Alan Jay Lerner wrote some of the biggest Hollywood and Broadway hits of all time - An American in Paris, My Fair Lady, Gigi, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever... He also made an accidental, enduring and to him faintly embarrassing contribution to presidential myth-making with Camelot (which I discuss here). Alan was by profession a librettist - which is to say he wrote all the words, sung or spoken, for musical plays and films. But he disliked the word ever since he'd overheard a New York society lady say she'd been to the opera last night to see Verdi's Libretto. So he called himself a playwright-lyricist, and the plays won Oscars and Tonys and the lyrics produced Number One records from very unlikely sources, including Lee Marvin's croaky chart-topper from Paint Your Wagon, "(I was born under a) Wand'rin' Star".
Alan was born under a wand'rin' star (at least woman-wise) one hundred years ago, on August 31st 1918 in New York City. That year his dad and his uncle, blouse makers, founded their first Lerner Shop in the city. Within twelve months, they'd opened eighteen more. (Lerner Shops are also celebrating their centenary this year, as NY&C - New York & Company.) Alan grew up rich, chauffeured to school with John F Kennedy. He once said to me that, around the time he began writing for radio and stage and films, it occurred to him that no matter how much success he had he would never be as wealthy as he had been as a kid, and he found the thought oddly liberating. Which was just as well, given the multiple marriages and IRS troubles that persisted till after his death. I knew him in the last years of his life, when he was living happily in London - in Bramerton Street, off the King's Road - with his eighth wife and sole widow, Liz Robertson. He was urbane, witty, charming, had good aphorisms and a faintly distracting eye that had no sight due to a boyhood boxing injury. Alan was sportier than many men of letters: Once, recuperating from another athletic mishap, he told me Sammy Cahn had called and demanded to know, "Why are you playing tennis? Does McEnroe write lyrics?"
In fact, the strain on his body of recovering from that tennis accident unleashed the cancer that would eventually kill him. "These days," he said to me not long before his death, "I'm less interested in success or failure than in avoiding humiliation." He worked to the end, including a few songs with Andrew Lloyd Webber for an upcoming project from which ill health forced him to withdraw: It was called Phantom of the Opera, and would not have been a humiliation.
But for this centennial song from the Lerner catalogue I've gone back to the dawn of his career, before the big successes, and the failures and humiliations. What follows includes material from my book A Song for the Season (personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore).
I'm a big fan of the Harold Ramis movie Groundhog Day, and I especially treasure its cute little musical joke right at the very end. Bill Murray's weatherman leaves his Punxsutawney bed-and-breakfast and yes, at last it's the morning after Groundhog Day. And, as he and Andie MacDowell take off down the street, Nat "King" Cole sings:
What a day this has been
What a rare mood I'm in...
What a day this has been – over and over and over. The song is "Almost Like Being In Love", written for Brigadoon, a musical about a Scottish village that only comes to life for one day in every hundred years. What better number to end a movie about a guy who has to live one day again and again for what must have seemed like a hundred years? American audiences heard "Almost Like Being In Love" for the very first time circa Groundhog Day 1947. The show was trying out in New Haven, ahead of two weeks in Boston, then on to Philly, and finally a Broadway opening at the Ziegfeld in March. Did audiences hearing that song for the first time realize they were getting in on the ground floor of an enduring popular standard? "The audience on opening night," Alan Jay Lerner recalled, "seemed to me more appreciative than enthusiastic, but perhaps I was too numb to distinguish the difference. I do remember, however, that during the second act there were several departures. It may have been less than half a dozen, but to me it seemed like a thundering herd."
Maybe they were just heading to the record store: Sinatra got to the song immediately, and Cole and Ella and Chet Baker and Mildred Bailey followed. Not to mention Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Oscar Peterson, Gerry Mulligan and what seemed at one point to be just about every other hep cat: it was Alan Lerner and Fritz Loewe's first standard, and from a self-consciously folky Caledonian semi-operetta. But jazz instrumentalists loved it. "Fritz was the greatest melodist since Jerome Kern," Alan once said to me. "There was wistful tenderness to his melody, plus a soaring quality. Fundamentally, he didn't have rhythm, but he did have tempo. So, although his music doesn't have the afterbeat of jazz, he often swings without realizing it. For example, 'Almost Like Being In Love' can swing, but it also has a great melody." The Nat Cole record certainly swings. That's what makes it such a terrific end to Groundhog Day. Bill Murray has been liberated from his imprisonment by calendar, and life is about to begin again, literally. The song captures that exhilaration:
Oh, the music of life seems to be
Like a bell that is ringing for me!
And from the way that I feel
When that bell starts to peal...
Lerner & Loewe were promising nobodies in 1947, but they went on to rival Rodgers & Hammerstein as the acknowledged masters of the musical play. The Fifties, as Alan liked to describe it, were "one glorious season", and certainly for them: Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady, Camelot, plus a detour to Hollywood for Gigi. It made them fabulously wealthy. Lerner once told me an anecdote the details of which I can't recall but which had the striking punchline: "The Duchess of Windsor's air conditioning is dripping on my Rolls." Then Loewe retired to Palm Springs and the Riviera, spent the rest of his life at the gaming tables, and managed to keep most of his dough. Lerner opted for serial matrimony and ended his days a wholly owned subsidiary of the Internal Revenue Service and seven ex-wives.
Fritz Loewe was born in Berlin in 1901, the son of a tenor who went on to play Prince Danilo in The Merry Widow and a woman who later claimed to be the mistress of the Archduke Franz-Ferdinand. As His Highness was assassinated at Sarajevo in 1914, he was unable to corroborate the story, but, in amongst the geopolitical turmoil his death set in motion, it's nice to think that one of the benefits was that it sent Mr and Mrs Loewe scuttling west, to the land of opportunity. At the age of 15, Fritz had written a Mitteleuropean million-seller called "Katrina". It was his first hit song, and his last until "Almost Like Being In Love" over 30 years later. Instead, as a young Austrian in America, he became a cowboy, a gold prospector and then a prizefighter. With hindsight, it would be easy to read this lively résumé as an overly ambitious attempt at cultural assimilation, lacking as it does only a spell as comic-book illustrator and G-man. But such an interpretation would be mistaken. Richard Rodgers once described Jerome Kern as a composer with one foot in the Old World, one in the New. But that still puts him one foot ahead of Loewe. Panning for gold, branding his longhorns, tying his four-legged friend to the hitching post outside the Dead Man's Gulch saloon, Fritz Loewe's feet nevertheless remained, musically speaking, firmly in Old Vienna. Jazz, swing, musical comedy passed him by, and it wasn't until the mid-1940s that the Rodgers & Hammerstein school of musical play – Oklahoma!, Carousel – created a more hospitable climate for Loewe's talents.
In 1942, looking for the men's room at the Lambs Club in New York, he bumped into Alan Jay Lerner, a moneyed young man struggling to break into showbusiness despite the crippling burdens of having been educated at Bedales in England and then, back in America, at Choate, where his classmates included John F Kennedy. Lerner and Loewe had very little in common except that (as I can testify from experience) both had a tendency to address one as "Dear boy". Whether Lerner acquired the affectation from Loewe or vice-versa, it somehow encapsulates what set them apart from more indigenous Broadway teams.
Otherwise, they were opposites: Loewe wrote fast, musical ideas dashed off almost insouciantly. For My Fair Lady, Lerner suggested a musical elocution lesson built around the phrase "The rain in Spain". Loewe said, "Good. I'll write a tango" – and played the main theme there and then. Lerner, on the other hand, sweated over every phrase. He wore white gloves when he wrote - to prevent him gnawing his fingers to the bone. He had a special desk made so that he could write standing up: if he sat down, he focused so hard on the lyric that he'd go into a kind of catatonic state. To the end of his life, he was a great disdainer of that songwriter's standby, the anthropomorphized heart, citing the famous song from The Sound Of Music in which young Sister Maria declares that her cardiac muscle wants to leap, sigh, laugh, sing, etc. "One chorus and I need an oxygen tent," said Alan. Nevertheless, agonizing over the lyric to "I Could Have Danced All Night", he found himself forced to fall back on "When all at once my heart took flight." He never liked it, swore he'd come up with something better, yet never could.
Most Broadway musicals are adaptations, and, unlike most of their peers, Lerner & Loewe opted for Old World material, the older and worldlier the better: Shaw, Colette, Lancelot and Guinevere. But for Brigadoon Lerner did something very rare in the theatre: he wrote a hit musical from scratch. No source material, no novel, no play, no nothing. As he recalled it, it began with an aside by Fritz Loewe that "faith can move mountains". Lerner was struck by the familiar phrase: how about a play in which faith literally moved a mountain? He went through various plots with various insurmountable obstacles before he hit on a story in which faith moves a town – into the mists from which it re-emerges for only one day every hundred years.
He loved J M Barrie, not the Barrie of Peter Pan but the Barrie of Auld Licht Idylls and A Window Of Thrums and other whimsies of the brae life. So he set it in Scotland, in the here and now - 1946 - with two Americans on a hunting trip. They lose their way midst the heather and thistle and find themselves in a village that didn't seem to be there a minute ago. And, as the day proceeds, they notice various oddities. It's not just that nobody has a telephone but that nobody's heard of a telephone. And why does the young bridegroom sign his Bible with the year "1746"? Eventually, the schoolmaster Mr Lundie fills in the befuddled Yanks. In a bit of backstory that rings oddly topical, the minister at the kirk had been worried about the decadent ways of the modern world encroaching on their life and so one night, on a hill on the outskirts of town, he sought advice from the Big Guy:
There in the hush of a sleepin' world, he asked God that night to make Brigadoon an' all the people in it vanish into the Highland mist.Vanish, but not for always. It would all return jus' as it was for one day every hundred years. The people would go on leadin' their customary lives; but each day when they awakened it would be a hundred years later. An' when we awoke the next day, it was a hundred years later.
Hmm. For the score, Lerner & Loewe stayed in period, or at any rate Broadway period: "Waitin' For My Dearie", "I'll Go Home With Bonnie Jean", "The Heather On The Hill". But they needed songs for the Americans, too. And so Tommy, recovering from a love affair gone south in New York, finds himself strangely taken by the wee highland lassie Fiona:
Maybe the sun gave me the pow'r
For I could swim Loch Lomon'
An' be home in
Half an hour
Maybe the air gave me the drive
For I'm all aglow and alive!
What a day this has been...
He doesn't yet know how precious that day and any remaining half-hours will be, nor how lucky he is to find Fiona similarly aglow and alive. Lerner was the most anglophile of Broadway lyricists but for his American protagonist he provided an American rhyme:
What a day this has bin
What a rare mood I'm in...
A London writer would have rhymed "been" with "scene", "lean", "sheen". When Britain's Tommie Connor conceived the premise for "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus", he wanted to have an American hit – which is why it's "mommy" not "mummy", and "Santa" not "Father Christmas". But he gives away his foreignness at the close:
What a laugh it would have been
If Daddy had only seen
Mommy kissing Santa Claus last night.
If you listen to 99 per cent of the recordings of that song – country, rock, easy listening, r'n'b, whatever – they all blow the rhyme: they sing "bin" and "seen", which is how it reads in American. Lerner's "bin"/"in" couplet rhymes correctly, at least for his New York chappie. When Fiona takes up the song, I defer to those more versed in Scots dialect to determine whether that pairing would have been correct for her. But, in fact, Lerner solves the problem by having her sing something else entirely:
When we walked through the brae
Not a word did we say
It was Almost Like Being In Love...
Very cunning. Keep the local color for the second chorus. There's no mention of braes and such in the first set of words: otherwise your chances of landing a Nat Cole record on the song would be greatly diminished. The scene is charmingly tentative in the stage version. Half a decade later, when Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse starred in the film adaptation, the number was inflated and opened up to almost preposterous levels, with Kelly doing that old thing he fell back on time and again, where you demonstrate the ardor of your passion by an apparent inability to run in a straight line. So he zig-zags through the heather to his dearie stopping to bellow every few bars. He looks weirdly self-satisfied throughout the exercise: if he's almost in love with anyone, they should make the most of it; the number gives the impression he's totally in love with himself. That's another nice aspect of its deployment in Groundhog Day: it gets the size of the song just right.
At the end of his life, Alan told me that he'd been approached by some developer about opening a Brigadoon theme park in Scotland. Hard to see why they'd need one. Given the lavish number of public holidays showered on the populace by their pseudo-independent government, the entire country's on course to become a modified Brigadoon: a quaint lost kingdom that emerges from the mists and shows up for work one day every hundred years. Besides, it's hard to see why they need an actual Brigadoon when to the end of his days Lerner received letters from people claiming to have visited the real village on which he "based" the story.
It was, of course, his story all along, although not everyone was inclined to give credit. While broadly well disposed to the show, George Jean Nathan of The New York Times accused Lerner of "barefaced plagiarism". The plot of Brigadoon, he claimed, was lifted from the German story Germelshausen, by Friedrich Wilhelm Gerstacker. Three decades later, this charge so rankled Lerner that he took the occasion of his autobiography to slap down the late critic:
Nathan developed a high-school crush on the leading lady, invited her frequently to supper, and sent her all his books, each inscribed with an adolescent expression of endearment. One weekend he called to ask her out and discovered she was visiting me in the country, not for artistic reasons. This so enraged him that he devoted his entire next week's column to how I had stolen the plot of Brigadoon... To this day chroniclers of the musical theatre invariably state Brigadoon was based on a folk tale and give Nathan as their authority.
Oh, dear. I tend to agree with Gene Lees in his biography of Lerner & Loewe:
This denunciation of Nathan, published 31 years after the event, is almost as petty and bitchy as Nathan's original charge... Lerner's comment that the leading lady was visiting him in the country 'not for artistic reasons' smacks of that sexual boasting that most men find extremely distasteful in the comparatively few men who indulge in it.
Indeed. A voracious womanizer, Alan was oddly insecure in such matters. Gene Lees tracked down the leading lady in question, Marion Bell, and asked her about it. She said:
George Jean Nathan invited me to lunch. And that was to present me with an award. That's the only time I ever met the man. That's all I know about George Jean Nathan.
But what about all those adolescent inscriptions? All the billets doux he sent?
If he did, I never saw them.
At the time, Marion Bell and Alan Lerner were living together. He left his first wife for her and for 18 months or so she enjoyed the transient pleasure of being the second Mrs Lerner. If you've got eight wives, obviously you can't mention them all in a slim volume of memoirs. Yet to exclude any reference to Miss Bell except as an anonymous horizontal weekend in the country seems rather boorish. Almost like being in love, indeed. Still, it adds a slightly coded quality to the song. Perhaps, as a reader once suggested to me, Alan was recalling the first flush of that country weekend:
And from the way that I feel
When that Bell starts to peel...
Ah, well. If we measured the writers of love songs against their words, almost all would come up short. Most of us prefer to stick with the sheer joy in the music, which singers usually ratchet up a notch with a key change before the final eight and a big full-throated joyous holler through the home stretch:
And from the way that I feel
When that bell starts to peal
I could swear I was falling
Swear I was falling
It's Almost Like Being in Love!
Let Agnes de Mille, Brigadoon's star choreographer, have the final word. A much bigger name than the two relatively obscure writers, she loved the Caledonian flavor of the score. Except, that is, for "Almost Like Being In Love". "That song's all wrong," she told Lerner and Loewe. "Get rid of it."
~adapted from Mark's book A Song for the Season, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore - and, for Mark Steyn Club members, don't forget to enter the promo code to enjoy special member pricing not only on this book but on over forty other books, CDs and other products at the Steyn store.
There's more on Alan Jay Lerner in Mark's acknowledged classic Broadway Babies Say Goodnight.
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