Lerner studied at Harvard where he knew John F. Kennedy and where he contributed to college shows. His ambition was to be in musical theatre. After graduating he worked for radio until a visit to the Lambs Club in 1942 found him meeting Frederick Loewe quite by chance. The composer was looking for a lyricist, so they began working together on “Life of the party”, a musical based on a farce. It was staged by a Detroit theatre company and ran for nine weeks. Encouraged by this success they next worked on “What’s up?”, about aviators stranded in a girls’ school, which ran on Broadway for just sixty-three performances in 1943. Two years later they completed “The day before spring” and by then their partnership was sealed. Their first long-running production came with “Brigadoon” in 1947, which clocked up nearly 600 performances. Four years later came “Paint your wagon”, a reasonable success at nearly 300 performances, although it did better in London where it ran for a year. In between these shows Lerner also worked with Kurt Weill on “Love life” and with Burton Lane on the Fred Astaire musical-film, “Royal wedding”. He also wrote the screenplay for the Gene Kelly film “An American in Paris” using the music of George Gershwin.
Turning George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion” into a musical show took many years of consultation between the owner of the rights, film producer Gabriel Pascal, who had already filmed Shaw’s play in 1938, and the eventual writers, Lerner & Loewe. They expressed interest early on but dropped the project for a couple of years. Others who had turned it down included Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden & Adolph Green, Cole Porter, and Rodgers & Hammerstein, the last having told Lerner it was an impossible task because it is all talk, talk, talk with no room for the songs. However, when Pascal died, both MGM and Lerner & Loewe wanted the rights. The latter did secure them and “My fair lady” was born.
Far from finding no room for the songs in Shaw’s play, the musical numbers fit perfectly around Shaw’s dialogue, most of which is retained by Lerner in his book. Indeed, if you see “Pygmalion” now, there are moments where you expect the songs to break in and develop the dialogue. Imagine, if you will, the songs we might have had, if Bernstein, Porter or Rodgers & Hammerstein had succeeded in musicalising “Pygmalion”. Actually, it doesn’t bear thinking about…
Having run for six years in New York and five in London, “My fair lady” was the most successful musical in theatre history at the time. It won six Tony awards and the film version went on to win eight Oscars in 1964.
The next project for Lerner & Loewe was almost equally auspicious, the film of “Gigi”, the last original musical to come out of MGM. This won all nine of its Academy Award nominations. “Camelot” followed in 1960 with Julie Andrews and Richard Burton in a none-too-heavily-disguised tribute to the Kennedy administration but set in the time of King Arthur. It lasted for almost 900 performances and was filmed with Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave.
After that Loewe retired and Lerner worked with many other composers, albeit not always too successfully. He did “Coco” with André Previn for Katharine Hepburn playing Coco Chanel, worked with John Barry on “Lolita, my love”, with Bernstein on “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue”, a show about the White House with Patricia Routledge playing all the First ladies, with Burton Lane again on “Carmelina”, a musical development of the film “Buona Sera Mrs Campbell”, and with Charles Strouse (of “Annie” fame) on “Dancer a little closer”, based on Robert Sherwood’s play “Idiot’s delight”. After Loewe came out of retirement to work on the stage musical of “Gigi”, they also adapted Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s story of “The little prince” as a film musical in 1974 but it was not a success. In his last years Lerner was working on a musical of the film “My man Godfrey” with composer Gerard Kenny and he started writing “The phantom of the opera” with Andrew Lloyd Webber but illness saw him replaced by Charles Hart.
Steve Ross mainly concentrates on the songs that Lerner wrote with Loewe which were, after all, the most successful of both their careers. The title of the compilation is “I remember him well” which comes from a song in “Gigi” in which Hermione Gingold and Maurice Chevalier look back at their former relationship even though Honoré, the Chevalier character, actually remembers very little. The full song is included and Steve Ross manages to do a convincing double act singing both parts. It’s written as a humorous number but the emotional feelings of the two elderly people trying to remember come through acutely in Steve’s performance.
He tells Lerner’s story with great sympathy, a man with foibles and addictions who had eight wives, a subject he later broached in a song from the not-produced show “My man Godfrey”. It too is a comic song called ‘I’ve been married’, and here personal experience is uppermost in Lerner’s mind. According to Ross, Lerner also seemed obsessed with plant-life as exhibited in songs such as ‘I never met a rose’ (“The little prince”), ‘I talk to the trees’ (“Paint your wagon”), and ‘Hurry, it’s lovely up here’ in which the heroine of “On a clear day you can see forever” talks to her flowers. Here we glimpse Lerner’s mystical and romantic side.
With a sensual response to the English language, Lerner was a true perfectionist who agonised over his lyrics. He wrote over ninety versions of the title song from “On a clear day…” taking eight months to do it, giving three hours a day to the job in hand. Eventually eight versions were shown to Loewe before Lerner was satisfied with the final result. In ‘Thank heaven for little girls’ from “Gigi” he worried about the lines “Those little eyes so helpless and appealing / One day will flash and send you crashing through the ceiling”, because he reckoned that you could only crash through a floor, not a ceiling. However, having laboured over finding just the right word for a line for weeks on end, he was delighted when it finally came to him. He was immensely pleased when he managed to get the word ‘pavement’ into ‘On the street where you live’ in “My fair lady”: “I have often walked down this street before / But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before”.
Good lyrics need good music, which is why Lerner & Loewe made such a successful partnership. In one part of his show Steve Ross plays a medley of just some of Loewe’s music to remind us how fine a composer he was and in so doing also demonstrates what a fine pianist Steve is. Loewe could write the most romantic of love-songs such as ‘If ever I would leave you’ (“Camelot”), ‘The heather on the hill’ and ‘Almost like being in love’ (“Brigadoon”) or the title song from “Gigi” with real sentimental feeling, and yet also turn out the most delightful of comic songs such as ‘With a little bit of luck’ or ‘Wouldn’t it be loverly?’ (“My fair lady) with the same insouciance.
Steve Ross brings his wide experience of the American Songbook to the words of Lerner and the music of Loewe, Lane and Kenny. Highlights include one of Lerner & Loewe’s earliest songs, ‘My last love’ from “What’s up?” which displays their early promise. The songs from “Gigi” show the partnership at its lyrical best. A Burton Lane medley of ‘Too late now’ (“Royal wedding”) and ‘What did I have that I don’t have?’ (“On a clear day…”) are two songs of regret that reveal a more wistful side of Lerner’s writing. The show ends with a joyous selection from “Brigadoon” and “My fair lady” in which host Jeff Harnar duets with Steve before the entire audience join in for ‘Wouldn’t it be loverly?’
All in all, this is an evening of classic songs immaculately performed by the master of cabaret: we’ll remember him well, too. A final word for Pizza on the Park’s resident pianist Leigh Thompson who, before and after Steve Ross’s performance, plays an eclectic selection of Broadway songs by Jerome Kern, Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen, Sondheim and Kander & Ebb among many others.
- ”I remember him well” is at Pizza on the Park until Saturday 4 April 2009: Tuesday to Saturday at 7.45 p.m. (doors open at 6); Friday and Saturday second show at 10.15 p.m. (doors open 9.30)
- Tickets on 08456 027 017
- American Songbook in London