writer, a lot of times you have to give up your “best moments” to the songs.  He instinctively knows the difference so well that when he’s working on a musical he’s fully prepared to let the song drive the show.  But it’s deceptive because it’s his dialogue, it’s his characters.  In this case some of the characters were from the source material which was the movie of ‘Newsies’ but without all that foundation there, there’s really nothing to write about and no characters to write for.  It’s an extremely underrated skill, writing the book to a musical and I think often a writer gets blamed unfairly, um, and a lot of terrific playwright are not necessarily good musical book writers because it’s a very different process, that kind of collaboration, and Harvey is just expert at it.  He also wrote the book to ‘La Cage aux Folles and ‘Catered Affair’ so he’s an experience book writer and it’s easy to see why he’s successful having worked with him because he’s a perfect collaborator and hilarious…hilarious!  We had all…the three of us had an incredible amount of fun working on the show.  We really did.

Prior to doing this interview we’re doing I got to correspond with him and he asked that I would please send you his love.
Oh!  Well that’s nice.  Thank you very much!  I just spoke to him this morning as a matter of fact.  We’ve become really good friends in the couple of years we’ve been working together on it and we speak all the time and he’s, I consider myself very lucky to have him as such a good friend.  He really makes me laugh and he’s also a very caring, thoughtful, thoughtful guy.  He really is.

Is there a lyric from ‘Newsies’ that you’re the most proud of?
I think my favorite lyric or my favorite song, I should say, in the show is the song that opens the second act, ‘King of New York,’ which was a version of which was in the movie, but I rewrote a lot of the lyrics for the show.  Part of it is because I think the music is incredibly infectious and just great and part of it is because the images that I got to use and having the kids describe what their fantasy of being rich and famous would be was really fun.  There was a lot to choose from and it was fun to work on and I’m happy with the way the whole thing came out. 

As a result of working on ‘Newsies’ what has been your favorite memory?
I have to say that I think my favorite memory was when, as a surprise, found out that we were going to Broadway which was never the intention for the show and the first time we had an audience and a lot of the actors who played ‘Newsies’ are very young and for twelve of them it was their Broadway debut and the first time that a number and the first time that a number in, after the first audience, the first time one of the numbers got a huge hand and they had to freeze and sort of hold for the applause before they could go on which had never happened in rehearsal cause you never had an audience.  And I think my favorite memory is watching the faces of those kids.  I mean, I call them kids.  They’re not all children, but they’re all very young.  It was just so joyous to see, even though they were trying to freeze and stay in character you could just see that they were like ready to jump out of their skin from excitement because of the way the audience was responding to what they had just done, part of which was an unbelievable amount of dance which is brilliantly choreographed by Christopher Gattelli and incredibly executed by these kids who play the Newsies.  They are phenomenally talented and this was the first time that I think they got that affirmation from the audience and it was, it was really thrilling to, you know, look at their faces while they were waiting there.

Some of the best songs out there are songs you used in Disney cartoons.  Why do you think that is?
I think it’s a combination of the fact that they at Disney worked with excellent, excellent song writers in the heyday of the animated cartoons including the Sherman brothers, who did so much, so many songs for their films and certainly Alan Menken and Howard Ashman who continued that tradition.  I think also the storied themselves were classic, interesting stories that always, that, you know, people always wanted to see and with characters and conflict and everything that makes something dramatic or funny built in, though when you have great characters, really interesting situations and great writers you’re going to be more likely to end up with great songs.  So I think, I think it was a combination. I think if any of those elements are missing it’s not going to be as successful as so much of the songs in their movies are. 

You’ve written songs that have appeared in Disney movies like ‘Perfect isn’t Easy’ which was sung by Bette Midler.

What is it that you like about writing songs for Disney?
I think what I like the best is that their songs traditionally, songs for Disney movies, are very close to the sensibility of songs on stage.  Or at least they use to be, right up through Howard and Alan’s movies, the movies that Alan did with Tim Rice or with David Zippel or Glenn Slater.  They’re songs which either help tell the story or give you insight into the character or the relationship between the characters which is exactly what so many songs in live theater shows do.  So it’s really sort of like the same process, or very close that you use when you’re writing a show and since that was always what I loved to do, working for Disney was a first cousin of that.  I respond to it very much.

Who has influenced your lyric writing the most?
Lyric writing?  I would say most definitely Stephen Sondheim whose work as a composer and a lyricist I think is unsurpassed in musical theater.  Other favorites of mine:  Sheldon Harnick, who I think is just a brilliant, brilliant lyric writer.  Frank Loesser also just had an ability that was sort of one in a million.  Right off the bat, I would say those three, you know, Fred Ebb, brilliant lyric writer.  I would say in terms of the early days of, you know,  the 20’s and 30’s and 40’s before I was around I guess you know Cole Porter was the quintessential  Broadway sophisticated songwriter and his stuff is, for the most part, brilliant…absolutely brilliant. 

You mentioned Sondheim just a second ago and I was reading in Sondheim’s second volume of his two books, he mentions your name.
Yeah.  Yeah he does in the acknowledgements of both books. Yeah.

What was that about?  That’s interesting.
I, I knew him for a long time but not very well at all and we happened to be having a drink one night and I had remembered that he had started or was planning to start to work on these books years before and I just asked him whatever happened with that and he said “strange you should ask because I just have started to actually work on it.”  At that point it was only going to be one book and he said he’d only shown them to a couple of close friends.  He’s written a couple of chapters to the first book and asked me if I would be interested in reading the chapters that he had written, which,  (laughs), I almost, you know, passed out when he asked me because feeling about his work the way I do , I knew that, you know, this was going to be unbelievable and he sent them to me and it just gradually evolved into a back-and-forth where, at first, there were a couple of facts that might have been off or something like that and so I would say “Hey, I believe that, I don’t know, this song was written in such-and-such and not in the date that is, you know, in the manuscript  and a couple of times I actually corrected some of his own lyrics because I know them so well and they were either typos or misprints or he had forgotten that he changed the lyric in the movie version of, let’s say, let’s say ‘West Side Story’ from what it was in the stage version and he kept sending me the chapters and I kept, I kept reading them closely, over and over again and I would say that that and ‘Newsies’ which, coincidentally were both sort of happening at the same time were the two most thrilling professional experiences of my life.  The chance to get to not really “work” with him but to observe his process and read every draft of every chapter and see what he changed and what he took out and what he added…it was an education the likes of which I could never have imagined and , you know, it was…it was literally a dream come true as was ‘Newsies.’  They were both, I mean, so completely different in terms of what the projects were but so thrilling and having anything to do with his books and having a chance to look at them in early stages and stuff, that was just …for me it was…it was unbelievable.  Unbelievable.  I’m so grateful that he trusted me enough to allow me to read the stuff and even make a comment on it and, I mean, who am I to comment to him? But he’s so open to anything that’s going to make anything better.  There’s no sense of “Well I’m Stephen Sondheim and you’re not.”  (laughs)
 He always treated me so much like a colleague and that was, you know, invaluable…invaluable to me.  He is just wonderful to meet.

Great!  Just an amazing story there.

In addition to all the Broadway artists, recording artists as diverse as Wayne Newton, Lily Tomlin, Dionne Warwick and Barry Manilow have recorded your songs.  Is there a favorite song of yours?   That’s probably a really tough question.
You mean of all the pop songs?

Of just all the songs you’ve written, is there one that you could pick that is a favorite of yours?
Not really.  It’s usually if I have one in mind it’s usually one that is from something that I’m working on currently just because it’s, it’s in the forefront of my mind and so I’m thinking about it.  It’s so common..I used to think that it’s just me sort of being, you know, bad to myself but I realized that most writers go through it.  When you write something and you hear it again or your read it again or whatever it is all you see are the things you wish were different and the things you wish you had changed and, that’s not to say that I don’t like anything I’ve done but when enough time passes you start to get a little more objective about it and have more perspective on it.  So that’s why the stuff that I’m working on more currently is easier to like (laughs) because I’m in the middle of it so I haven’t yet developed that kind of perspective.

When someone hears a song you wrote, what do you hope the listener gets out of the experience?Well there are all sorts of different, you know, reasons for songs to be.  So I guess I hope that they will get out of it what the intention is when you write it.  That it’s clear.  That it’s enlightening in some way or illuminating in terms of who the character is that’s singing it, if they’re maybe a little surprised by it but as Sondheim explains so brilliantly in his books, lyrics, unlike poetry, are sung in time and they only go by you once and it’s very important that you write so that the listener can understand what it is you’re saying and that it’s clear and concise enough so that they can get it on a first hearing.  That’s not to say that with more hearings you don’t find more in the song but it’s getting, it’s being able to write so that a listener can hear and understand what the content of the song is, what the emotion of the song is even while everything else is going on.  It has music.  There are sets.  There are costumes.  There’s lighting.  There’s all sorts of what could be distractions in terms of actually listening although, of course, they add immeasurably to the whole show.  So, in spite of all things coming at the audience or the listener, you want…you hope that what you’re saying is clear enough that it will penetrate the consciousness of the listener. 

What is the best thing about being Jack Feldman?
The best thing?  I guess the best thing is the fact that I always have had incredible support from my family, from my friends, in terms of doing the thing that I always wanted to do and that I’ve gotten the opportunity to do it…not always successfully and not always exactly the way I wanted it to come out…but I was always able to make a living at it.  I have had some success, which is largely due to the people I worked with and I guess just the fact that I’ve been able to do what I always wanted to do and can get up in the morning and go to work and say “I get to do this today, not I have to do this today but I’ve been given permission to do this today and maybe I’ll even get paid for it,” and that’s pretty great.

My last question: Our interviews with songwriters have been heard by people all around the globe so, totally open-ended:  What would you like to say to our listeners?

I guess I’d like to thank them on behalf of myself and I would think every songwriter that you’ve probably ever interviewed, from legendary ones to guys like me, you know, making a living at it.  Without the audience, there would be no reason…it’s not that there would be no reason to write but you wouldn’t get any kind of feedback from anything that you wrote and for those who are interested enough to listen shows like yours, take an interest in what it is that guys like me do is a huge gift and so I guess I’d just like to say “Thank you,” and the more you can support the arts the more likely it is more and more talented people will keep coming up and being able to do the thing that they love cause it’s the audience that makes that possible

Jack, thank you so much for this interview.  You’ve been very gracious and I appreciated all the thought you put into all these answers.
My pleasure Paul.  Thank you so much.  I appreciate your reaching out to talk.  It’s been a lot of fun.