Loewe: `You are Alan Jay Lerner? You write good lyrics'. The `loverly' lyricist's special gifts recalled
New York — ``Oh, wouldn't it be loverly?'' mused Eliza Doolittle of ``My Fair Lady.'' For Eliza, ``loverly'' meant a warm room, ``lots of choc'late,'' and ``Someone's 'ead restin' on my knee,/ Warm and tender as 'e can be. . . .'' Lyricist Alan J. Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe repeated ``Loverly!'' four times to end Eliza's wistful daydream. It was one of the melting moments in a musical triumph, and it illustrates Lerner's gift for the verbal grace note that could add an unexpected nuance to a familiar word.
For a time, ``loverly'' entered the popular coinage. ``My Fair Lady,'' which I reviewed at its opening on March 15, 1956, ran for more than six years, establishing various records.
Local theatergoers were most recently reminded of the Lerner-Loewe magic with the New York City Opera's superb revival of ``Brigadoon,'' the other landmark achievement of their legendary partnership.
At their best, they scaled the heights of the Broadway musical in the romantic tradition.
Alan Jay Lerner, who passed on here on June 14, came to the partnership from a background of affluence. His father owned the Lerner dress shop chain. Young Alan was educated in private English and American schools. He started composing at the age of eight. He was a graduate of Harvard University and a student at Juilliard.
Stanley Green wrote of him (in ``The World of Musical Comedy''):
``Instead of smothering his ability, the advantages of wealth and education only instilled in him a strong determination to succeed unaided by any parental assistance.''
Though Lerner p`ere doubted his son's talents, he neither opposed nor encouraged Alan's ambitions -- merely urging the necessity for hard work. While he was at Harvard, two of Lerner's songs from his Hasty Pudding Club shows were published commercially. One was titled, perhaps prophetically, ``Chance to Dream.''
Dreams began slowly to come true, when some sketches and lyrics the now New York-based Lerner had written for a Lamb's Club ``Gambol'' caught Loewe's attention. One day at the club, the Austrian-born composer approached the young writer and said: ``You are Alan Jay Lerner? You write good lyrics. I am Frederick Loewe. I have something to say to you.''
Their initial collaboration was the overhauling of a try-out musical, ``Life of the Party'' -- which apparently wasn't. Their next effort, ``What's Up?'' (1943), starring Jimmy Savo and directed by George Balanchine, lasted 63 performances. ``The Day Before Spring'' (1945) Lerner once described as ``a succ`es d'estime. That's what George Kaufman calls a success that runs out of steam.''
But Lerner and Loewe didn't. Instead, they wrote ``Brigadoon,'' the inspiration for which was the idea of faith removing mountains. It proved a miracle of a musical. The felicity and sensitivity of Lerner's lyrics soared in songs like ``Come to Me, Bend to Me,'' ``The Heather on the Hill,'' and ``Almost Like Being in Love.'' ``Brigadoon'' was followed in 1951 by ``Paint Your Wagon,'' a robust musical-comedy salute to the California gold rush.
``My Fair Lady'' marked librettist Lerner's first venture into adaptation -- a step prompted partly by his own dissatisfaction with some of his original books for the musicals he had done.
He responded brilliantly to the Shavian spirit. Building from the foundation of the comedy, he created a succession of lyrics that could be wittily amusing (``Why Can't the English?''), music-hallish (``With a Little Bit of Luck''), romantic (``I Could Have Danced All Night''), and tender (``I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face'').
Both ``My Fair Lady'' and ``Camelot'' -- their next and final collaboration -- illustrated the major obstacles that can present themselves to creators of this most complex, most typically American stage entertainment.
After three months' work, Lerner and Loewe temporarily gave up on ``Pygmalion'' and went on to other projects before making another try.
Because of illness that struck both Lerner and director Moss Hart prior to the ``Camelot'' opening, the production required months of subsequent reworking after the premi`ere to justify its hit status. Even with Richard Burton and Julie Andrews as stars, the show's $3 million-plus advance sale had been stimulated chiefly by the success of ``My Fair Lady.''
``Camelot'' was the final Lerner-Loewe collaboration. In 1973, however, they were represented once more on Broadway by ``Gigi,'' a stage version of their popular film based on a Colette story. It ran less than three months.
Lerner never approached with other composers the critical and popular success he and Loewe achieved with their hit musicals.
Lerner collaborations included ``Love Life'' (with Kurt Weill), ``Coco'' (with Andr'e Previn), starring Katharine Hepburn, and ``On a Clear Day You Can See Forever'' and ``Carmelina'' (with Burton Lane).
``Good lyrics can make a play work, but it is the music that makes it endure,'' Lerner once told a Dramatists Guild symposium.
``And no matter how much ego satisfaction there may be in writing the lyrics,'' he continued, ``I never forget for one moment that it is the music that, if the play is good, will place it on the shelf of things that will be done again and again.''
Yet without the Lerner lyric, would Eliza Doolittle's vision of the good life be half so ``loverly''?