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The Lerner Letters: Part 3 – the unknown collaborators

This is the final 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; to Frederick Loewe.

This final post on my collection of the lyricist Alan Jay Lerner focuses on another exciting series of letters: correspondence with famous composers with whom Lerner hoped to work, but never completed a musical. Some of these letters reveal how certain figures – such as Hoagy Carmichael – wrote to Lerner, but were politely declined. With others, he produced some work but then ended the project. Huckleberry Finn, for example, was a movie musical that Lerner started to write with Burton Lane for MGM in the 1950s, but didn’t see to completion (though the screenplay and most of the songs were drafted). He also worked for quite a long time with Arthur Schwartz, writing nine songs for an unmade early movie adaptation of Paint Your Wagon in 1953 and contemplating an adaptation of Li’l Abner (the project later moved on to other writers).

But the two most intriguing aborted collaborations were with two of the most famous composers who dominated twentieth-century Broadway: Richard Rodgers and Andrew Lloyd Webber. After the retirement of Frederick Loewe in 1960, Lerner started to look for a new composer to work with. Rodgers seemed a natural choice, since he too needed a new collaborator, following the death of Oscar Hammerstein II. They set to work on a musical called I Picked a Daisy, which dealt with reincarnation and extra-sensory perception. Though only a few notes between them appear in the book, it is striking how intimate the correspondence is, for instance:

Dear, dear Dick:

I hope what will come between these covers will make this one of the happiest of your many happy years.



*   *   *   *   *

Dear Dick:

Here are the first two scenes. The rest needs cutting. I’ll mail them on to you in a day or two.



Sadly, the partnership didn’t work out, though the pair managed to draft nine songs together. Rodgers withdrew, and Lerner replaced him with Burton Lane. the show was retitled On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and it became a modest success.

At the end of his life, Lerner was invited to write the lyrics for one of the most successful musicals of the past century: The Phantom of the Opera. Yet, as the following letter reveals, Lerner’s participation was cut short for reasons beyond anybody’s control:

Who would have thought it? Instead of writing The Phantom of the Opera, I end up looking like him.

But, alas, the inescapable fact is I have lung cancer. After fiddling around with pneumonia they finally reached the conclusion that it was the big stuff.

I am deeply disconsolate about The Phantom and the wonderful opportunity it would have been to write with you. But I will be back! Perhaps not on time to write The Phantom, but as far as I am concerned this is a temporary hiccup. I have a 50/50 chance medically and a 50/50 chance spiritually. I shall make it. I have no intention of leaving my beautiful wife, this beautiful life and all of the things I still have to write. As far as I am concerned it is a challenge, and I fear nothing.

Lerner’s final decade or so was filled with artistic disappointments, including the flops 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Carmelina, and Dance a Little Closer. But who knows? Perhaps this project, cut brutally short by Lerner’s fatal cancer, would have brought the writer the late-career success that he deeply longed for. Either way, with this new collection of letters, we can enjoy a legacy of beautiful prose, full of new insights into the extraordinary career of this award-winning writer.

Headline Image: Old Letters. CC0 via Pixabay

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