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A Hymn to Him

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If you have even a passing acquaintance with my past writings for BwayTunes, you know that I am passionate about the work of Alan Jay Lerner. He is the reason I have led a life in the theatre.

Today he would have been 100. Born to wealth (his father owned the lucrative Lerner clothing shops), and by his own admission a lifelong bon vivant, he handled his death (at only 67, from lung cancer) with his inveterate insouciant charm. According to his widow, the actress Liz Robertson, on the day he died he asked for a glass of champagne in his hospital room. After downing it, he looked at her and said, “Moet and morphine. That’s the way to go.”

In celebration of his centenary, I thought I’d share favorite Lerner songs from his 14 Broadway shows and five original screen musicals, in chronological order.

What’s Up? (Opened Nov. 11, 1943, 63 performances) – “You’ve Got a Hold on Me” and “My Last Love”
This is Lerner’s only lost Broadway musical, a romp about some randy aviators stranded on an island with a bunch of schoolgirls. An early preproduction script survives, as do most, but not all, of the songs he wrote with composer Frederick Loewe. He blamed himself for its failure and called it “a major disaster,” despite direction and choreography by George Balanchine and sets by Boris Aronson. It did, however, have these two fine ballads. In them you hear the promise of a great songwriting team finding its voice. Frank Sinatra covered the former on a 1943 Columbia V-Disc, while Steve Ross sings the latter on I Remember Him Well – The Songs of Alan Jay Lerner.

The Day Before Spring (Opened Nov. 22, 1945, 167 performances) – “My Love Is a Married Man”
Considerably more sophisticated than its predecessor, this Lerner and Loewe show told the story of a well-off but bored Upper East Side housewife’s re-infatuation with a former lover, Alex, who has written a romance novel about their failed affair. Attraction is rekindled at their college reunion right under the nose of her staid husband, Peter, who stole her away from Alex. This comic lament is sung by a young co-ed who has the hots for Peter and stalks him relentlessly. Julie Andrews does a bang-up job with it on Here I’ll Stay – The Words of Alan Jay Lerner.

Brigadoon (Opened March 13, 1947, 581 performances) – “From This Day On”
Surely everyone knows Lerner and Loewe’s first smash hit, about a Scottish village that comes to life for only one day in each century. I am especially partial to this duet of parting between our Scottish heroine, Fiona, and the very American Tommy, who stumbles into Brigadoon on its one day in the 20th century while hunting. In a 1980 revival directed by Vivian Matalon (whom we just lost), Meg Bussert and Martin Vidnovic were standing on a bridge leading into the town. As the day ended, the bridge broke in two and swept Tommy and Fiona apart as steam billowed forth to obscure them. It was simple but stunning. That revival was never recorded, so try Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones on a 1957 studio cast recording of Brigadoon that is my favorite version of the score.

Love Life (Opened Oct. 7, 1948, 252 performances) – “This Is the Life”
Lerner and Loewe broke up acrimoniously after Brigadoon, so for this experimental musical that looks at the institution of marriage in America over the course of 150 years, Lerner turned to composer Kurt Weill. Sam and Susan Cooper begin as an already married couple with two young children in 1791, and all four never age as the years fly by. The Coopers divorce in 1948, and late in Act 2 Sam spills out his guts in this dramatic tour de force. Thomas Hampson sings it with relish under the baton of John McGlinn on Kurt Weill on Broadway. Ray Middleton, who originated the role, told me in the mid-1970s that Weill and Lerner added it out of town in Boston. Middleton recalled with great pride, “Kurt came to me and said, ‘My boy, I’ve written you an aria.’”

Royal Wedding (Released March 23, 1951) – “Too Late Now”
After Love Life Lerner accepted an offer from MGM producer Arthur Freed to go west and check out motion pictures. His first film starred Fred Astaire and Jane Powell as performing siblings who both find romance in England during the festivities surrounding Princess Elizabeth’s marriage to Prince Philip. This Oscar-nominated tune was actually written for Judy Garland, who briefly was slated to star. Powell does a lovely job with it in the movie, but when Garland finally sang it in 1963 on her TV show, it was clear that Lerner and Lane had tailored it expertly for her.

Huckleberry Finn (Film production closed down in late September of 1951) – “Headin’ for New Orleans”
Lerner’s third picture for MGM (his second, the Oscar-winning An American in Paris, had a Gershwin score) was to have been an adaptation of Mark Twain’s classic, with music again by Burton Lane. It’s a delightful 10-song score, most of which can be heard on studio and author demos that were released in 1998 on DRG’s Lyrics by Lerner CD, which, alas, is now out of print and quite rare. Fortunately, Brent Barrett included this jaunty celebration on The Alan Jay Lerner Album. It was the introductory song for Gene Kelly, playing a con man known as the Duke. He sings it in a prison cell to some fellow inmates when a young girl arrives to buy his freedom. Of course, by the end of the song he has ditched not only jail but her as well.

Paint Your Wagon (Opened Nov. 12, 1951, 289 performances) – “In Between” and “A Million Miles Away Behind the Door”
Lerner and Loewe kissed and made up for this Gold Rush musical. It’s a great score married to a too-earnest book, but though it offers standards such as “I Talk to the Trees,” “They Call the Wind Maria,” and “Wand’rin’ Star,” I have always liked the impish “In Between,” which showcases star James Barton’s vaudevillian chops as grizzled miner Ben Rumson. In it Ben flirts with a passing Mormon’s second wife as she is being auctioned off for marriage to the sex-starved miners (an event that really happened). The lyric is so saucy that for the cast recording Barton was not allowed to sing the title as the final punch line, choosing instead to laugh insinuatingly. Keith Carradine gives a fine and unexpurgated rendition on the excellent Encores! recording of Paint Your Wagon, but I find Barton’s take deliciously definitive, despite his improvising a bit with the lyric.

In 1969 a film adaptation of Paint Your Wagon was released featuring Ben Rumson in the midst of an otherwise totally new plot. Loewe, in retirement, declined to provide music for any new songs, so Lerner corralled MGM arranger and orchestrator André Previn to do it. They wrote five numbers, of which I think this ballad, in which the above-mentioned Mormon ex-wife is wishing for a home to share with Ben, her new husband, is the best. Shockingly, the film soundtrack is not available digitally, but you can hear the song on Paint Your Wagon: The Paul Masters Orchestra.

My Fair Lady (Opened March 15, 1956, 2,717 performances) – “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”
Most people will probably only know the chorus of this Lerner-Loewe standard, but I love it because of its middle section, in which Henry Higgins angrily denounces his ungrateful Galatea, Eliza Doolittle. It would be many years before I found out that this section is a reprise of the middle section of a cut song from Act 1, “Come to the Ball,” in which Higgins tries to reassure Eliza after her disaster at Ascot. The upbeat “I can see you now in a gown by Madame Worth/When you enter ev’ry monocle will crash” morphs into the sneering “I can see her now, Mrs. Freddy Eynsford-Hill/In a wretched little flat above a store.” Made me love the song even more. Rex Harrison was, of course, perfection, but Harry Hadden-Paton in the current Lincoln Center revival is quite remarkable.

Gigi (Released June 25, 1958; Opened on Broadway Nov. 13, 1973, 103 performances) – “Liane’s Skating Waltz” and “The Contract”
Loewe wrote a particularly lovely waltz to underscore the film scene in which Liane, Gaston’s unfaithful mistress, is taking skating lessons. It begs to be sung, so Lerner wrote a rather undistinguished pop lyric for it called “A Toujours.” Gogi Grant recorded it, but hardly anyone else did. Then, for the stage adaption, Lerner used the waltz as the basis for a hilarious 10-minute scene-in-song, “The Contract,” in which Gigi’s caustic Aunt Alicia negotiates the terms for her niece becoming Gaston’s mistress, much to the dismay of Gigi’s loving grandmamma. Agnes Moorehead and Maria Karnilova are priceless. “Only those who have no taste at all understate. Understate…!”

Camelot (Opened Dec. 3, 1960, 803 performances) – “What Do the Simple Folk Do?”
Infidelity has infested the relationship of King Arthur and Queen Guenevere, but they try to forget it in this wistful attempt to cheer themselves up. On stage it ends with a rueful sung coda indicating the impossibility of their attempt (watch it on YouTube), but on screen subtext becomes text as Arthur and Guenevere dance with increasing abandon until they come together to kiss and she suddenly shrinks from him, tears in her eyes, covering her face with her hands in shame as he looks away in frustration. Vanessa Redgrave is terribly moving, and it’s the version I like the most. By the way, Lerner and Loewe recycled the idea from a cut song from Paint Your Wagon called “What Do Other Folks Do?,” which you can hear Keith Carradine and Alexandra Socha perform as a bonus track on the Encores! cast recording of that show.

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Opened Oct. 17, 1965, 280 performances) – “Don’t Tamper With My Sister”
Loewe retired after Camelot for health reasons, so Lerner returned to writing with Burton Lane for his next show. This song is almost always cut from productions, as it is from the current Irish Rep revisal, but I think it’s a hoot. Our heroine in Regency-era England, haughty Melinda Welles (who in the present has been reincarnated as shlub Daisy Gamble), is in London’s salacious Hellraker’s Club trying to force one Sir Hubert Insdale to acknowledge and support his bastard child by a friend of hers. When Sir Hubert tries to force his attentions on Melinda, a passing young roué protects her by claiming she is his sister. She pretends to be appalled by his behavior but actually falls for him because of it. I particularly favor “Don Juan had once a royal marriage lined up/Until he left a blonde Venetian’s blind up.”

Coco (Opened Dec. 18, 1969, 329 performances) – “The Money Rings Out Like Freedom”
The Lerner-Lane collaboration had been a stormy one, so now Lerner teamed with André Previn (mentioned above re the film of Paint Your Wagon, written simultaneously). In this song French couturier Coco Chanel gets out her scrapbook and recounts her rise to success to her young protégée Noelle Forrestier. Director-choreographer Michael Bennett staged it brilliantly, with the action swirling around star Katharine Hepburn as she sat on the floor singing Chanel’s story. I include it here because, in January of 1970, Hepburn locked eyes with 16-year-old me and sang it directly into them as I sat dead center in the front row of the Cleveland Music Hall during the show’s post-Broadway national tour. That’s something you never forget.

Lolita, My Love (Closed pre-Broadway in Boston, March 27, 1971, 24 performances) – “In the Broken Promise Land of Fifteen”
Lerner moved on to film composer John Barry for this adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s deeply subversive, darkly comic novel about a sophisticated European pedophile and a gum-popping American nymphet. The victim of a seriously troubled production and a morally troubled audience, it folded quickly. Lerner was devastated and continued to work on it for four months after the closing, until composer Barry bailed altogether. The plan had been to finally bring it to Broadway in a new production directed by Mike Nichols. Lerner felt it contained some of his very best writing, and I agree. In this haunting song anti-hero Humbert Humbert recalls the event that he blames for his condition with young girls. The roiling, circular obsessiveness of Barry’s melody combined with Lerner’s almost fruity poetic imagery is the perfect distillation of Humbert’s character. Brent Barrett sings it on his Alan Jay Lerner Album.

The Little Prince (Released Nov. 7, 1974) – “Little Prince”
Seeing the national tour of Camelot at age eight was my first experience of the professional theatre (and made me want to do that, whatever that was, for my career). As Loewe retired after that show, I thought I’d never get a new Lerner and Loewe musical. Then Loewe returned to do this film of Antoine de St. Exupéry’s famous fable with Lerner. Unfortunately, disagreements between director Stanley Donen and the songwriters led to a compromised product, with one song cut entirely and four more truncated, three of them severely. But I didn’t know all that upon the film’s release, and I loved it. Still do, actually, in spite of the compromises. When I first heard Richard Kiley deliver the soaring title song, my eyes welled with tears, both because of what was happening in the story and the fact that it is as good a song as Lerner and Loewe ever wrote. They had not lost their touch.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (Opened May 4, 1976, 7 performances) – “This Time”
When I reconstructed and directed Lerner and Leonard Bernstein’s political musical back in 1992, this searing duet for Lud and Seena Simmons never failed to receive a thunderous ovation from audiences. Husband and wife are free black servants in the White House. She wants to take advantage of President Monroe’s offer of repatriation for blacks to Liberia; he doesn’t, having promised Abigail Adams as a boy to “take care of this house.” Free blacks are being snatched off of Washington, D.C., streets and sold into slavery, and she fears losing him. The performances on the unfortunately de-politicized A White House Cantata (which features a number of songs from the musical’s score) are not optimum, too stilted and operatic, but it’s the only available recording of the piece. Of course, it was the first song removed out of town when two new directors came aboard. It’s a downer, they said. Rather than fix the show’s problems, they started a wholesale evisceration of Lerner and Bernstein’s vision in a frantic attempt to make it more commercial. They couldn’t and didn’t. They just destroyed it.

Carmelina (Opened April 8, 1979, 17 performances) – “One More Walk Around the Garden”
When I caught Carmelina midway through its preview period on Broadway, Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane entered the theatre separately and watched from standing room, keeping as far apart as possible and never acknowledging each other. The famously contentious collaboration clearly was so again. The show had its charms, including some fine songs and a genuine star turn from Georgia Brown, but the comic soufflé resolutely refused to rise under José Ferrer’s leaden direction. However, when the three ex-GIs who each might be the father of Carmelina’s daughter showed up and sang this gorgeous paean to mortality, the audience broke into the first genuinely excited applause of the night. I also took the song to be a bit autobiographical on Lerner’s part, as he hadn’t had a Broadway or film hit for 10 years, the last being Coco in 1969.

Dance a Little Closer (Opened May 11, 1983, 1 performance) – “I Don’t Know/Anyone Who Loves”
I’m afraid that this show, based on Robert E. Sherwood’s 1936 Pulitzer Prize–winning drama Idiot’s Delight, made Carmelina look like My Fair Lady. Lerner directed it himself and created it as a vehicle for his wife, Liz Robertson, so I chalked it up to his having no perspective on the work. There were a few lovely songs (music by Charles Strouse), but what stood out to me was Lerner’s positive portrait of a young gay male couple. It was rather naïve, but his heart was most definitely in the right place and certainly forward-looking for a Broadway musical in 1983. In this sequence Charles and Edward, faced with an imminent nuclear holocaust, ask an Episcopalian minister to marry them. It causes consternation and discussion among the stranded hotel guests, then the moral is delivered by Robertson’s character, just after she has broken up with her Henry Kissinger-esque sugar daddy. I think “Anyone Who Loves” is a terrific song and, alas, still very timely today.

My Man Godfrey (Left unfinished at Lerner’s death in 1986) – “I’ve Been Married”
Lerner was writing lyrics only for this adaptation of the 1936 Depression-era film comedy, with a book by a twentysomething English TV writer named Kristi Kane, whose work was apparently found wanting by Lerner and his composer, English pop songwriter Gerard Kenny, a friend of Liz Robertson’s. In any event, Kane only completed a draft of the first act. Robertson performs this song in her club act “Lerner Without Loewe,” and in her patter links it to Lerner’s feelings about his fourth wife (he had a total of eight), Micheline Muselli Pozzo di Borgo, a French lawyer. Their divorce was epically nasty, and in his memoir Lerner refuses to mention her name while claiming good relations with his other six exes. In any event, he was certainly well equipped to write this witty song, which Steve Ross delivers on I Remember Him Well – The Songs of Alan Jay Lerner.

Lerner never got that one last success, though he would have if he hadn’t developed lung cancer. He was just beginning to collaborate with Andrew Lloyd Webber on Phantom of the Opera when he was diagnosed. I’d like to leave you with my favorite moment from his work, the finale reprise of “Camelot,” in which King Arthur entreats a boy named Tom of Warwick (yes, read Mallory) not to join in battle with Lancelot but rather to go home, grow old, and tell the story of the court of Camelot to all who will listen. There is a spoken part of this sequence that is generally unknown, an underscored speech that though printed in the full piano-vocal score was eliminated from the published script. It can only be heard on the original London cast recording as performed by Laurence Harvey, which, alas, is out of print and very rare. Arthur tells Tom the following:

“My teacher Merlyn, who always remembered things that haven’t happened better than things that have, told me once that a few hundred years from now it will be discovered that the world is round. Round like the table at which we sat with such high hope and noble purpose. If you do what I ask, perhaps people will remember how we of Camelot went questing for right and honor and justice. Perhaps one day men will sit around this world as we sat once around our table and go questing once again for right and honor and justice.”

In these dark and divisive times, when truth is no longer truth, we all need to go questing once again for right and honor and justice. To paraphrase another great writer of musicals, Peter Stone, in 1776, “People of the world, I say ye Alan Jay Lerner.”


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