Zippel was born in Easton, Pennsylvania. He is a 1976 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. While there, he wrote a "bizarre political musical" called Rotunda. He had intended on going to Harvard Law School to become a theatrical lawyer, but when he met Wally Harper (at the time Barbara Cook's accompanist and was in need of a lyricist), Zippel offered his services. Two of the songs they wrote together were used when Cook sang at Carnegie Hall. According to his official biography, "he is delighted not to practice law."
His theatrical credits include:
- City of Angels (1989), an original musical with book by Larry Gelbart and music by Cy Coleman. Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book, Best Actor (James Naughton Best Featured Actress (Randy Graff), and Best Set Design (Robin Wagner) and Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics.
- The Goodbye Girl (1993), a musical based on Neil Simon's 1977 screenplay, with music by Marvin Hamlisch.
- Princesses (2003), loosely inspired by A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Zippel conceived and directed; book by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, music by Matthew Wilder.
- The Woman in White (2004), an adaptation of the novel by Wilkie Collins, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book by Charlotte Jones. The music and lyrics received a Tony nomination for Best Original Score. The show was nominated for five Laurence Olivier Awards, including Best Musical.
Zippel contributed lyrics to The Swan Princess (music by Lex de Azevedo, the song Far Longer than Forever was nominated for a Golden Globe Award), as well as provided the singing voice of Jean-Bob the Frog, and more notably wrote the lyrics for the Disney films Hercules, with music by Alan Menken (the song "Go the Distance" received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song) and Mulan, with music by Matthew Wilder. The music and lyrics received an Academy Award nomination for Best Musical or Comedy Score. He was in his agent Richard Kraft's film Finding Kraftland.
Current unproduced projects include Buzz! (with Menken and Gelbart), The Private Lives of Napoleon and Josephine (with Coleman and Gelbart), and Going Hollywood (1981), an unproduced adaptation of Once in a Lifetime by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; book by Zippel and Joe Leonardo, music by Jonathan Sheffer.
Pamela's First Musical, written with Coleman and Wendy Wasserstein, based on Wasserstein's children's book, received its world premiere in a concert staging at Town Hall in New York City on May 18, 2008.
In 2011, Zippel wrote the lyrics to the song "The Star-Spangled Man" featured in the film Captain America: The First Avenger. Alan Menken composed the music for the song, which was an affectionate send-up of 1940s Irving Berlin songs.
- Jones, Kenneth. "Musical Going Hollywood Aims for Old Globe in 2010", playbill.com, 8 July 2008.
- Blank, Matthew. "PHOTO CALL: Pamela's First Musical Premieres at Town Hall", playbill.com, 19 May 2008.
- Jones, Kenneth. "Alan Menken and David Zippel Pen Song for Captain America Movie"
- Newman, Melinda. "Oscar-Winning Composer Alan Menken Talks Captain America"
- David Zippel at the Internet Broadway Database
- David Zippel at the Internet Movie Database
- Filmreference profile