Alan Jay Lerner Biography

31 August 1918, New York, USA, d. June 1986. A lyricist and librettist, and one of the most eminent and literate personalities in the history of the Broadway musical theatre, Lerner played the piano as a child, and studied at the Juilliard School of Music, the Bedales public school in England, and Harvard University, where he took a Bachelor of Science degree in the late 30s. After working as a journalist and radio scriptwriter, he met composer Frederick Loewe at the Lamb’s Club in 1942. Also a pianist, Loewe had moved to the USA in 1924, and had previously been involved in some unsuccessful musical shows. The new team’s first efforts, What’s Up? and The Day Before Spring (1945; ‘A Jug Of Wine’, ‘I Love You This Morning’), did not exactly set Broadway alight, but two years later, they had their first hit with Brigadoon. Lerner’s whimsical fantasy about a Scottish village that only comes to life every 100 years, contained ‘Waitin’ For My Dearie’, ‘I’ll Go Home With Bonnie Jean’, ‘The Heather On The Hill’, ‘Come To Me, Bend To Me’, ‘From This Day On’, and the future standard, ‘Almost Like Being In Love’. A film version was made in 1954, starring Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse and Van Johnson.

After Brigadoon, Lerner collaborated with Kurt Weill on the vaudeville-style Love Life (1948), and then spent some time in Hollywood writing the songs, with Burton Lane, for Royal Wedding (1951). Among them was the long titled, ‘How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You (When You Know I’ve Been A Liar All My Life?)’, expertly manipulated by Fred Astaire and Jane Powell. Another of the numbers, ‘Too Late Now’, sung by Powell, was nominated for an Academy Award. In the same year, Lerner picked up an Oscar for his story and screenplay for George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin’s musical film An American In Paris (1951). Also in 1951, Lerner reunited with Loewe for the ‘Gold Rush’ Musical, Paint Your Wagon. The colourful score included ‘They Call The Wind Maria’, ‘I Talk To The Trees’, ‘I Still See Elisa’, ‘I’m On My Way’ and ‘Wand’rin’ Star’, which, in the 1969 movie, received a lugubrious reading from Lee Marvin. Precisely the opposite sentiments prevailed in My Fair Lady (1956), Lerner’s adaptation of Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, which starred Rex Harrison as the irascible Higgins, and Julie Andrews as Eliza (‘I’m a good girl, I am’). Sometimes called ‘the most perfect musical’, Lerner and Loewe’s memorable score included ‘Why Can’t The English?’, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?’, ‘The Rain In Spain’, ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’, ‘On The Street Where You Live’, ‘Show Me’, ‘Get Me To The Church On Time’, ‘A Hymn To Him’, ‘Without You’ and ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face’. ‘Come To The Ball’, originally written for the show, but discarded before the opening, was, subsequently, often performed, particularly by Lerner himself. After a run of 2, 717 performances on Broadway, and 2, 281 in London, the show was filmed in 1964, when Andrews was replaced by Audrey Hepburn (dubbed by Marni Nixon). The Broadway Cast album went to number 1 in the US charts, sold over five million copies, and stayed in the Top 40 for 311 weeks.

In 1958 Lerner was back in Hollywood, with a somewhat reluctant Loewe, for one of the last original screen musicals, the charming Gigi. Lerner’s stylish treatment of Colette’s turn-of-the-century novella, directed by Vincente Minnelli, starred Maurice Chevalier, Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan and Hermione Gingold, and boasted a delightful score that included ‘The Night They Invented Champagne’, ‘Say A Prayer For Me Tonight’, ‘I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore’, ‘Thank Heaven For Little Girls’, ‘Waltz At Maxim’s’, ‘She Is Not Thinking Of Me’ and the touching ‘I Remember It Well’, memorably performed by Chevalier and Gingold. Lerner won one of the film’s nine Oscars for his screenplay, and another, with Loewe, for the title song.

Two years later, Lerner and Loewe returned to Broadway with Camelot, a musical version of the Arthurian legend, based on T.H. White’s The Once And Future King. With Julie Andrews, Richard Burton and Robert Goulet, plus a fine score that included ‘C’Est Moi’, ‘The Lusty Month Of May’, ‘If Ever I Would Leave You’, ‘Follow Me’, ‘How To Handle A Woman’ and the title song, the show ran on Broadway for two years. During that time it became indelibly connected with the Kennedy presidency: ‘for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot’. The 1967 movie version was poorly received. In the early 60s, partly because of the composer’s ill health, Lerner and Loewe ended their partnership, coming together again briefly in 1973 to write some new songs for a stage presentation of Gigi, and, a year later, for the score to the film The Little Prince. Lerner’s subsequent collaborators included Burton Lane forOn A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965) (‘Come Back To Me’, ‘On The S.S. Bernard Cohn’, and others). Lerner won a Grammy Award for the title song, and maintained that it was his most frequently recorded number. He wrote with Lane again in 1979 for Carmelina. In the interim he collaborated with André Previn for Coco (1969), which had a respectable run of 332 performances, mainly due to its star, Katherine Hepburn, and with Leonard Bernstein for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976).

Lerner’s last musical, Dance A Little Closer (1983), which starred his eighth wife, English actress Liz Robertson, closed after one performance. They had met in 1979 when he directed her, as Eliza, in a major London revival of My Fair Lady. Shortly before he died of lung cancer in June 1986, he was still working on various projects, including a musical treatment of the 30s film comedy My Man Godfrey, in collaboration with pianist-singer Gerard Kenny, and Yerma, based on the play by Federico García Lorca. Frederick Loewe, who shared in Lerner’s triumphs, and had been semi-retired since the 60s, died in February 1988. In 1993, New Yorkers celebrated the 75th anniversary of Lerner’s birth, and his remarkable and fruitful partnership with Loewe, with The Night They Invented Champagne: The Lerner And Loewe Revue, which played for a season at the Rainbow and Stars. Six years later the team’s contribution to the recording industry was recognized by the NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Science), and their Trustees’ Non-Performer Grammy Awards.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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