By Rachelle Hughes
My Fair Lady has often been touted as the “most perfect musical.” The already successful team of Alan Jay Lerner, lyricist and librettist, and composer Frederick Loewe produced the adaptation of the infamous George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion starring Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle and Rex Harrison as Higgins. It was almost impossible for this 1956 Broadway show to fail. The winning combination of Shaw commentary, Lerner and Loewe musical genius, and Andrews and Harrison stage presence set box office records.
When Lerner and Loewe met in 1942, Lerner was busy writing radio sketches and other odd jobs in the musical entertainment industry and Loewe was struggling to gain attention for his work on musical plays such as Salute to Spring (1937) and Great Lady (1938). Then one day during lunch at the Manhattan’s Lamb’s Club, Lerner got the attention he had been craving and Loewe got the partner he needed. Loewe walked up to Lerner’s table. “You write good lyrics,” he said “Would you like to do a musical with me?” Lerner replied: “Yes, I happen to have two weeks off.”
The rest is musical theatre history. Their collaborations yielded a collection of musicals that generations of theatre-goers and classic film buffs continue to honor with the highest praises: Brigadoon (1947), Paint Your Wagon (1951), My Fair Lady (1956, film 1964), the film Gigi (1958) and Camelot (1960). Personal differences during the writing of Camelot caused them to end their collaboration but not their friendship.
The score and lyrics for My Fair Lady are among the most successful to emerge from American musical theatre. It is hard to resist such songs as “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?,” and “Rain in Spain.”
Alan Jay Lerner was born on August 31, 1918 in New York to a wealthy owner of a chain of dress shops (the Lerner Shops). Lerner’s musical education began with piano lessons as a child. He later studied at the Julliard School of Music, the Bedales Public School in England, and Harvard University. Although he had an impressive educational background, Lerner had to work his way to the stars. He spent time as a journalist and radio scriptwriter before he met Loewe.
Along with his successful collaborations with Loewe, Lerner wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for An American in Paris (1951). After Loewe’s retirement, Lerner’s collaborators included Burton Lane, Andre Previn, and Leonard Bernstein. But his greatest triumph would always be My Fair Lady which had a run of 2,717 performances on Broadway and 2,281 performances in London before it was filmed with Audrey Hepburn as Eliza. The Broadway cast album hit number one in the U.S. charts, selling over five million copies and staying in the top forty for 311 weeks.
Lerner had a knack for writing romantic lyrics; he also had a knack for romance: He married eight times (one colleague commented that “I never met a Mrs. Alan Jay Lerner I didn’t like”). Unfortunately, Lerner also had an addiction to amphetamines which he battled for over twenty years. In June of 1986 he lost his battle with lung cancer, yet he left behind a collection of legendary plays and songs that shaped musical theatre in his era.
Frederic Loewe was also destined for musical greatness from the moment he was born in Vienna, Austria in 1901 to a father who was a professional singer.
By age five Loewe was a child piano prodigy. At age seven he was composing his father’s presentations, and at thirteen he became the youngest soloist to appear with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. At age fifteen, he wrote the popular song “Katrina” that eventually sold one million copies of the sheet music.
In 1924 Loewe came to America where he failed to find work in the classical musical scene. Instead he found himself playing piano in restaurants and bars, and doing other odd menial jobs throughout the country, including boxing, prospecting and cow punching. By 1936 he managed to find his way back to New York City where he started writing music for Broadway revues. But he received little acclaim. After hearing some of Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics he boldly asked him to help him revamp the lyrics to “A Salute to Spring.”
Loewe retired to Palm Springs, California where he died in 1988. Loewe led an extraordinary life, sharing his gift of music with millions. With his death he continued to share his largesse. He left one-half of his musical royalties to the Desert Medical Center in Palm Springs. As partner Alan Jay Lerner once said, “There will never be another Fred Loewe.”
It could even be said that there will never be another musical writing duo like Loewe and Lerner. They gave us such a “loverly” time.