A few years back I bought a copy of Alan Jay Lerner’s book THE STREET WHERE I LIVE, about the writing and productions of three biggest hit musicals: MY FAIR LADY, GIGI and CAMELOT. Lerner impressed me immediately as a great storyteller, and a charming one at that. He was in fact a person whose company I’d want to be in.
The other writer I had felt this with was George Bernard Shaw. I had known Shaw through his play, prefaces, essays and fiction, but it was with his letters that I sensed the kindliness and humanity beneath the curmudgeonly wit.
With our texting and e-mailing, we have lost much. Without the art of letter writing, personalities no longer come to us so fully or individually realized.
The interesting thing about Lerner’s somewhat surprising resemblance to Shaw is that it was Lerner who solved the puzzle that no other master practitioner of musical theatre was able to realize: he was able to make a musical out of Shaw’s comedy PYGMALION. This musical adaptation, MY FAIR LADY, became perhaps the most popular musical of all time.
We are fortunate now to have Lerner’s collected in ALAN JAY LERNER: A LYRICIST’S LETTERS, edited in book form by Dominic McHugh. The book follows Lerner’s involvement in stage and film projects from the early 1950s through his death in 1986. And here is Lerner’s personality: often charming, sometimes difficult and exceedingly neurotic. Despite all his talents as librettist, lyricist, screenwriter and sometime stage director, Lerner remained throughout his career plagued with self-doubt.
Lerner’s chronic self doubts significantly delayed him in completing projects throughout his career. Most of the composers he worked with sooner or later ran out of patience. Arthur Schwartz and Richard Rodgers both withdrew from projects. Burton Lane, who completed ROYAL WEDDING, ON A CLEAR DAY and CARMELINA with Lerner, nonetheless became quite disgruntled.
The most patient of his collaborators was Frederick Loewe, who was quite content biding his time with yachts, horses and gaming tables during the numerous delays. Lucky it was for Lerner, as well for as the rest of us, that Loewe was one of the greatest composers in Broadway history.
He faired best when he was guided by such artists as MGM film producer Arthur Freed and the playwright-turned-director Moss Hart. Freed produced the films AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and GIGI. It was Hart who directed MY FAIR LADY and CAMELOT.
When Lerner was about to commence writing CAMELOT, Hart, a successful playwright from the 1930s, offered to write the libretto with him. Lerner turned Hart down. This turned out to be unfortunate, for Hart still had much to teach him. Unlike Oscar Hammerstein 2d, who obtained true greatness as a playwright with SOUTH PACIFIC and THE KING AND I, Lerner never reached full maturity in his libretto writing.
After he parted creative company with the Frederick Loewe, Lerner never repeated the success he had enjoyed in the 1940s and 50s. His subsequent shows languished through a combination of changing public tastes and the failures of his libretti to jell.
In his last years, the 1980s, we find Lerner at work on interesting projects including a musical version of MY MAN GODFREY and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Because of Lerner’s death, MY MAN GODFREY was not completed. And after the ailing Lerner withdrew from PHANTOM, Lloyd Webber had to find other lyricists.
The last matter is particularly unfortunate. Writing a musical with Lloyd Webber would have given Lerner the opportunity to work again with a melodist comparable to Frederick Loewe. And, conversely, had Lerner lived to complete PHANTOM, the libretto and lyrics would have been as memorable as Lloyd Webber’s music.