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Entrance to the Brill Building.

The Brill Building, located at 1619 Broadway Avenue in New York City, had become the new Tin Pan Alley by the early 1950’s.  It was a building full of music publishers.  Young song writers and lyricists at that time, some of whom were associated with the Brill Building, were Carolyn Leigh, Norman Gimbel, Burt Bacharach, Cy Coleman, and Stephen Sondheim.  What they all had in common was that they were born or raised in New York City, Jewish, born between 1926-1930, and all found their way to the Broadway stage at some point.

In the case of Stephen Sondheim, it was fairly immediate.  Unlike the others, he seems to have never been associated with the Brill Building group, and sought immediately to make his way writing Broadway musicals.  In fact, as a young man he had been a protege of Oscar Hammerstein.  Having studied music theory with Milton Babbitt, his desire was to write both words and music, but his first real premiere was as lyricist for the songs of West Side Story for which Leonard Bernstein wrote the music.  He had earlier written the music for a musical entitled Saturday Night, but it didn’t premiere on Broadway until 1957, the same year as West Side Story.

Unlike the others, Sondheim, for the most part, didn’t seek to create old-fashioned pop songs.  There are some exceptions, like “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music (1973), but the integrated approach typical of his musicals, perhaps exemplified by Sweeney Todd (1979), makes this much less likely to happen – kind of like the way in which Wagnerian operas lack easily extractable arias.

Burt Bacharach, on the other hand, started out in the early 1950’s trying to write and sell popular songs without much success.  It wasn’t until into the 1960’s that, in association with lyricist Hal David, he began to have major success with songs like “Alfie,” “Walk On By,” and “The Look of Love.”  He was a skilled jazz pianist and had studied with such classical composers as Darius Milhaud, Henry Cowell, and Bohuslav Martinu.

Finally, lyricist Carol Leigh started out as Carolyn Rosenthal, a Bronx girl who attended Queens College and New York University.  Soon after college she joined BMI and changed her last name.  Her first big success was writing the lyrics for “Young at Heart” which Frank Sinatra picked up and added to his first major Capitol Records album which was released in 1954.  She went on to write the lyrics for other Sinatra hits such as “Witchcraft” and “The Best Is Yet to Come,” and some of the songs for the musicals such as Peter Pan (1954).

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