Thursday, October 10, 2002

Oh, how I would love to have been alive in New York City during the forties, fifties and sixties, when the American musical theater was at its peak. I would love to have been able to see all those wonderful stage productions. I would love to have been able to see Show Boat, for instance, and Oklahoma!. In the home of my childhood, my parents were always playing records of Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter -- performed by the likes of William Warfield, Julie Andrews, Maurice Chevalier, Rex Harrison, Richard Burton...if I could transport myself back to any time and place in American history, I might well choose the Broadway of the middle twentieth century. To attend a production on opening night; to await the rising of the curtain on a new production with an audience that has never seen it; to drink martinis at Sardi's with the cast afterward, tensely awaiting those first notices in the morning edition wonderful that must have been! All those wonderful songs, with their glorious lyrics, composed by those magnificent composer-lyricist collaborators for whom urbane sophistication and wit were the coin of the realm, and to whom our own age of ironic detachment would be as alien an environment as Broadway itself would be to a Peruvian alpaca amazing a time, indeed. I wish I could have seen it, in all its glory, as opposed to catching glimpses through film versions of those plays (some of which are magnificent in themselves) and compact discs of those original cast albums, which were recorded on the plays' opening weekend.

This bit of nostalgic reverie on my part is brought on by my reading of the book The Street Where I Live, by Alan Jay Lerner. Lerner was the lyricist to composer Frederick Loewe in my favorite of those great theatrical collaborations, Lerner and Loewe. These men were the geniuses behind Gigi, Camelot, Brigadoon, and for me the greatest musical of all time, My Fair Lady. (As far as I am concerned, the film version of My Fair Lady eclipses all other musical films -- with the sole exception of Singin' In The Rain.) This book is not a comprehensive memoir of Lerner's life, or even of his work in the theater. It is, instead, an account of Lerner and Loewe's last three collaborations (My Fair Lady, Gigi, and Camelot), which are also contemporaneous with the end of what Lerner calls the "belle epoque" of the American musical theater which ended in the early 1960s. Lerner's first sentence sets the tone for the book, and a wonderful sentence it is:

This is the story of climaxes and endings and the sundown of a decade that blazed with joy, excitement, and triumph: so much, in fact, that as I look back I am haunted by the fear that perhaps I drank the wine too fast to taste it and instead of slowing down to look at the scenery, kept my foot on the accelerator and my eyes on the road ahead, gazing only occasionally from side to side and waiting far too long to glance at the rear-view mirror.

After a brief prologue (which Lerner, not unexpectedly, calls the "Overture") in which Lerner describes his own biographical background including a very touching portrait of his father, the book launches into the whirlwind that must have been Lerner's life as his last three projects with Fritz Loewe took shape. For me, the best chapter is the first, because that is the chapter dealing with My Fair Lady. The challenges Lerner and Loewe faced in converting George Bernard Shaw's classic stage play Pygmalion to a stage musical are fascinatingly chronicled -- where to put the songs, what dialogue of Shaw's to retain and which to exclude, how to bridge the scenes in a more convincing manner for the musical theater. The problem with the original play's resolution -- in which Shaw pointedly insists that Professor Higgins remained a bachelor, while Eliza married Freddy -- is dispensed with. A lot of this matieral actually flashes by, as Lerner is more interested in detailing the actual creation of the production itself once the show's writing has been mostly accomplished. Now the book becomes more engrossing, as a series of "supporting characters" move onto Lerner's stage. There is Moss Hart, the accomplished director who is apparently one of the most diplomatic men of all time; there is Julie Andrews, the talented young singer tapped to play Eliza Doolittle even though she has never starred in a major production; there is Rex Harrison, the accomplished stage actor who has also never done a musical and who is prone to hilarious and brief outbursts of temper:

On another occasion, much more recently, Rex was visiting my wife, then Sandra Payne (she is still Sandra Payne, but no longer my wife) and me in the country, and sitting around the fire one evening he was discussing, most sympathetically, how difficult it was for his wife, then Elizabeth (still Elizabeth, but) to put up with his past which, time after time, kept cropping up either in the press, social conversation, or in the shape of children. I said, also sympathetically, that I could understand that. Sandy said, also sympathetically, that she could, too. That is all. She could, too. "God damn you, women," screamed Rex. "What about Alan and me? It's bloody difficult for us, too, but none of you ever thinks of that." Looks of bewilderment. Change of topic. Scene around the fire continues pleasantly.

Also hilarious is Harrison's self-appointment as the guardian of the spirit of Shaw's original play, to the point of keeping an edition of the play on the set at all times and the mistake Lerner makes when Harrison asks about the source of some material not in the original play:

There is a speech just before "The Rain In Spain"....when Rex got to that scene he said to me: "That's a damn fine speech. Where in Shaw did you find it?" Like a fool I told the truth and said: "I wrote it." From then on he lost respect for it and seldom got it right. But it taught me a lesson. Ever after, if he came to a line I had written and inquired: "Is that yours?", I would always reply that I had found it in one of Shaw's letters or in a preface or an essay. That seemed to satisfy him and we had no more difficulties. I must have been so persuasive that in an interview with the London Times two weeks before the English opening, he said that in the entire play there were only six lines not written by Bernard Shaw.

Lerner does not do a lot of editorializing in this book, but a theme that does bubble to the surface now and again is his feeling that (at his writing) an age is ending. If the Age of Irony has not actually dawned at the time that Lerner is writing (1978), he does seem to feel it coming. We see this when he describes the recording of the My Fair Lady cast album, because that album's producer -- a man named Goddard Lieberson -- had been a beloved friend of Lerner and Loewe, and he had died just before Lerner wrote the book. "With his passing," Lerner writes, "went another drain on the world's fast-diminishing supply of charm....pleasure without joy is as hollow as passion without tenderness, and the pleasure of Goddard's company was the joy he brought to others. We call it charm and I weep for a world without it."

This theme of Lerner's, the passing of the musical theater's hey-day and the passing of charm, becomes more evident in the chapters on Gigi and Camelot. Whereas many musicals start as stage productions and are filmed later, in the case of Gigi the process is reversed, because of some contractual obligation Lerner owed to MGM. As he recounts his work with the legendary musical producer Arthur Freed (who also made Singin' In The Rain), he notes the passing of the great studio system.

For so many years the most derogatory critical epithet that could be hurled at a film was to call it "Hollywood". It still happens, but to do so today is like joining a protest march against Pompeii. I entered the Hollywood scene shortly before its demise, but I saw enough to make me wish it were still there.

This sense of a passing time is more evident in the last chapter, about Camelot, which was Lerner and Loewe's last production together, as well as their most problematic. (Loewe retired after Camelot, while Lerner went on to do work with such composers as Andre Previn.) Camelot is, of course, the King Arthur musical, based on T. H. White's novel The Once and Future King. Lerner recounts the heavy reworking the play received as its troubled production moved from Toronto to Boston and finally to Broadway, with a new song at one point being written the night before the play's New York opening. He describes the play's not-disastrous, but not-overly-enthusiastic reception, and the way it did not become a hit until its songs were featured on an episode of Ed Sullivan's variety show. (I should note that while I love the songs and music in Camelot, and have never seen the stage production, the film version is nearly unwatchable.) Of course, no chapter on Camelot would be complete without a mention of how the play became something of a metaphor for the presidency of John F. Kennedy after 22 November 1963. Even that, to Lerner, signifies a sea-change in the arts: "The death of the president opened the door to the chamber of horror called the 1960s. As the national compass began to go mad and the nation began to lose its sense of direction, no less did the performing arts." And Lerner reserves his most damning condemnation for the aimless drift he sees at work in the arts, and the way the youth in whose hands the arts now reside lurch from one fad to the next: "Youth has many glories, but judgment is not one of them, and no amount of electronic amplification can turn a belch into an aria."

Lerner's condemndation of rock-and-roll rankles a bit, although it's not hard to understand his point of view, writing as he does from his perspective as probably the last living exponent of the great tradition of the American musical theater. If he was not in a position to appreciate the works that were to come later on (particularly, the "British invasion" of Broadway of the 80s and 90s), he should still be noted for his defense of beauty and joy -- and charm -- that really do seem to have dropped off our cultural radar screen. The Street Where I Live is magnificent.

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