Alan Jay Lerner was an American lyricist and librettist. In collaboration with Frederick Loewe, he created some of the world's most popular and enduring works of musical theatre for both the stage and on film. He won three Tony Awards and three Academy Awards, among other honors.
Born in New York City, he was the son of Edith Adelson Lerner and Joseph Jay Lerner, whose brother, Samuel Alexander Lerner, was the founder and owner of the Lerner Stores, a chain of dress shops. Alan Jay Lerner was educated at Bedales School, Choate Rosemary Hall, and Harvard, where he was a classmate of John F. Kennedy, with whom he edited the yearbook. Like Cole Porter at Yale and Richard Rodgers at Columbia, his career in musical theater began with his collegiate contributions, in Lerner's case to the annual Harvard Hasty Pudding musicals. During the summers of 1936 and 1937, Lerner studied at Julliard. While attending Harvard, he lost his sight in his left eye due to an accident in the boxing ring. Apparently while at Harvard, both Lerner and Leonard Bernstein collaborated on a parody of their school song.
Due to his eye injury, Lerner could not serve in World War II. Instead, he wrote radio scripts, including Your Hit Parade, until he was introduced to Austrian composer Frederick Loewe, who needed a partner, in 1942 at the Lamb's Club. Their first collaboration was a musical adaptation of Barry Connor's farce The Patsy called Life of the Party for a Detroit stock company. It enjoyed a nine-week run and encouraged the duo to join forces with Arthur Pierson for What's Up? which opened on Broadway in 1943. It ran for 63 performances and was followed two years later by The Day Before Spring. One of Broadway's most successful partnerships had been established.
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 Gold Rush story Paint Your Wagon.
Lerner worked 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 Minnelli. This was the same team who would later join with Lerner and Loewe to create Gigi.
In 1956, Lerner and Loewe unveiled My Fair Lady. Their adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion retained his social commentary and added appropriate songs for the characters of Henry Higgins and Liza Doolittle, played originally by Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. It set box-office records in New York and London. When brought to the screen in 1964, the movie version would win eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Rex Harrison.
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, starring Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan, and Maurice Chevalier. The film won all of its nine Oscar nominations, a record at that point in time, and a special Oscar for co-star Maurice Chevalier.
The Lerner-Loewe partnership cracked under the stress of producing the Arthurian Camelot in 1960, with Loewe resisting Lerner's desire to direct as well as write when original director Moss Hart suffered a heart attack in the last few months of rehearsals and would die shortly after the show's premiere. Lerner was hospitalized with bleeding ulcers while Loewe continued to have heart troubles. 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 composers as André Previn (Coco), John Barry (Lolita, My Love), Leonard Bernstein (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue), Burton Lane (Carmelina) and Charles Strouse (Dance a Little Closer, based on the film, Idiot's Delight, nicknamed Close A Little Faster by Broadway wags because it closed on opening night). Most biographers blame Lerner's professional decline on the lack of not only a strong composer but a strong director whom Lerner could collaborate with, as Neil Simon did with Mike Nichols or Stephen Sondheim did with Harold Prince (Moss Hart, who had directed My Fair Lady, died shortly after Camelot opened). In 1965 Lerner collaborated again with Burton Lane on the musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, which was adapted for film in 1970. Lerner was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1971.
In 1973, Lerner coaxed Fritz Loewe out of retirement to augment the Gigi score for a musical stage adaptation. The following year they collaborated on a musical film version of The Little Prince, based on the classic children's tale by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. This film was a critical and box office failure but has gained a modern following.
Lerner's autobiography The Street Where I Live (1978), was an account of three of his and Loewe's successful collaborations, My Fair Lady, Gigi, and Camelot along with personal information. In the last year of his life, he published The Musical Theatre: A Celebration, a well-reviewed history of the theatre replete with personal anecdotes and his trademark wit. A book of Lerner's lyrics entitled A Hymn To Him, edited by Benny Green was published in 1987.
At the time of Lerner's death, he had just begun to write lyrics for The Phantom of the Opera and was replaced by Charles Hart. He also had been working with Gerard Kenny in London on a musical version of the classic film My Man Godfrey. He had turned down an invitation to write the English language lyrics for the musical version of Les Misérables.
After Lerner's death, Paul Blake made a musical revue based on Lerner's lyrics and life. Almost Like Being in Love featured music by Frederick Loewe, Burton Lane, Andre Previn, Charles Strouse, and Kurt Weill. The show ran for only ten days at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.
- Green, Stanley. The world of musical comedy (Edition 4, 1984), Da Capo Press, ISBN 0306802074
- Lerner, Alan Jay (1985). The Street Where I Live. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0306806029
- Shapiro, Doris (1989). We Danced All Night: My Life Behind the Scenes With Alan Jay Lerner. Barricade Books. ISBN 0942637984
- Jablonski, Edward (1996). Alan Jay Lerner: A Biography. Henry Holt & Co. ISBN 0805040765
- Citron, David (1995). The Wordsmiths: Oscar Hammerstein 2nd and Alan Jay Lerner. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195083865
- Green, Benny, Editor (1987). A Hymn to Him: The Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner. Hal Leonard Corporation. ISBN 0879101091
- Garebian, Keith (1998). The Making of My Fair Lady. Publisher: Mosaic Press. ISBN 0889626537
- Alan Jay Lerner at the Internet Off-Broadway Database
- Alan Jay Lerner at the Internet Movie Database
- Alan Jay Lerner at Find a Grave
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