Alan Jay Lerner once was asked if having written the book and lyrics for a show widely known as "the world's greatest musical" wasn't a hard act to follow.
"Well, yes, in a way," he answered with a laugh. "But one day I said to myself, 'Which would you rather have -- the problems from writing "My Fair Lady" or the problems from not having written it?' And I decided the problems from having written it were infinitely more pleasant."
Alan Jay Lerner was the wealthy son of a haberdasher, but he wasn't born to haberdash. He was born to put words to music. Even his name scanned well, and his lyrics were as lilting as the tunes, most notably those by Frederick Loewe, to which they were put. Lerner had to be a romantic; he was married eight times. But he proved it as well in show after show, song after song, verse after verse.
This is the man who wrote, "What a day this has been/ What a rare mood I'm in/ Why, it's almost like being in love."
And, "Her smiles, her frowns/ Her ups, her downs/ Are second nature to me now/ Like breathing out and breathing in."
And, "If ever I would leave you/ It wouldn't be in summer/ Seeing you in summer/ I never would go."
But leave us he did, and in summer, at that. On Saturday, in New York, Alan Jay Lerner, a lifelong smoker, died of cancer at the age of 67. Though he won three Oscars -- two for the film version of "My Fair Lady" and one for his screenplay for "An American in Paris" -- Lerner will always be remembered as a Broadway light, and one of the brightest.
Precious few of these bright lights still burn, and the musical theater's cumulative luminescence, ever waning, is diminished still further by this latest lamentable departure. An era of witty lyrics and graceful melodies, and sometimes graceful lyrics and witty melodies, fades further into the past and becomes more cultural history than culture. Gracefulness and wittiness aren't as highly valued as they used to be.
As a lyricist, Lerner had not been particularly active in recent years, it's true, and the songs he wrote for shows and movies will be sung for the proverbial time immemorial, but neither of these facts mitigates a deep sense of loss at his demise. It seems another sign that something grand has ended, that Broadway's golden age can be remembered at the Tony Awards each year, but can never be recreated.
In person, Lerner had an oddly underworldly air. His craggy features and slightly gravelly voice gave him a resemblance to William Talman, the actor who played the long-suffering district attorney Hamilton Burger on the "Perry Mason" show. Lerner sometimes wore a white glove on his smoking hand to protect his fingers from nicotine stains.
Lerner survived an American curse; like Cole Porter, but very few other songwriters of his time, he was born into wealth. His lyrics did not spring out of hardship. Yet his meditations on love and its pursuit ran the full emotional spectrum, not excluding doubt and fear and melancholy. For "Camelot," the last big Lerner-Loewe hit, he wrote, "I loved you once in silence/ And mis'ry was all I knew/ Trying so to keep my love from showing/ All the while not knowing/ You loved me too."
For "Paint Your Wagon," in 1951, Lerner movingly fabricated a widower's reminiscence: "I still see Elisa, she keeps on returning,/ As breathless and young, as ever/ I still hear Elisa, and still feel a yearning,/ To hold her against me again."
Clearly a man who loved women, in profusion as well as with devotion, Lerner was particularly adept at celebrating women in his lyrics. Of the departed "Elisa," for instance, he wrote, "Her heart was made of holidays,/ Her smile was made of dawn,/ Her laughter was an April song/ That echoes on and on."
Much later, on film, came that moment of transcendent revelation as Louis Jourdan stood before a Parisian fountain and agonized, "Oh Gigi, while you were trembling on the brink,/ Was I out yonder somewhere, blinking at a star?/ Oh Gigi, have I been standing up too close,/ Or back too far?"
A climactic interior monologue set to music became a trademark of the Lerner-Loewe collaborations early on. The title song for "Gigi" is subtitled "Gaston's Soliloquy," and through it, the character realizes that a woman offered up as a courtesan should instead be asked to become his wife.
The pinnacle of the Lerner-Loewe soliloquies was, of course, the glorious instant when Professor Henry Higgins, in "My Fair Lady," finally, and begrudgingly, came to his senses: "Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn!/ I've grown accustomed to her face."
In "An American in Paris," which featured music by the Gershwin brothers and Lerner's screenplay (still crisply witty today), the hero danced out his last-act anxieties and aspirations in a landmark movie ballet. Author Donald Knox interviewed Lerner for his oral history of "An American in Paris," called "The Magic Factory," in 1973, and Lerner talked lucidly about his craft.
"You have to keep in mind that there is no such thing as realism or naturalism in the theater," Lerner said then. "That is a myth. If there was realism in the theater, there would never be a third act. Nothing ends that way. A man's life is made up of thousands and thousands of little pieces. In writing fiction, you select 20 or 30 of them. In a musical, you select even fewer than that."
In considering the life of Alan Jay Lerner, the thousands of pieces one can choose from include statements, remarks, asides and assertions made in a blithe, easy, elegant poetry that seemed as natural as, indeed, breathing out and breathing in. Not all the work proved imperishable, however. Ten years ago, Lerner fell under the spell of Leonard Bernstein, and their collaboration produced "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," a lugubrious fiasco. For the most part, and with other colleagues, Lerner enjoyed triumph upon triumph, most of them devoid of the sentimentalized manipulations to which some of his contemporaries stooped.
In 1965, with composer Burton Lane, Lerner dabbled in the occult and in a favorite subject, extrasensory perception, with the musical "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever." The title song was obviously a credo, part of which is contained in the verse's observation that "there's more to us than surgeons can remove . . .
"So much more than we ever knew,/ So much more were we born to do./ Should you draw back the curtain,/ This I am certain,/ You'll be impressed with you . . . "
Lerner's songs were all written for theatrical characters to sing, and so it would be unfair to interpret them as expressing Lerner's beliefs, cherished or otherwise. But in searching for author's epitaphs, and considering the hectic, glamorous life Lerner lived, one is drawn to certain lines -- to, perhaps, Eliza Doolittle's vision of happiness: "Oh, so loverly, sittin' abso-bloomin'-lutely still!/ I would never budge till spring crept over the window sill."
And from "Gigi," Maurice Chevalier's rumination, "How lovely to sit here in the shade,/ With none of the woes of man and maid./ I'm glad I'm not young anymore."
For "Camelot," Lerner wrote a siren song, a nymph's seductive ballad: "Only you, only I/ World, farewell; world, goodbye/ To our home, 'neath the sea/ We shall fly. Follow me, follow me, follow me . . . "
There won't be another Alan Jay Lerner along any time soon.