Composer and lyricist Richard Adler, who ruled Broadway for a few glorious years in the 1950s when he co-wrote the scores to “The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees,” two of the most popular American musicals, died Thursday at his home in Southampton, N.Y. He was 90.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Susan A. Ivory. No cause was given.
With his partner, Jerry Ross, Adler wrote his way into musical history with the two Tony Award-winning shows, which included several hit tunes, including “You Gotta Have Heart” and “Whatever Lola Wants” from “Damn Yankees” and “Hey, There,” “Steam Heat” and “Hernando’s Hideaway” from “Pajama Game.” The original Broadway productions each ran for more than 1,000 performances and later had successful revivals.
Ross died six months after the opening of “Damn Yankees,” leaving Adler to struggle on his own or with new writing partners. Although successful movies based on the two smash hits were made, Adler had no more triumphs on Broadway during his career, which included attempts to bring the musical form to television.
In the early 1960s, he staged and produced star-studded programs for the White House, including the one at Madison Square Garden in 1962 when a breathy Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy. Adler called the shows “Presidenticals.”
With music and lyrics by Adler and Ross, “The Pajama Game,” a comedy about labor-management relations at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory, won the best musical Tony in 1955.
In a 2006 Associated Press interview, Adler recounted how the show’s authors, George Abbott and Richard Bissell, needed a tune for the second act, and Abbott approached Adler.
“He said, ‘Write a song that can be performed in a dimly lit, smoke-filled nightclub with a lot of fervent-looking people. Oh, and make it Latin,’ ” Adler said. “It was a piece of cake for me.”
What emerged was a frothy Latin tango with the lyrics: “I know a dark secluded place/A place where no one knows your face/A glass of wine a fast embrace/It’s called Hernando’s Hideaway… Ole!”
The song hit the top of the pop charts and later was recorded by Archie Blyer, band leader Billy May and even Ella Fitzgerald.
Did Adler think it would be a hit? “No. I had no idea,” he said.
Another tune from the show, “Steam Heat,” became a top 10 pop hit, sung by Patti Page.
Adler teamed with Ross again for “Damn Yankees,” a variation on the Faust tale in which a rabid baseball fan sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a chance to lead his team to an American League pennant. It opened on Broadway in 1955 and won the best musical Tony crown the next year.
The fruitful songwriting collaboration ended when Ross died at 29 of a lung ailment in 1955; Adler said he never recovered from the loss. “We worked as one person, we were a very good team,” he told Stage magazine in 1999. “And it was very difficult for me when Jerry died because Adler and Ross were a bankable, well-known combination. Richard Adler alone was a question mark.”
Adler received a Tony nomination for 1961’s “Kwamina,” a show about African colonialism that featured an interracial romance and co-starred his then-wife, Sally Ann Howes. It closed after three weeks.
His several symphonic works included “Wilderness Suite,” commissioned by the U.S. Department of the Interior; and “The Lady Remembers,” to celebrate the Statue of Liberty’s centennial. He composed two ballets for the Chicago City Ballet: “Eight by Adler” in 1984 and “Chicago.”
He also composed popular 1960s advertising jingles, including “Let Hertz Put You in the Driver’s Seat.” He was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1984.
Born in New York City on Aug. 3, 1921, Adler was the son of a concert pianist and studied literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After earning a bachelor’s degree in 1943, he served in the Navy until 1946 before returning to New York. He was married several times.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by his children, Andrew Adler, Katherine Adler and Charles Shipman; and three grandchildren.