Lyricist and librettist Oscar Hammerstein may have been the crowned king of the Broadway written word in the mid 20th century. But if there were one man who could rival him for the top spot, it would be Alan Jay Lerner. Lerner, along with composers Frederick Loewe and Burton Lane, helped write some of the best Broadway musicals from the 1940s and 50s, including My Fair Lady and Brigadoon. On this program, we’ll celebrate Lerner’s centennial and hear his songs like “On The Street Where You Live,” “Almost Like Being In Love,” and “Too Late Now,” sung by Tony Bennett, Shirley Horn, Frank Sinatra and more.
Star of the Lambs Club
Alan Jay Lerner was born in 1918 to a wealthy family in New York. His father was a bon vivant New Yorker, and took his son to dozens of Broadway shows growing up, which incited Alan’s love for the theater.
Lerner was being groomed for an education abroad in France and Italy, but when he was caught smoking a cigarette in grade school, he had to settle on a stateside education at Harvard instead — part of the privileged life of a rich New Yorker in the 20th century. While at Harvard, he hobnobbed with folks like John F. Kennedy and Leonard Bernstein, graduating in 1940, and entering life as a theatre composer.
He joined the Lambs Club, a prominent social club for actors in New York, and that’s where he met some of his mentors like Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, and Richard Rodgers, who encouraged him to become a lyricist. He knocked around for a few years writing radio shows and satirical reviews when in 1942, he met the elder Austrian-born composer Frederick Loewe, who invited Lerner to collaborate with him as a writing partner.
Lerner and Loewe’s first three musicals—The Life Of The Party, What’s Up?, and The Day Before Spring—were all flops. But finally in 1947, the two created a hit about a mythical Scottish town that appears once every century called Brigadoon. Brigadoon ran for over 500 performances on Broadway, and provided such standards as “Almost Like Being In Love.” That song was recorded almost immediately by a number of pop stars, including Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Mildred Bailey and Mary Martin.
After Alan Jay Lerner put his name on the map with Brigadoon, he became quite in demand as a lyricist on Broadway. His next collaboration came the following year with establish veteran Kurt Weill and the show Love Life. The show was one of the first “concept musicals,” and Lerner wrote both the book and the lyrics. It was all about a married couple who does not age, trying to keep their love strong against the changing times over hundreds of years, and included such songs as “Here I’ll Stay.”
Broadway to Hollywood, then Back Again
By 1949, Alan Jay Lerner’s reputation around the industry was sizable, so he was brought to Hollywood to work for MGM as both a lyricist and screenwriter. His first assignment was to come up with a vehicle for Fred Astaire. The result was a screenplay for a musical comedy Royal Wedding. The 1951 film was about a fictional brother-sister performing duo (not unlike Fred and his sister Adele) who bring their show to London for an upcoming royal nuptials. Lerner also wrote the lyrics to the songs, with original music by composer Burton Lane. Songs from this film included standards like “Too Late Now” and “You’re All The World To Me.”
Lerner continued to work in Hollywood in the early 1950s, primarily as a screenwriter. He wrote the screenplay for the Gene Kelly film An American In Paris, based on songs by George and Ira Gershwin. Then in 1951, Lerner headed back to New York to write another music with Frederick Loewe. Their follow-up to their hit Brigadoon was the California gold rush musical Paint Your Wagon. It was a minor hit on Broadway, and a major flop when it made it to Hollywood in the late 1960s, but Paint Your Wagon did strike gold with a few good western songs, including “Wand’rin’ Star” and the tune “They Call The Wind Maria.”
My Fair Lady
After scoring hits with musicals like Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon, Alan Jay Lerner and his frequent writing partner composer Frederick Loewe teamed up yet again in 1956 for what would prove to be their biggest musical yet.
The idea to turn George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion into a musical actually came from a Hollywood producer named Gabriel Pascal. Pascal approached almost every songwriter in the business, but it was Lerner and Loewe who jumped on the idea. Lerner started working on the show in 1952, delayed by copyright troubles from the Shaw estate and by some writers block. Some songs from the new musical took Lerner weeks to complete, while others took less than an hour.
The result was the musical My Fair Lady, which opened on Broadway in 1956, and starred a young Julie Andrews as the unpolished flower girl Eliza Doolittle and Rex Harrison as the mannered Henry Higgins. It was a smash hit, running for almost seven years and packed with memorable songs like “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face,” and “Get Me To The Church On Time.”
More Lerner And Loewe
Lerner and Loewe’s follow-up to My Fair Lady was another adaptation of the basic Pygmalion myth: wealthy man grooms an unsophisticated woman and eventually falls in love with her. Instead of using George Bernard Shaw as source material, Lerner and Loewe used French author Colette and her novella Gigi. Their musical Gigi was written first for the screen rather than the stage, and starred Leslie Caron in the title role and veteran French actor Maurice Chevalier. It was a massive hit, producing songs like “Thank Heaven For Little Girls,” earning nine Academy Awards, including one for Lerner for his screenplay.
After their impressive string of hits from Brigadoon to My Fair Lady to Gigi, Lerner and Loewe had one more success up their sleeve. It was Camelot, a stage adaptation of the King Arthur myth that became inextricably linked to the brand new Kennedy administration (Lerner and JFK were classmates at Harvard, too). Camelot opened to mixed reviews in 1960, despite its all-star cast of Julie Andrews, Richard Burton, and newcomer Robert Goulet. Camelot would also prove to be the last of the important Lerner and Loewe collaborations—the two famously butted heads for 18 years, and unceremoniously went separate ways in the 1960s.
Lerner And Lane
Alan Jay Lerner’s last big success came in 1965, teaming up again with Burton Lane for the musical On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. They had previously worked together on the film Royal Wedding in 1951. The musical was a moderate success, but the subsequent film starring Barbra Streisand in 1970 was a much bigger hit.
After On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, Lerner continued to work, although not nearly as successfully. He wrote the 1969 musical Coco about Coco Chanel with composer Andre Previn. He and Frederick Loewe buried the hatchet and wrote the songs for the 1974 film adaptation of the children’s book The Little Prince. He even worked with Leonard Bernstein in 1976 on a musical called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
None of these shows would reach the heights of his success with Burton Lane and Frederick Loewe in the 1950s and 60s, however. By the 1980s, his contributions to the world of theater, film, and music had become legendary, and he was honored by both the Kennedy Center and the National Academy of Popular Music for his songwriting.