Lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe were one of the most successful and celebrated songwriting partnerships of the twentieth century. Alan Jay Lerner had attended the independent Bedales School in Hampshire, England and the Choate School in Connecticut as well as studying at the Julliard School of Music and Harvard University where he first started writing for the theatre. Music was in Frederick Loewe's blood from birth and his professional singer father encouraged his son's ambitions with piano lessons and as a teenager, he made his debut playing with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. Having studied with the composers and pianists Ferruccio Busoni, Eugene d'Albert and Emil von Rezniek Loewe intended to pursue a classical career in the USA but with no suitable openings found himself an itinerant pianist playing in cocktail bars, restaurants and cinemas where he would accompany silent films.
Lerner and Loewe first met in 1942 at the Lamb's Club, a New York club popular with theatrical people and the two decided to pool their talents and start writing together. Their first collaboration was the Detroit production of Life Of The Party that gained them positive
critical reviews, as did the subsequent What's Up" (1943) (their first Broadway show) followed by The Day Before Spring (1945). The duo's first major success was 1947's musical fantasy Brigadoon which yielded the wonderful song 'Almost Like Being In Love' and apart from going on to enjoy a run of 685 performances in London's West End in 1949 it also spawned the hugely successful 1954 movie version starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. After such a popular debut, expectation was high and Lerner & Loewe were disappointed with the mixed reviews that greeted 1951's Broadway production of Paint Your Wagon that contained the songs 'I Talk To The Trees', 'They Call The Wind Maria' and '(I Was Born Under A) Wand'rin Star'. Fortunately the West End run
enjoyed a warmer reception and the 1969 film version went on to become a huge success, even with the male leads being taken by the popular if unlikely pairing of Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. Marvin's totally flat bass notes in the hit surprise single '(I Was Born Under A) Wand'rin Star' have to be heard to be believed.
Their next musical proved to be a career highpoint and an enduring classic. My Fair Lady opened on Broadway in 1956 and was full of wonderful exuberant songs including 'Wouldn't It Be Loverly"', 'With A Little Bit Of Luck', 'The Rain In Spain', 'I Could Have Danced All Night, 'Get Me To The Church On Time' and the sentimental ballads 'On The Street Where You Live' and 'I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face'. The show ran for 2,717 performances, won seven Tony Awards while the original cast album, starring Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews and Stanley Holloway spent fifteen weeks at the top of the US charts and was the best selling album of the year. Most of the cast remained on board when the show opened in London and it has been revived several time since. The magnificent 1964 film (starring Harrison and Holloway although Andrews was replaced by Audrey Hepburn) won eight Oscars. The songwriting team's next success was the 1958 movie Gigi, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starred Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Louis Jourdan and Hermione Gingold. The movie produced further future classic popular songs in the shape of 'Thank Heaven For Little Girls', 'The Night They Invented Champagne', 'I Remember It Well' and 'Gigi' itself. It went on to better My Fair Lady's award tally by receiving nine Oscars.
The duo returned with what would be their last original work for Broadway in 1960 with Camelot, another well received production that boasted a cast of stars including Julie Andrews, Richard Burton, Roddy McDowall and Robert Goulet and contained the outstanding songs 'If Ever I Would Leave You' and 'How To Handle A Woman'. After Camelot, Loewe retired while Lerner collaborated with a number of other composers including André Previn, John Barry, Leonard Bernstein, Burton Lane and Charles Strouse before persuading his old partner to help expand the score and write four new songs for a Broadway version of their movie Gigi in 1973. The following year they worked together one last time on the gentle fantasy film The Little Prince and despite ending their professional relationship the pair remained good friends.
Still an active writer Lerner died from lung cancer at the age of sixty-seven in June 1986 while Loewe passed away less than two years later in February 1988 aged eighty-six. Despite their output being relatively meagre when compared to many other great songwriting teams, the quality of their most successful shows is undisputed. Although the scenarios of those shows varied wildly, at their core they were all simple uplifting love stories and with words and melody Lerner & Loewe were masterful at conveying that most elusive of emotions. To imagine the history of the stage and film musical without the contribution of My Fair Lady, Camelot or Gigi is unthinkable while the greatest of the songs in their catalogue are objects of extraordinary life enriching pleasure of simple lyrics and great melody.
Copyright © 2016 Omnibus Press