June 10, 1901– Frederick Loewe
My Fair Lady was the first Broadway musical that I knew. The show opened in 1956, and its songs were the first music that got my attention. I was about three-years-old when my parental units played the Original Broadway Cast album on their stereo over and over, sometimes singing along. I was entranced, not just by the tunes, but by the album cover by Al Hirschfeld of George Bernard Shaw as God, working puppets of Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. This made quite the impression. This was my image of God, until I realized late in life that if She were to manifest herself as a human, God would look like Michelle Obama.
Frederick Loewe wrote the music and his longtime artistic partner Alan Jay Lerner did the lyrics and the books for My Fair Lady, Camelot, Paint Your Wagon, Brigadoon and Gigi. Among the songs Loewe wrote with Lerner: Almost Like Being In Love, On The Street Where You Live, If Ever I Would Leave You and that paean to pedophilia: Thank Heaven For Little Girls.
Their finest songs are marked by a 20th Century style of conversational fluency and precision of phrase paired with the graceful Old World melodicism that owes a lot to the operettas popular 50 years before their collaborations.
Lerner and Loewe had creative chemistry that was comparable to that of George and Ira Gershwin. But they were a more unlikely pairing than most other Broadway composing teams. Loewe came from that world of European operetta when he moved to the USA in 1924, where he struggled for years to gain a job in the musical theater and Lerner was a modern urbane sophisticate.
Lerner and Loewe met by chance and teamed up for three Broadway flops before Brigadoon became a hit in 1947. It ran for 581 performances and produced a hit with Almost Like Being In Love. I did a production of it in high school, playing the schoolteacher, Mr. Lundy, who explains the legend of the town that only appears once a century. I was really good in that one.
Lerner and Loewe adapted Shaw’s Pygmalian into a musical after already being turned down by Noël Coward, Cole Porter, Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Things worked out well. They called it My Fair Lady and it is one of the very best musicals of all time. The story concerns Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl who takes speech lessons from professor Henry Higgins, a phoneticist, so that she may pass as a lady, and the musical’s 1956 Broadway production was a notable critical and popular success. It set a record for the longest run of any show on Broadway up to that time. It was followed by a hit London production, a popular film version, and many revivals. My Fair Lady is what I would call a “perfect musical”.
In the mid-1930s, film producer Gabriel Pascal acquired the rights to produce film versions of several of Shaw’s plays, including Pygmalion. Shaw had already had a bad experience with hs play Arms And The Man being adapted into stinko musical The Chocolate Soldier (1908) and refused permission for Pygmalion to be adapted into a musical.
After Shaw died in 1950, Pascal asked the other songwriters to give it a try, Lerner agreed to write, and he and Loewe began work. But they quickly realized that the play violated several key rules for constructing a musical: the main story was not a love story, there was no subplot or secondary love story, and there was no place for an ensemble.
Then, Pascal died. Lerner had been trying to musicalize the popular comic strip Li’l Abner when he read Pascal’s obituary and found himself thinking about Pygmalian. All of the insurmountable obstacles that had stood in their Lerner and Lowes way melted away when the team realized that the play needed few changes apart from “adding the action that took place between the acts of the play”. The musical rights to Pygmalion were sought both by Lerner and Loewe and by MGM, whose executive discouraged them from challenging the studio. Loewe said:
We will write the show without the rights, and when the time comes for them to decide who is to get them, we will be so far ahead of everyone else that they will be forced to give them to us.
For five months Lerner and Loewe wrote, hired technical designers, and made casting decisions. The bank that held the Shaw estate granted them the musical rights.
Lerner settled on the title My Fair Lady, relating both to one of Shaw’s early titles for Pygmalion, Fair Eliza, and to the final line of every verse of the nursery rhyme London Bridge Is Falling Down. The Gershwins’ 1925 musical Tell Me More had been titled My Fair Lady in its out-of-town tryout, and also had a musical number with that title, so Lerner made a courtesy call to Ira Gershwin, asking him to use of the title for a Lerner and Loewe musical.
Noël Coward was the first to be offered the role of Henry Higgins, but he turned it down, suggesting the producers cast Rex Harrison instead. After much deliberation, Harrison agreed to accept the part. Mary Martin was an early choice for the role of Eliza Doolittle, but she turned it down. Julie Andrews was “discovered” and cast as Eliza after the show’s creative team went to see her Broadway debut in The Boy Friend. Gay playwright Moss Hart agreed to direct after hearing two songs.
The musical’s script used several scenes that Shaw had written especially for the 1938 film version of Pygmalion, including the Embassy Ball sequence and the final scene of the 1938 film rather than the ending for Shaw’s original play.
The musical had its pre-Broadway tryout in New Haven. At the first preview Harrison, who was unaccustomed to singing in front of a live orchestra, announced “… under no circumstances will I go on with those thirty-two interlopers in the pit“. He locked himself in his dressing room but came out an hour before curtain time. The whole company had been dismissed but were recalled, and opening night was a success.
It premiered on Broadway on March 15, 1956, closing in 1962, after 2,717 performances, a record at the time. By the start of 1959, it was already the biggest grossing Broadway show of all-time with a gross of $10 million. Harrison was replaced by Edward Mulhare in November 1957 and Sally Ann Howes replaced Andrews in February 1958.
The Original Cast Recording, released in April 1956, went on to become the best-selling album in the country in 1956, outselling Elvis Presley.
I have been in three productions of the Lerner and Loewe favorite Camelot, playing Merlin in high school and King Arthur’s bastard son Mordred in summer stock, and assorted small roles in another summer stock production. Camelot was Lerner and Loewe’s last major collaboration. It is based on gay writer T. H. White‘s novel The Once And Future King. Beset with problems before it opened, the show, which starred Richard Burton and Julie Andrews, earned what was then a record $3 million in box-office advance and ran for 873 performances. It was famously a favorite of President John F. Kennedy and his charming, pretty wife.
Loewe, a Jew born in Berlin, was two decades older than his composing partner. He had increasingly fragile health, suffering a severe heart attack just before the London opening of My Fair Lady. Lerner went on to collaborate with other composers: Burton Lane, Leonard Bernstein, and Andre Previn. Like many an old queer, Loewe retired to Palm Springs.
In 1973, Lerner and Loewe briefly reunited to write four new songs for a Broadway stage version of their 1958 film Gigi. The following year, they completed a score for a musical film adaptation of Antoine de Saint Exupery‘s The Little Prince, directed by Stanley Donen.
Weird, Loewe ended up outliving Lerner, who died in 1986. Loewe was too frail to attend the memorial tribute at the Shubert Theater. But he delivered the following message that was read by Kitty Carlisle Hart (her husband, Moss Hart, directed Camelot):
I was always amazed how good we were and how simple it was.
He concluded with this fragment of a Lerner lyric:
I loved you once in silence. Farewell, my boy.
Loewe left this world in 1998, surrounded by boys in tight swimsuits gathered by his pool in Palm Springs. He was 88-years-old.
A well-received, sold-out production of My Fair Lady opened on Broadway last year; this production has a subtle feminist spin. The revival will close on July 7 after playing 588 performances.
You can stay at Loewe’s Palm Springs estate. It is available as an AirBnB.