The collaborative team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe dominated the Broadway stage and American musical theater from 1947 into the 1960s and their musicals – Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, and Camelot – still live on in revival performances and in their movie versions.
Lerner was the playwright and lyricist, while Loewe composed the music.
Alan Jay Lerner was born on August 31, 1918, one of three sons of Joseph Lerner, the founder of Lerner Stores, Inc. He had a good education, which took him to Harvard, and he studied at the Juilliard School of Music during his vacations from Harvard. He had done sketches and lyrics for two Harvard Hasty Pudding shows. He graduated Harvard in 1940 and wrote advertising copy and scripts for such radio shows as the Philco Hall of Fame.
“Fritz” Loewe was older, having been born on June 10, 1904, in Vienna, Austria, the son of Edmund Loewe, a well-known operetta tenor. (Operetta, best known for the works by Gilbert & Sullivan, was the forerunner of American musicals.) A precocious youth, Loewe was playing piano at 4 and had by 9 composed the tunes for a music hall sketch with which his father toured Europe. At 15 he had a hit song with “Katrina,” which sold three million copies in Europe. In 1924 he came with his father to America, but his initial engagements at New York’s Town Hall and the Rivoli Theatre did not lead to follow-up bookings. The following decade saw him struggling with a variety of jobs, from cafeteria busboy to boxing, gold mining, cowpunching, and riding instructor. But in 1935 his song, “Love Tiptoes Through My Heart,” was used in the musical Petticoat Fever. Emboldened, he presented his own musical, Salute to Spring, in St. Louis in 1937. In 1938 his Great Lady got to Broadway, but had only 20 performances.
The two met by chance at the Lambs Club in New York City in 1942. And began to make history. Their first collaboration was Life of the Party, in 1942 – an adaptation of Barry Conner’s farce, The Patsy – for a Detroit stock company. It ran for nine weeks, and they followed it with a musical comedy, What’s Up?, which ran for 63 performances on Broadway in 1943. In 1945 they did The Day Before Spring.
But these were just warm-ups for what was to come. On March 13, 1947 the curtain went up for the first time on Brigadoon. This one was a solid hit. Based on Germelshausen, by Friedrich Gerstacker, it concerns a mysterious, now Scottish, town which reappears to the outside world for only one day each century. The original production at the Ziegfield Theatre ran for 581 performances, and led to the 1954 movie adaptation, which featured Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse and Van Johnson. The New York Drama Critics Circle voted it the “best musical” the year it opened and it has been revived frequently over the years.
During the next few years Lerner was busy, writing Love Life, with music by Kurt Weill, which was selected one of the best plays of the 1948-49 Broadway season. And he wrote the story, screenplay and lyrics for the film Royal Wedding, and the story and screenplay for An American in Paris, winning him an Oscar in 1951. He also did the story, screenplay and lyrics for the movie version of Brigadoon.
In 1951 Lerner & Loewe were back on Broadway with Paint Your Wagon, which opened at the Shubert Theatre on November 12th. It had a respectable run of 289 performances, and was made into the 1969 film which featured Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin and Jean Seberg.
Then came My Fair Lady. This was one of the biggest and most spectacular successes in American theater. The musical opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on March 15, 1956. It broke all existing world records, playing 2,717 performances over a period of more than nine years. Oddly, Lerner & Loewe got a shot at doing this adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1914 play, Pygmalion, only after Noel Coward and Rodgers & Hammerstein had passed it up. Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews starred on Broadway, but when the 1964 movie was made Andrews was rejected by the movie’s producers in favor of Audrey Hepburn, while Harrison kept his role.
The team collaborated on the film, Gigi, based on the novel by Colette, released in 1958. When first announced, the project was seen by some as a transparent attempt to repeat the team’s success with My Fair Lady – which, for contractual reasons, could not be filmed for years yet. Such doubts were dispelled when the film was released, and it subsequently won the Oscar for best picture of 1958. (A stage version of Gigi was mounted in 1973.)
Lerner & Loewe’s last Broadway hit was Camelot, which opened at the Majestic Theatre on December 3, 1960 and ran for 873 performances. In many minds it will always be linked with the presidency of John F. Kennedy, whose brief time in the White House has been compared with and likened to Camelot. The movie version was released in 1967. Loewe suffered a heart attack in 1958 and after Camelot went into retirement.
Lerner said in a tribute to Loewe, “There will never be another Fritz. Writing will never again be as much fun. A collaboration as intense as ours inescapably had to be complex. But I loved him more than I understood or misunderstood him, and I know he loved me more than he understood or misunderstood me.”
Alan Jay Lerner died June 14, 1986. Frederick Loewe died February 14, 1988.
A vast amount of memorabilia, theater programs, sheet music, posters, etc. exists from Lerner & Loewe’s Broadway hits and their subsequent movies. A quick search of eBay turned up only 18 items related to Brigadoon, but 167 items related to My Fair Lady and 186 items related to Camelot, with prices ranging from a few dollars to over one hundred dollars for rarer items. Original cast albums and movie soundtrack albums are also available.
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