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American Music from A to Z in the NLS Music Collection: L—Alan Jay Lerner (1918-1986) and Frederick Loewe (1901-1988)

Sometimes successful partnerships are brought about due to serendipity, hard work, or need. Lerner and Loewe achieved fame and the attention of the theater world with their combination of European ‘old-world’ Viennese style and interest in the ‘what if we could time travel?’ or ‘what if we could mold someone into perfection?’

Collaborative songwriting teams from the Broadway theater district always had their ears open to possibilities. In today’s terms, you might say they were always looking for a ‘hook’, a short but distinctive musical phrase that gets in your head and will not leave. Combined with a grounded education in the classical era, Lerner and Loewe managed to combine melodies with an operetta lilt but in English for the American audience. What happens if I ask you to think about “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady? The words and melody immediately start with the opening phrase “I have often walked…on this street before.” That resonates with many people once they’ve heard this lovely song.

Alan Jay Lerner studied music at Juilliard and continued studies at Harvard. He contributed theatrical material to radio programs. He was supported by Lorenz Hart, who he met at The Lambs Club (it’s still around near Times square!). Hart appreciated and recognized in Lerner his talents and creativity for lyrics, that most likely opened several doors.

Frederick Loewe, born in Germany, came from a theatrical family with both parents in the theater. His father appeared in operettas like The Merry Widow, no doubt planting a few melodies in Frederick’s ears for future reference. The entire family arrived in New York City in 1923, and his father was intending to make his Broadway debut, but unfortunately died before the show opened. The family remained in the U.S., and by 1931 Loewe was playing piano in New York nightclubs in the theater district. He kept his ‘gig’ going by playing in theater orchestras and writing songs for productions at The Lambs Club.

Loewe’s works were full of the Viennese style, but at the time Broadway shows were hot for jazz-inclined composers like George Gershwin and Cole Porter. Talk about competition! A fateful meeting at The Lambs Club with Lerner and an invitation to collaborate with him turned the corner for his career. Their first show on Broadway, What’s Up? (directed by George Balanchine, future New York City Ballet director), premiered in 1943. It had some competition. Oklahoma! premiered the same year and ran well beyond Lerner and Loewe’s 63 performances of What’s Up?

Still they appreciated the contrast of their qualities and recognized as a team, they could create good musical theater. Brigadoon premiered in 1947, featuring a fantasy of love conquering time set in Scotland. And of all things, a story about the California gold rush, Paint Your Wagon, opened in 1951. Seems cowboys and the American west were romanticized on Broadway with the success of Oklahoma! and Paint Your Wagon. I love imagining the first meeting when someone presented the idea of “the gold rush” as a subject for a musical.  I suspect there were more than a few pauses.

And what greater contrasts for a subject can you have than My Fair Lady? It ran for 2,717 performances, and while based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, it was Lerner’s prickly lyrics that called Shaw to mind.

Original poster for Broadway show "My Fair Lady" starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews.

Theater poster showing Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) and Liza Doolittle (Julie Andrews) as marionettes.

Other successes followed: Gigi, as a movie in 1958 and a stage musical version in 1973, and Camelot on stage in 1960. There were other musical collaborations with different composers; On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, (1965) by Lerner and Burton Lane, and Coco, (1969) a musical about Coco Chanel with Andre Previn.

In 1985 they were recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors. Their partnership reflected a time in American musical theater history of fantasy and romanticism. I would agree with Mr. Loewe on this quote from him in 1979, even today as we’ve shortened our attention span to a 20-second Tik-Tok video: “Contemporary music was so loud because contemporary life had become so loud.” We’re speeding up everything so much we’re possibly losing out on something beautiful.

Please note that all materials listed below are also available to borrow by mail, not only through BARD. Please contact the Music Section to borrow talking books on digital cartridge or to borrow hard copies of braille music. Call us at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected].

If you are new to BARD, you may find the following links helpful: Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access.

Get me to the Church. Words by Alan Jay Lerner; music by Frederick Loewe.

BRM33777

Best of Broadway: 80 great songs of the American musical theatre. Vocal and piano score. Line by line and bar over bar formats.

BRM27011

On the Street Where You Live from “My Fair Lady” by Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner. Arranged for brass sextet by John J. Morrissey.

BRM23178

My Fair Lady, choral selection. Music by Frederick Loewe; words by Alan Jay Lerner. Transcribed for four-part mixed voices (S.A.T.B.) by Clay Warnick.

BRM36386

I Could Have Danced All Night from “My Fair Lady.” Words by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe.

BRM08241

Camelot, vocal selection. Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; music by Frederick Loewe.

BRM 20342

My Fair Lady, vocal selections. Music by Frederick Loewe; lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner.

BRM32137

My Fair Lady, vocal selection. Music by Frederick Loewe; lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner.

BRM18815

Wand’rin’ Star from Paint your Wagon. Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; music by Frederick Loewe.

BRM21924

“Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot”

Poster for the Broadway musical "Camelot" starring Julie Andrews, William Squire, Robert Coote, and Robert Goulet.

Poster for “Camelot” shows drawings of King Arthur, Queen Guenevere, Sir Lancelot, coats of arms, and the outline of a castle.

 

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