Alan Jay Lerner (August 31, 1918 – June 14, 1986) was an American Broadway lyricist and librettist.
Life & Works
Lerner was born in New York City on August 31, 1918, the son of Joseph Jay Lerner, the wealthy owner of a chain of dress stores (the Lerner Stores). He was educated at Bedales School, Choate Rosemary Hall, and Harvard where a classmate and friend was John F. Kennedy. Like Cole Porter at Yale and Richard Rogers at Columbia his career in musical theater began with his collegiate contributions to the annual Harvard Hasty Pudding musicals.
Post graduation he wrote scripts for radio until in 1942 he was introduced to a down-on-his-heels Austrian composer Frederick Loewe, who needed a lyricist to work with him. The product of this first collaboration was a musical, "The Life of the Party" that closed out-of-town, but it initiated what would become one of Broadway's most successful partnerships.
Their first hit was Brigadoon (1947), a romantic fantasy set in a mystical Scottish village, directed by Robert Lewis. It was followed in 1951 by the less successful (but a still estimable run of 289 performances) Gold Rush story Paint Your Wagon.
Lerner, who had a greater desire to work than did Loewe, poured his excess energy into collaborations with Kurt Weill on the stage musical Love Life (1948) and Burton Lane on the movie musical Royal Wedding) (1951). (In that same year Lerner also wrote the Oscar-winning original screenplay for An American in Paris, produced by Arthur Freed and directed by Vincente Minelli. This was the same team who would later join with L & L to create Gigi)
In 1956 Lerner and Loewe unveiled their masterpiece, My Fair Lady.This adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion retained his social commentary, and added unusally appropriate songs for the characters of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins, played originally by Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. It was hugely popular and set box-office records in New York and London. When brought to the screen in 1964, the movie version would win seven Oscars.
Lerner and Loewe's run of success continued with their next project, a film adaptation of stories from Colette, the Academy Award winning film musical Gigi.
But the partnership cracked under the stress of producing the Arthurian Camelot in 1960, with Loewe resisting Lerner's desire to direct as well as write. Camelot was a hit nonetheless, with a poignant coda; immediately following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, his widow told Life Magazine that JFK's administration reminded her of the "one brief shining moment" of Lerner and Loewe's Camelot. To this day Camelot is invoked to describe the idealism, romance and tragedy of the Kennedy years.
Loewe retired to Palm Springs, California while Lerner went through a series of unsuccessful musicals with such esteemed composers as Andre Previn (Coco), John Barry (Lolita, My Love), Leonard Bernstein (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue), and Charles Strouse (Dance a Little Closer). The latter (nickamed "Close A Little Faster" by Broadway wags), based on the film, Idiot's Delight, closed after its first performance. In 1974 Lerner coaxed Fritz Loewe out of retirement to write the score for a musical film version of The Little Prince, based on the beloved children's tale by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. This film was a critical and box office failure, but has become a cult favorite, with the soundtrack recording and the film itself back in print (on CD and DVD) after many years of being unavailable.
At the time of Lerner's death he had just begun to write lyrics for The Phantom of the Opera (Charles Hart took over), and he had turned down an invitation to write the English-language lyrics for the musical version of Les Miserables. He had also been working on a musical version of the classic film My Man Godfrey. In 1978 he published his autobiography, The Street Where I Live.
Throughout Lerner's career, his lyrics captured a sense of romantic yearning, and included witty references and occasional double entendres. His librettos had smart one-liners but, with the exception of My Fair Lady and Brigadoon, were structurally flawed.
Lerner was a handsome, sophisticated gentleman with an addictive personality; for over 20 years he battled an amphetamine addiction, and Lerner would marry eight times (one ex-wife quipped, "Marriage is Alan's way of saying goodbye"). The drugs and divorces cost him much of his wealth. When he died, he reportedly owed the IRS over $1,000,000 (USD) in back taxes. Yet the only thing most remember about Lerner are his lyrics, among the most literate and passionate in 20th century popular music.
He died in Manhattan at the age of 67, on 14 June 1986, from lung cancer.
In addition to his autobiography Lerner also published in the last year of his life The Musical Theatre: A Celebration, a generally well received history of the Musical Theater replete with personal anecdotes and Lerner's trademark wit. He was inducted into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame in 1971
(All shows with music by Frederick Loewe, unless otherwise noted.)
(This listing does not include later films which used Lerner's songs as incidental music.)