Alan Jay Lerner, the Oscar-, Tony- and Grammy-award winning playwright and lyricist who joined composer Frederick Loewe to create such Broadway hits as “My Fair Lady,” “Camelot” and “Brigadoon,” died Saturday of lung cancer in New York. He was 67.
Officials at the Sloan-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center said Lerner succumbed about 10:15 a.m. to the illness that had hospitalized him for the last two months.
“Through his work, Alan gave expression to the romantic thoughts that all of us at some time have shared in our hearts,” President Reagan said in a tribute released at the White House. “We are diminished by his death, but we have been vastly enriched by the wealth of his legacy to us.”
“I don’t think it’s possible to replace a talent like his,” said composer Burton Lane, who collaborated with Lerner to create “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” in 1965. “Alan had a way of really touching the heart of a person.”
Although the films “An American in Paris” and “Gigi” won Academy Awards for Lerner, it was his Broadway musical comedies that were his greatest triumphs.
Unquestionably the greatest was “My Fair Lady,” the adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play, “Pygmalion,” starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, that broke all existing Broadway box-office records and established Lerner and Loewe as the kings of the Great White Way.
Success on Second Try
Lerner said he and his partner had struggled with the show for five months, given it up as a bad job--"one that couldn’t be done"--then tried it again. Audiences were glad that they did.
The 1956 production--featuring characteristically clever Lerner lyrics in such enduring favorites as “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Get Me to the Church on Time” and “The Rain in Spain” won rave reviews, widespread awards (among them a Tony) and went on to become what was then the longest-running show in Broadway history.
During his career, Lerner collaborated with a number of other notable composers--among them Lane, Kurt Weill, Andre Previn and Leonard Bernstein--but the majority of his work, and his success, was with Loewe.
The two met by chance in 1942 at the Lamb’s Club, a theatrical institution in New York, where Lerner was writing material for the club’s spring revue and Loewe was rubbing elbows with some fellow composers.
Loewe, an Austrian-born pianist, had gotten there the hard way--working variously as cowboy, cafeteria busboy and professional boxer, winning eight bouts--when his music failed to provide a living.
For Lerner, heir to his father’s nationwide chain of women’s speciality stores, money had never been a problem.
John Kennedy’s Classmate
After private elementary schooling in New York and England, Lerner was a classmate of John F. Kennedy at the Choate School in Wallingford, Conn., and at Harvard University.
While at Harvard, Lerner, like Loewe, tried boxing, but with grim results, losing the use of an eye when struck during a match. The trim, dapper young Harvard undergraduate returned to a fascination that he had enjoyed since childhood--writing poems and setting them to his own music.
“From the time I was 12, I had never wanted to do anything but be in the musical theater,” he would later tell an interviewer. “It’s more than a love; it’s a passion.”
He said writing lyrics gave him “an excitement, an exhilaration . . . that makes me feel as close to the joy of living as I’ll probably ever know.”
Lerner collaborated in two of Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Club musicals, studying composition at the Juilliard School of Music in New York during the summers.
He graduated from Harvard in 1940. It was while working as a free-lance radio scriptwriter in New York that the meeting with Loewe occurred. The two men talked musical comedy--Loewe had already contributed songs to a couple of shows--and one of the most notable teams in theatrical history was born.
Their first efforts were not particularly auspicious. “The Patsy,” which they wrote in two weeks for a Detroit stock company, lasted only nine weeks. “What’s Up” folded on Broadway after 63 performances. “The Day Before Spring” lasted 165 before collapsing in the face of overwhelming indifference.
But all that changed in 1947 with “Brigadoon,” a fantasy set on the moors of Scotland that won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award as the year’s best musical, lasted almost two years on Broadway and was followed by many road performances, revivals and conversion into a movie.
Oscar for Screenplay
The two men followed that up with “Paint Your Wagon,” a show about the California Gold Rush that opened to mixed reviews in 1951, the same year Lerner won an Oscar for his screenplay for “An American in Paris.”
Five years later, on March 15, 1956, “My Fair Lady” opened for the first of its record-shattering 2,717 performances in New York. The show became internationally known, with productions running concurrently--and in several languages--overseas.
Language was the subject of the show; to be more precise, it is the concern of London semanticist Henry Higgins that lower- and middle-class Englishmen cannot speak their native language properly.
Lamenting this deplorable state of affairs in one of the show’s songs, Higgins asks:
Why can’t the English set a good example
To people whose English is painful to the ears?
The Scotch and the Irish leave you close to tears.
There even are places where English completely disappears.
Why, in America, they haven’t used it for years.
Audiences could soon recite such lyrics as faithfully as they could hum the tunes, and original-cast recordings of the songs grossed more than the combined receipts from the box offices in New York and Chicago.
Critics said the show’s success stemmed in large part from careful preparation, and actor Harrison, who played the pompous, misogynous Prof. Higgins opposite Andrews’ feisty, gutter-bred Eliza Doolittle, recalled the lengths Lerner and Loewe went to in order to accommodate his limited singing range.
“I had just four or five notes they could use,” Harrison said. They produced a song embracing just those four or five notes, and it was called, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”
In 1958, Lerner won Oscars for best screenplay and song for the film, “Gigi.”
Team Splits in 1962
Two years later, he and Loewe won Tonys for yet another Broadway smash, “Camelot.” But ill health on the part of Loewe and differences in opinion were taking their toll, and in 1962, after 19 years of collaboration, the team split up for good.
In 1965, Lerner picked up a Grammy for his work with Lane on the title song in “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” He collaborated later on three more musicals--"Coco,” which he made with Previn in 1969; “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” which he made with Bernstein in 1976, and “Carmelina,” which he made with Lane in 1979.
Lerner’s last musical, “Dance a Little Closer,” was probably his worst professional failure, closing after only one night in 1983.
There were setbacks in his personal life, too.
Seven of his eight marriages--those to Ruth O’Day Boyd, dancer Marion Bell, actress Nancy Olson, attorney Micheline Muselli Posso di Borgo, editor Karen Gunderson, actress Sandra Paine and Nina Bushkin--ended in divorce. His eighth wife, British musical comedy actress Liz Robertson, was at his bedside when he died.
Earlier this year, Lerner was sued by the federal government for more than $1.4 million in back taxes and penalties.
But Lerner was better remembered for his successes, commemorated last year when he received the National Academy of Popular Music’s Johnny Mercer Award and when he and Loewe were honored at the Kennedy Center in Washington for their lifelong contributions to American culture.
“They are workers,” said the late Moss Hart, who directed their Broadway productions of “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot.” “They work like stevedores.
“But they possess an extra dimension,” Hart said. “If I were asked to give it a name, I would call it exuberance.”