Frederick Loewe, an unheralded Vienna-born composer, and Alan Jay Lerner, the lyricist-playwright son of the proprietors of an American chain of women's clothing shops, with sketches and lyrics for two Harvard Hasty Pudding shows among his major credits, met by chance at New York's Lambs Club in 1942. Had they not, Brigadoon would never have emerged from the mists of the Scottish Highlands to make the world feel "Almost Like Being in Love" . . . no one would have been there to "Paint Your Wagon" . . . My Fair Lady would still be a less than lyrical English girl from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion who couldn't sing a note. . . we might never have thought to "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" like "Gigi" . . . and Camelot would most likely have stayed within the pages of Arthurian legend.
When the two, who were destined to enrich the American musical theater with some of its most poignant, rousing, and memorable lyrics, engaging books and powerful musical scores, had that chance meeting more than 50 years ago, neither was widely known. Loewe's Great Lady had had a brief run on Broadway in 1938. Lerner had added radio scripts to his Hasty Pudding Club show credits. But later collaborations after one brief failure, What's Up? (1943), and the moderately successful The Day Before Spring (1945), which ran five months on Broadway, made musical history.
Alan Jay Lerner was one of three sons of Joseph J. Lerner, who founded Lerner Stores, Inc. He was educated in England and at the Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut, before entering Harvard. He studied at the Juilliard School of Music during vacations from Harvard. After graduating in 1940 with a B.S. degree, he wrote advertising copy and radio scripts for such programs as the "Philco Hall of Fame."
Frederick "Fritz" Loewe was the son of Edmund Loewe, an eminent operetta tenor. When he was two, Frederick accompanied his father on a tour of the United States. The youngster played piano at four and, at nine, composed the tunes for a music hall sketch in which his father toured Europe. At 15, he wrote "Katrina," a popular song that sold 3,000,000 copies in Europe. He had begun his own concert career as soloist with some of Europe's leading symphony orchestras at the age of 13 after having studied with the noted European musician Ferruccio Bustoni and Eugene d'Albert. In 1923, young Loewe was awarded the Hollander Medal in Berlin and studied composition and orchestration with Nickolaus von Reznicek.
The following year, the younger Loewe accompanied his father to America. Since neither a concert he gave at New York's Town Hall, nor a subsequent week's engagement at the Rivoli Theater led to further concert engagements, he tried teaching music and playing at Greenwich Village night clubs. When music failed to earn him a living, he worked as a busboy in a cafeteria and as a riding instructor at a New Hampshire resort. He took up flyweight boxing and failed, then went West, cowpunching, gold mining, and carrying mail on horseback over the Montana mountains before returning to New York where he found work as a piano player. In 1935, Loewe's song "Love tiptoes Through My Heart" was accepted for the musical Petticoat Fever. His own musical, Salute to Spring, was presented in St. Louis in 1937. The next year, his Great Lady reached Broadway, but ran for only 20 performances.
The first Lerner-Loewe collaboration was a musical adaptation of Barry Connor's farce The Patsy for a Detroit stock company in 1942. They called it Life of the Party and it enjoyed a nine-week hit that encouraged them to continue with the musical comedy What's Up? which opened on Broadway in 1943. Lerner wrote the book and lyrics with Arthur Pierson, and Loewe composed the music. It ran for 63 performances and was followed in 1945 by their The Day Before Spring
It was when the curtain went up to the haunted strains of bagpipes on the night of March 13, 1947, and the mist-shrouded Scottish Highland village of Brigadoon first appeared, that the team of Lerner and Loewe also emerged as potentially legendary. The musical, which after its original 581 performances on Broadway, toured extensively and has been revived frequently, won the "best musical"award from the New York Drama Critics Circle the year it opened and was hailed as having "evoked magic on Broadway."
Between Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon, the next team effort by Lerner and Loewe, Lerner wrote Love Life, with music by Kurt Weill, which was selected as one of the best plays of the 1948-49 Broadway season, plus the story, screenplay and lyrics for the films Royal Wedding and Brigadoon and the story and screenplay for An American in Paris, for which he won an Oscar in 1951.
Paint Your Wagon rolled in in 1951, and then, five years later, on March 15, 1956, My Fair Lady opened and became one of the most spectacular successes--artistic and financial--in the history of the American theater. Playing a record 2,717 performances on Broadway alone, it went on to break all other existing world records. This musicalization of Shaw's classic Pygmalion was named "outstanding musical of the year" by the New York Drama Critics Circle--and by millions of theater goers.
Lerner and Loewe's next collaboration was on the film adaptation of the Colette novel Gigi, another success filled with songs destined to become standard.
There was more collaborating to come--the film version of the Antoine de Saint-Exupery fable The Little Prince in 1972, but the 1960 Broadway hit Camelot which brought Arthurian England to life for its most shining hour, rang the curtain down on the phenomenon of Lerner and Loewe. Loewe, who had suffered a heart attack in 1958, went into retirement.
In tribute to his long time former partner, Lerner wrote, "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."