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The Lerner Letters: Part 2 – Lerner and Loewe

This is the second of a three-part series from Dominic McHugh on the correspondence of Alan Jay Lerner. Read the previous letters to Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. The next installment will appear on Tuesday, 23 December 2014.

Amongst the many famous people Lerner corresponded with, Frederick Loewe is naturally the most important in terms of musical collaborators. Yet sadly, correspondence between Lerner and Loewe is quite rare. I found only a few letters between them during the course of the research for the book, and was particularly disappointed by the lack of letters from their early years. They must have written many letters over the forty-odd years they knew each other, and it would have been particularly fascinating to have been able to chart every move of this legendary collaboration. (Incidentally, letters between Rodgers and Hammerstein are also quite rare; of course, composer-lyricist teams spend a lot of time together, and don’t always need to collaborate through the mail.)

Nevertheless, the letters that have survived are quite wonderful. For example, a letter from May 1956 – not long after their biggest hit, My Fair Lady, had opened – indicates the warmth of their relationship at this point, as well as their close interest in business matters:

There has been a lot of interest motion picture wise in the last couple of weeks and Irving has worked out a formula which he will, of course, go over with Ben, whereby whatever sum is paid for the picture rights will exclude GBS. He will get his on the gross later on. In other words, if the property sells for a million dollars, which is certainly the mini­mum, we will be able to divide it on the usual basis.

The songs are doing absolutely wonderfully. Vic Damone’s record in the last seven days has begun to crash through and you hear it all the time. Not only that, but “On The Street Where You Live” is get­ting wonderful plugging on radio and TV; in fact, all three of the songs are. Rosemary Clooney is making another record of “I Could Have Danced All Night” this week and the old record is being withdrawn. I have been keeping after Goddard [Lieberson] and Mitch and I’m going to try and get them to make another record of “Accustomed” with a male singer.

Did I tell you last time about the Actors Benefit? I don’t think so. Anyhow it was the goddamnedest night of all time. It made the opening night look like a Hadassah benefit. The laughter was enormous on every point; practically every song stopped the show and the ovation at the end was something I’ll never forget as long as I live. When Rex and Julie stepped out of the line for their final bow, the entire audience stood up like one person and shouted. There were over seven minutes of curtain calls. Comments at the end were something I’ve never heard before. It was an absolutely incredible experience and I can’t tell you how much I wish you’d been there. Rex told me later it was the most extraordinary night in his entire theatrical career. Incidentally, Rex gave the greatest performance I’ve ever seen him give and it was fascinating to see how the actors knew that his was the really great performance of the show. His ovation was tumultuous.

[…] The French play I told you about looks fascinating and Moss and I have also been kick­ing other things around from time to time. I am sure when you come home that it won’t take too long for us to decide on something. I want you to know, incidentally, that for the first time in my life, I am not bursting to go to work. The only reason I am doing what I am doing is just to keep my mind occupied in a vague way. However, I am sure this lethargy won’t last forever and the minute we’re together again, the old sparks will begin to fly.

Here, we see them discussing a possible film version of Fair Lady already (it didn’t appear for another eight years); some cover versions of a couple of the songs by popular singers Vic Damone and Rosemary Clooney, released to boost interest in the show; and a special Actors Benefit performance, at which Rex Harrison had evidently given an especially electric performance. Then, the final paragraph offers a vivid insight into the affectionate relationship between Lerner and Loewe at the time, with reference to “the old sparks flying.”

By the 1980s, however, the previous warmth had gone. Two letters regarding the revised stage version of the movie Gigi, which was being put on in London under Lerner’s supervision but without any input from Loewe, reveal high levels of tension between them:

There has been so much legal back and forthing about what songs can or cannot be used in “Gigi” that I thought, perhaps, I could cut through it all by giving you a history of the enterprise over here.

[…]The idea of bringing “Gigi” to London originated over a year and a half ago with Cameron Mackintosh, who, as you know, did “My Fair Lady” and did us proud. It was while Cam was planning it that John Dexter, who certainly in everybody’s opinion is one of the best directors in the world, became involved. What Dexter had in mind, and God knows I agreed with him and I am sure you would, too, was to capture the intimacy of the film— which, as we know, did not have the usual M-G-M production numbers, etcetera—but, at the same time, not be haunted by the film. It would be a true theatrical piece and not what Gerald Bordman, in his authoritative History of the Musical Theatre when writing about “Gigi,” said: “Lerner and Loewe’s enchanting film musical was lifted off the screen and set down uncomfortably on the legitimate stage. The translation from film script to play script was mere hack work.”

Rehearsals are to begin a week from today and last week was the first time we heard that you only wished songs from the film to be used. If your desire was conditioned by the success of Louis Jourdan’s production, let me assure you it was dreadful and only successful in places because of Louis combined with “Gigi.” When I read the script, I told Dave Grossberg to make certain it never appeared within 150 miles of New York. Even Cam, when he saw it, was appalled.

Also, the fact is at this point that management has rights that can­not be withdrawn. The Dramatists’ Guild Law and the law over here is that only one of the authors’ signatures is required. The reason for this is that if the other author (or authors) is unhappy, he can have his ver­sion done by someone else. Because I signed the contract with the full confidence that you would be as pleased about the production as I, the producers now have the right to the stage version.[…]

The rest of the letter offers more detail, but the situation was this: Loewe tried to wield his legal rights over Lerner, who was making changes to the score on his own in London, and Lerner replied by explaining that he had the legal right to do so in the UK. Twenty-five years after they had taken Broadway by storm in a series of musicals including Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady, and Camelot, the golden partnership had been reduced to bitterness. Yet, as the letters from the 1950s reveal, at the height of their fame they had been intimately connected and deeply affectionate.

 Headline Image: Old Letters. CC0 via Pixabay

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