Lyricist and Librettist Alan Jay Lerner (1918-1986) won three Tony Awards and three Academy Awards. With Frederick Loewe and Burton Lane, he gave us such varied musical theater pieces as Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, Camelot, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and the iconic My Fair Lady as well as movie musicals Gigi and Royal Wedding. Lerner also wrote the screenplay for An American in Paris. The irascible artist had a well known amphetamine habit, yet managed to have eight wives, provoking one to remark, “Marriage was his way of saying goodbye.”
Well born Lerner met Frederick Loewe at The Lamb’s Club in 1942. Their first big hit was 1947’s highland fantasy Brigadoon. Harvey Granat begins today’s musical selections with a palpably enamored “Almost Like Being in Love” from that show. Special Guest John Cullum comments, “Thank God, this is a talk show. I wouldn’t want to compete with that.”
Three songs from the Fred Astaire/Jane Powell film Royal Wedding follow. “Too Late Now” arrives a wistful, wounded shrug, not believing the relationship is over. “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life?” is delivered in music hall vernacular like yout (youth), trut (truth) and wouldn’t yuz know. “All the World To Me” (the dancing on the ceiling number) is graceful and jaunty. “He paints such a beautiful, lyrical picture,” Granat says. As does the vocalist.
By whom are you influenced when singing in theater,” Granat asks Cullum, “the composer? the lyricist? the director?” “Lyrics,” the performer decisively responds.“They change your personality with every song you sing.”
My Fair Lady, which garnered 2700 performances in 1956, featured Rex Harrison, an actor convinced he couldn’t sing (apparently much like Cullum) and a wet behind the ears, Julie Andrews. We hear a rendition of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” subtly colored by surprise and a deeply romantic “On the Street Where You Live” during which some of the audience quietly sing. “Sing out!” our host encourages.
At the top of the last 16 bars, Cullum joins in and Granat yields the floor. “When I first came to New York,” the thespian explains, “they always asked whether I had a ballad. I said, yes, On the Street Where You Live.” Again and again he was told Give us the last 16 bars. “I’ve had lots of practice,” he grins.
With “Gigi,” Granat expresses puzzlement, unconsciously wrinkling his brow on ‘desire.’ “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” remains affectionately timeless, though our host points out the lyrics would elicit issues today. Having worked in many mediums, Cullum is asked which he prefers. “I have to admit, there’s nothing like a musical, though I wish I had the voice to sing opera.”
Cullum auditioned to play a knight in 1960’s Camelot starring Julie Andrews, Richard Burton, and Robert Goulet. “All the guys over 6’3” were there to audition and I knew they could sing circles around me…” He got the part, also understudying Roddy McDowall and Burton, becoming friends with the latter whom he fondly recalls as generous with the entire company and scholarly. “Burton really didn’t think acting was important thing to do which broke my heart. I think he was lying.”
Granat then sings “If Ever I Could Leave You” during which each season seems to occur to him before our eyes. Cullum continues Camelot anecdotes with Lerner’s request that he sing Sir Lancelot’s ballad for the lyricist in hopes he might understudy Goulet. “I told him I haven’t got that kind of voice, but he insisted. Afterwards, he said,~ John, you’re absolutely right, you haven’t got the voice.’” Sweetly, self-effacingly related.
In 1965, Cullum stared as Dr. Mark Bruckner opposite Julie Harris’ Daisy Gamble/Melinda in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. He sings the title song beginning with the verse, part of a song, he comments, too often overlooked. Every word is meaningful, every thought appreciated. Gentle long notes originate at the back of the performer’s throat, clearing lips with thoughtfulness and emotional waver.
Just before Lerner died, he withdrew from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera having authored “Masquerade,” but losing his memory due to an undiagnosed brain tumor. He was also working on a musical of My Man Godfrey.
As always, MD/pianist David Lahm makes everything seem rehearsed.
Harvey Granat’s The Songs of Alan Jay Lerner is the last of this season’s entertaining midday concert/talks at the 92 Street Y. Next season begins on September 15 with music and stories about Jerry Herman. October 20, it’s Frank Loesser. November 10, Jule Styne. December 8, Burt Bachrach. Each event will feature a special guest. Each will be at noon at the 92Y on Lexington Avenue.
Opening Photo: Harvey Granat, John Cullum, David Lahm courtesy of 92Y