"I'M JUST DOING some songs that I wrote," David Shire suggests nonchalantly by phone from his Manhattan apartment a few days in advance of a private performance here in his hometown Monday night.
"I'll do my Academy Award song and 'With You I'm Born Again,' which was a hit for Billy Preston and Syreeta Wright 10 years ago, and the theme from 'The Conversation,' " he continues.
"We'll do a few songs from 'Baby' and a few songs from a forthcoming off-Broadway revue that opens in the fall. It's called 'Closer Than Ever.' And I expect we'll do a song from our last revue, 'Starting Here, Starting Now.'
"Actually, it's just a half-hour. They asked us to do 30 minutes and we're doing 30 minutes. It's not a concert. It's a meeting of the Jewish Center (of Greater Buffalo) in honor of the burning of their mortgage. We're part of the evening, but we're not the whole evening."
When Shire says "we," he means himself and his main songwriting partner, lyricist Richard Maltby Jr., with whom he started collaborating when both were undergraduates at Yale University in the late 1950s.
"We're not professional singers," Shire cautions, "but we're professional composers, so we sing accordingly. We get the point across."
But since "Baby," their 1983 Broadway musical about impending parenthood, Shire and Maltby have teamed up only occasionally.
They put in a year on a musical they ultimately abandoned. They're involved with an adaptation of "The Country Wife" to be set in 19th century New Orleans. Then there's "Closer Than Ever," which collects many of the most notable numbers they've written since their 1975 cabaret-style "Starting Here, Starting Now." It gets a pre-New York tryout at the Williamstown Summer Theater.
"It's sort of the son of 'Starting Here, Starting Now,' " he says. "The first cabaret show was successful and RCA said they'd record it if we put together another evening of our songs. We weren't too interested in doing it, but since we were already halfway there, we decided to go ahead."
For the most part, however, the two of them have turned to separate projects. Maltby, who directed the Fats Waller tribute "Ain't Misbehavin' " in the '70s, collaborated with Arthur Lawrence and Charles Strause on "Nick and Nora," one of this year's Broadway entries, and is working with the creators of the musical "Les Miserables" on a major musical about the final days of the Vietnam War -- "Miss Saigon," which will open in London next fall.
Shire, meanwhile, has been occupied with scoring numerous television movies (such as the James Garner-James Woods "The Promise") and television miniseries (such as "I Know My First Name Is Steven," which airs Monday and Tuesday nights, and the forthcoming epic "The Kennedys of Massachusetts"), as well as the occasional feature film (such as "2010" and "Return to Oz," for which he got to conduct the London Philharmonic).
"I've been revising my resume," he says, "and in the past 18 years I've scored 36 feature films and 44 movies of the week. And that doesn't count work on series."
Among his film credits are the incidental music for "All the President's Men," "Norma Rae" (which won him an Oscar for "It Goes Like It Goes"), "The conversation" and "Saturday Night Fever."
"I spend half my time here in New York and half my time in Los Angeles," he says. "Every other month I'm here or there. All the television movies and (theatrical) movies are produced in Los Angeles and done there. All the theatrical writing is done in New York. It tends to shake down that all my income comes from the West Coast -- it's like my Rockefeller grant for the theatrical stuff.
"Writing for the theater is like doing foreground music as opposed to background music, which is what I do for television and films. A healthy mix is to do both. Often movie and TV scoring calls on different muscles, and in some cases calls for more. It's more adventuresome, composing in terms of dissonance and electronics. The movie and TV end tends to be faster deadlines, while for the theater you do it when you're ready.
"Occasionally a movie or television will demand something different from your natural bent. For 'Brewster Place,' I was surprised they asked me. The cast was all black and Oprah Winfrey was the producer. I felt it would go to Quincy Jones or Herbie Hancock, but they felt I could contribute something to it emotionally.
"To do it, I did research in gospel music and wrote a gospel score. It was most worthy in terms of personal growth because it took me places I wouldn't ordinarily go. For 'Monkeyshines,' the George Romero horror picture, the cues used ethnic percussion and electronics and that drew on muscles I can't flex in theater."
He's finding a different sort of challenge in one of his current projects, writing a score for an adaptation of Joseph Heller's novel "God Knows," with Joseph Stein, who wrote the book for the musical "Fiddler on the Roof," and lyricist Barry Harman, who did "Romance, Romance" on Broadway last year.
"It's biblically based," Shire proposes, "but it's 19th century based, so it wouldn't get as dissonant as if it was modern. On the other hand, it isn't easy writing something fresh in those styles and telling it in a contemporary tone of voice. It's very post-modern, isn't it, taking old styles, making a comment on them and refreshing them.
"For me, the work is sitting at the piano and wearing out your jeans, sitting there until the ideas come. Usually I walk around and think of general approaches, but the real work starts when I sit at the piano and improvise on a piece of music I'm trying to write.
"For 'My Name Is Steven,' I needed a simple childlike pop melody. In two weeks, I made maybe 15 attempts at it. I played through them all, winnowed them down to two or three and then one started coming around."
Shire admits to being something of a workaholic. A vacation is a rarity for him, though last summer his wife -- actress Dee Dee Kahn, currently appearing in public television's "Shining Times Station" and best-known for her part in the television series "Benson" -- persuaded him to take some time off. He traveled to Israel with his 13-year-old son, Matthew (who was the original inspiration for "Baby"), and then simply relaxed in Maine.
"It scared me how much I loved it," he remarks, "but when I started writing again last fall it was easier. You have to take a break every now and then. This business is very demanding and you get used up very fast."
To simply lean back and get away from music goes against his nature, however. Consider his father, 79-year-old Buffalo bandleader Irving Shire.
"He refuses to say he's retired," Shire says. "He's still got a job booked for next month."