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Happy Birthday Alan Jay Lerner!

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Yet another centennial year for a Broadway luminary and now a chance to reexamine the work of Alan Jay Lerner.

Certainly, he should be at the top of anyone’s list of the greatest musical theatre lyricists (never mind his excellence in libretto authorship). His precise use of language perfectly suited to the characters and times they lived in might be unique. The words comprising the lyrics in My Fair Lady are different than those in Paint Your Wagon or Gigi. Other lyricists write mostly in their own voice (perhaps Dorothy Fields?) or in their own unique style regardless of the time or place or characters (perhaps E.Y. Harburg) or subsuming his own voice with turns of phrase that are witty without showing off (perhaps Stephen Sondheim).

Lerner is smart and has a bemused take on his characters’ foibles. He never laughs at them—he makes the audience like the characters even more because of their humanity. And Stephen Sondheim does exactly the same thing when writing for Sally in Follies or Miles Gloriosus in A Funny Thing…. In Gigi, Gaston sings the title song and, as it progresses, comes to realize that he’s been an ass. And that he’s in love with Gigi. We’ve been ahead of him throughout the play so it’s such a wonderful moment for us to see him break through his upperclass veneer and love someone “below” him.

Lerner can also be quite wistful. Ben Rumson wishes his wife was still alive; he misses her so when he sings “I Still See Elisa” in Paint Your Wagon. And this tough, rough man shows us a gentle introspective side, so soft and sweet you want to cry for him. The same goes in Carmelina, to music by Burton Lane, where an older man wishes for “One More Walk Around the Garden” before he dies.

As we’ve seen above, characters change in Lerner shows. The ultimate turnaround comes at the end of My Fair Lady when Henry Higgins suddenly realizes, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face.” And this song is brilliant because it’s so true to the character of Higgins. No belting out “She Loves Me!” but this man who has always kept his emotions in reserve (well, mostly, except for looking down on those he considers beneath him) suddenly finds his heart beating from emotion not exertion and sees how much he loves Eliza and how much a fool he’s been. That’s a lot for one song to carry, but Lerner pulls it off brilliantly. And parenthetically it puts the lie to the current production of MFL where Eliza has a “me too” moment. When Higgins tells Eliza to fetch him his slippers she realizes that despite his inability to express real emotion he’s asking her to accept him as he is, a changed man.

We are lucky that Lerner’s career landed smack dab at the start of most shows getting original cast recordings, so the majority of this shows and film scores have been recorded. Yes, Life of the Party, What’s Up?, and The Day Before Spring arrived (and failed) just as Oklahoma! ushered in a new era in original cast recordings. Love Life was caught up in the musician’s strike (and boy do we need a complete recording of that!). And his later shows, Lolita, My Love and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue were also flops but full recordings of them are also needed.

Still, we’re very lucky to have Alan Jay Lerner’s great works available at the click of a mouse or keyboard. During this centennial year let’s take a new look at shows we think we know backwards and forwards. Even My Fair Lady has new things to discover. Witticisms and emotions we forgot or were too young to understand. And as we age, we have a different perspective that we had in our callow youth.

Lerner, unlike other songwriters never saw a gradual decline in his talent. His lyrics are just as shrewd and observational and emotional as in his prime. For myself I’m celebrating his centennial year listening to all his shows (see Erik’s column for the full list) in chronological order starting at Brigadoon and going all the way to Dance a Little Closer and a few songs from his last, unproduced show, My Man Godfrey.

I suggest you do the same.

 


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