Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics were marked by warmth and civilized urbanity, coupled with the highest order of craftsmanship. He was bom in New York on August 31, 1918 into a wealthy Manhattan family, the owners of Lerner Stores, Inc. He attended school at Bedales School in England and then Choate in Connecticut. During the summers of 1936 and 1937, he attended the Juilliard School of Music, and then graduated from Harvard College, where Leonard Bernstein was a contemporary. At Harvard he began his career in musical theater, writing for the Hasty Pudding shows. Early in his career, both Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein served as mentors.
In 1942, he met composer Frederick Loewe at the Lambs Club in New York City, beginning one of the great collaborations of the American musical theater. From the start of their partnership, Lerner wrote the books of the shows as well as the lyrics. Their first shows together, The Life of the Party (1942) and What’s Up? (1943) were complete failures. Their next, The Day Before Spring (1945) did slightly better, running for five months, and included the song “You Haven’t Changed At All”.
In 1947 they had their first great bit, Brigadoon, which included “The Heather on the Hill”, “From This Day On”, and the classic romantic ballad “Almost Like Being In Love”. In.1951 came Paint Your Wagon, which included such songs as “They Call The Wind Maria”, “I Talk To The Trees” and “Wandrin’ Star”.
Then in 1956, My Fair Lady appeared, and theater history changed. Adapted by Lerner from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalian, if the musical loses much of Shaw’s ferocity and fire, it makes up for that with a warmth and sophistication that has made My Fair Lady one of the best-loved, as well as one of the greatest, of all musicals. Lerner produced a bouquet of classic lyrics for such songs as “Why Can’t The English?”, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly”, “With A Little Bit Of Luck”, “I’m An Ordinary Man”, “Just You Wait”, “The Rain In Spain”, ” Could Have Danced All Night”, “On The Street Where You Live”, “You Did It”, “Show Me”, “Get Me To The Church On Time”, “A Hymn To Him” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face”. The show ran for 2,717 performances in its original Broadway production (and even more in London) and has been revived on Broadway several times. The 1964 film version, with a screenplay by Lerner, won seven Oscars.
In 1958 Lerner wrote the screenplay and lyrics for the classic film musical Gigi (music again by Loewe, and directed by Vincente Minelli), which had a superb score including “Thank Heaven For Little Girls” and “I Remember It Well”, and which won 9 Academy Awards, including one for Best screenplay and one for the title song.
Although they were to work together one last time on the unsuccessful 1974 film The Little Prince, their last successful collaboration came in 1960 with Camelot, a delightful score which included “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight”, “Camelot”, “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”, “How to Handle a Woman”, and “If Ever I Would Leave You”.
After the production of Camelot, Frederick Loewe retired from composing and Lerner began a series of new collaborations and projects. He won an Academy Award for his screenplay for An American in Paris (1951). Also in 1951,he teamed up with composer Burton Lane for the movie musical Royal Wedding, which included such songs as “You’re All the World t Me” and “Too Late Now”. He worked with Lane again in 1965 for the most successful of Lerner’s post-Loewe musicals, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. This show was notable for a gorgeous title song, and also “Come Back To Me”. Lerner and Lane teamed up one last time in 1979 for the musical Carmelina, which, although it was failure, included the beautiful “One Last Walk Around The Garden”.
Earlier in his career, he worked with Kurt Weill on the 1948 musical Love Life (“Green Up Time”). After the death of Oscar Hammerstein 11, he attempted to work with Richard Rodgers, but they proved unable to work together. In 1969 he teamed up with Andre Previn to write Coco, which starred Katherine Hepburn as Coco Chanel. And in 1976 he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on Bernstein’s last musical., the unsuccessful 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It is for the musicals with Loewe that he will be longest remembered. His finest lyrics are deservedly classics. Maury Yeston, the award-winning composer and lyricist of Nine and Titanic, has said of Lerner, “He was perhaps the best we’ve ever had.”
Alan Jay Lerner had eight wives, the last of them actress Liz Robertson, who was with him when he died of lung cancer in New York City on June 14, 1986.