When we think of American royalty, our minds are likely to run to the Kennedy family. One president, two brothers who ought to have been, and a widow who married a colorful Greek tycoon: it seems the stuff of fairy tales. Now, imagine a school chum of that president (both at Choate and Harvard) who wrote musicals, one said to be the Commander-in-Chief’s favorite, and another in which he lampooned the mega-rich Greek. That would be the closest musical comedy history is likely to come to royalty, and that would be Alan Jay Lerner, who was born 100 years ago today.
There used to be a department store in every American city called Lerner, and, yes, that was Alan’s uncle. So, he was well-off enough that it didn’t matter that his first success, of any sort, premiered in his 30thyear. This was that much-derided bit of hokum, Brigadoon, but don’t be too hasty to dismiss this odd romantic fantasy. People today don’t realize it’s about something that was very relevant to much of its audience in the late 40s. Soldiers returned from Europe and felt a sense of alienation. They had experiences other Americans couldn’t relate to, and stateside life seemed oddly colorless. So, two veterans seize on the chance to grab rifles and go on a hunting trip in Scotland, a safe simulacrum of what they’d done just a few years before. Tommy meets Fiona and their connection is such that he promptly dumps his New York fiancée. And, as the rules of the fantasy prescribe, he must abandon 20thcentury America altogether. How’s that for a solution for alienation?
My great uncle Israel was Lerner’s accountant, but, more important to our story, he was also Lerner’s neighbor. Rockland County in New York State, mid-century, attracted all sorts of Broadway luminaries. At parties you might see Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer, or Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, or Burgess Meredith who’d had one of his first leads in a wonderful play by Maxwell Anderson, who lived there, too. Anderson had given a series of lectures on playwriting and Lerner, more than anyone, applied these lessons to the writing of musicals. Film musicals, too: Lerner won Oscars for his screenplays for An American In Paris and Gigi.
I like to imagine that much creativity was sparked by the intermingling of all these Broadway folks. Both Lerner and Anderson wrote musicals with Kurt Weill, and Weill asked Lerner to translate Threepenny Opera into English. Idly wondering who could be cast, he was surprised to hear Weill suggest Rex Harrison, as he never knew him to do a musical. Later, Lerner suggested Harrison for My Fair Lady and everyone seemed similarly surprised. “Does he sing?” “Well, Kurt Weill said he does” and, before you know it, a man who couldn’t hold a tune became Henry Higgins, indelibly.
Used to be, one of the more obvious things you’d do to prepare for a career of writing musicals is to read the paperback containing Shaw’s Pygmalion and Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady. You could look over exactly what steps were taken in order to create what became the longest running Broadway musical of all time. The thing is, before they did it, nobody was quite sure it could be done. Rodgers and Hammerstein tried and failed to crack the puzzle. Lerner knew that the Shaw play is so solid, so filled with emotion, it should be minimally monkeyed with. But it also required, in Higgins’ songs, an extremely high level of wit and erudition. Because the lyrics would have to coexist with George Bernard Shaw’s sophistication. (I think Hammerstein must have not felt up to the task. Years after his death, though, Rodgers did his own lyrics for a television musical based on another Shaw play, with less spectacular results.)
The success of My Fair Lady seems to have made Lerner aware that writing for the rich and/or royal was his strongest suit. His earlier cowboy musical, Paint Your Wagon, wasn’t really the street where he lived – it wasn’t even a paved one. But Coco Chanel, and Regency rakes, kings, presidents, and folks who summer at Trouville – these were his baguette and butter.
The effort it took to create his next Broadway show nearly killed everyone around him. In its pre-Broadway try-out, Camelot ran more than four hours, necessitating expensive overtime payments to the crew. The costume designer died of a heart attack. Composer Frederick Loewe had a heart attack, and his doctor advised him to give up writing musicals. The director also was hospitalized with a heart attack, leading Lerner to emerge as a candidate for replacement director, leading Loewe to high dudgeon. Opening night reviews were not particularly good, but stars Julie Andrews and Richard Burton did some songs on The Ed Sullivan Show and the next morning ticket-buyers were lined up around the block.
If you think, as I do, that Loewe’s doctor did the world a great disservice by telling him not to write, well, he’s not the worst doctor in the collaborative team’s life. Lerner was a devotee of the famous Dr. Feelgood, Max Jacobson, who injected patients full of mind-altering amphetamines. Under this influence, Lerner created On a Clear Day You Can See Forever but never could figure out how to end it. It’s got E.S.P. and reincarnation, and, like Brigadoon, characters who love each other but live in completely different centuries. And while I’m telling you that this is one crazy show, the creation of a man not in his right mind, I’m going to recommend listening to the original cast album, starring the late great Barbara Harris. It is among the most delightful listening experiences one can have, due in no small part to the brilliance of Lerner’s lyrics.
Which reminds me to tell the story of his daughter Liza, who, once she figured out what her father did for a living, begged him to let her assist him in any way she could. She so wanted to be included. Lerner eventually gave her a task, one that might have seemed like needless busywork. He asked her to go to the encyclopedia and list as many different kinds of flowers as possible. This is the result: