GOTTA DREAM BOY, GOT A SONG
August 31, 2016: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Alan Jay Lerner was born on this date in 1918. One of the most colorful of men, this librettist and lyricist of the golden age of the American musical (My Fair Lady and Camelot), had a penchant for theatricality that fit him like the white gloves he often wore to prevent him from chewing his cuticles until they bled. He was a mixture of many things: erudite, fastidious, intelligent, highly neurotic, well bred and a pugilist. Born into wealth and privilege, he befriended John F. Kennedy at prep school and Leonard Bernstein at Harvard. He had eight wives, summed up best by the famous line that went: “When Alan marries someone, that’s just his way of saying goodbye.” A number of biographies have been written on him, as well as one he wrote himself, and they each tell many different stories. I’m not a biographer by profession, but since it’s Lerner’s birthday, and his lyrics have meant a lot to me since childhood, I thought it worth a few minutes to enumerate a few things by way of a tribute.
First, a confession of a personal note: with so many lyrics to choose from among Lerner’s best, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for a stanza from the title song for Gigi, which brought him and his partner Frederick (Fritz) Loewe, their only Academy Award for Best Song:
Gigi, while you were trembling on the brink
Was I out yonder somewhere blinking at a star?
Oh Gigi, have I been standing
Up too close or back too far?
I know it’s simple, but there is something about the way those words sit on the music and the yearning and self-realization the character of Gaston is undergoing in the moment that always sends me, no matter how many times I listen to Louis Jourdan talk-sing it.
Second, of all the Broadway songwriters, be they composer, lyricist or both, I believe Alan Jay Lerner to be one of the best singers of his own work there ever was. By that I don’t mean his talents as a vocalist, but as an interpreter of the words brought forth from his own heart and soul. I treasure the recording that was made of an afternoon at the Upper East Side Y on 92nd Street in Manhattan, where along with three singers, he narrated the story of his life in the theatre. This was 1971, and it had been a decade since he had created a hit musical, but the performance left little doubt that his legacy was an important one. It is revelatory to hear Lerner perform such songs as “Come Back to Me” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and My Fair Lady’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” The recording is out of print, but available from some sellers at reasonable prices on Amazon and well worth checking out.
Third, though he worked with others after their partnership ended, Fritz Loewe was unquestionably the best fit. Their work on Paint Your Wagon, Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, Gigi and Camelot are stellar. Loewe, seventeen years senior to Lerner and with heart disease, retired after the tumultuous Camelot (which nearly killed both he and Lerner, each one hospitalized during its out of town tryout in Toronto). In the early ’70s, Loewe was coerced by Lerner to come back and write some new songs for a Broadway production of Gigi and also for a film score to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. These were but teases for all the songs over the twenty-six year period they could have potentially written until Loewe’s death in 1988, though few could blame Loewe for his search for some peace, as Lerner was not an easy man with whom to collaborate. Not only did Lerner torture himself over every parsed syllable, but he procrastinator par excellance. The first person he sought to work with after Loewe’s retirement was Richard Rodgers, himself in search of a new partner after the death of Oscar Hammerstein. An original musical idea of Lerner’s about a girl with extra-sensory perception felt like fresh territory for them both to explore, but Rodgers became deeply frustrated (and agitated) by Lerner’s inability to show up at work meetings. Apparently parts of nine songs were written before Rodgers quit what would eventually become On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, with music by Burton Lane. I’ve always been interested to hear what the lyrics of the title song would sound like set against a Rodgers melody, but it (and others) are believed to no longer exist.
Lastly, there was Lerner’s erratic behavior, the least bizarre element of which was not showing up for meetings. Dr. Max Jacobs (a charlatan), who had a diverse client list to whom he administered amphetamines in a cocktail of his own devising (including John F. Kennedy), was the one responsible for turning Lerner into what was then commonly known as “a speed freak.” All of Lerner’s partners post-Loewe suffered through this period beginning with Andre Previn (who in the fifty years until his death never wrote another Broadway musical); Charles Strouse (Dance a Little Closer, or Close a Little Faster, as it was known since it closed in one night), who wrote in his autobiography that the most useful advice he’d received on the collaboration was “don’t ever take a pill from Alan Jay Lerner;” Leonard Bernstein (the disastrous 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue), which sent him back to composing classical music; and Burton Lane (Carmelina), with “One More Walk Around the Garden,” perhaps Lerner’s last great song (and Lane’s last show, even though he died twenty-two years later). Recognizing a pattern here? Ironically, if Lerner’s health had not worn out, one final partner might have resulted in a hit show bigger than My Fair Lady. Despairing of the state of his health, he wrote to Andrew Lloyd Weber: “Who would have thought it? Instead of writing The Phantom of the Opera, I end up looking like him.”
He went further, writing: “But, alas, the inescapable fact is I have lung cancer. After fiddling around with pneumonia they finally reached the conclusion that it was the big stuff.
I am deeply disconsolate about The Phantom and the wonderful opportunity it would have been to write with you. But I will be back! Perhaps not on time to write The Phantom, but as far as I am concerned this is a temporary hiccup. I have a 50/50 chance medically and a 50/50 chance spiritually. I shall make it. I have no intention of leaving my beautiful wife, this beautiful life and all of the things I still have to write. As far as I am concerned it is a challenge, and I fear nothing.”
This letter saddens me no end. Richard Stilgoe, the man who got the lyric writing job on Phantom, made such a minimal contribution towards that show’s success, it stands to reason that had Lerner been on board, nothing he could have done would have decreased the juggernaut that Phantom became. It would have allowed Lerner to go out on a record high, a beautiful tribute to a life in the theatre.
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