Interview: Dominic McHugh on Alan Jay Lerner

My Fair Lady

On Monday 3rd November, we’ll be welcoming Dominic McHugh to the street where we live (well, our bookshop anyway) to discuss his new book Alan Jay Lerner: A Lyricist’s Letters with Liz Robertson, Lerner’s widow. Learn more about the evening here. In anticipation of this event, we caught up with Dominic about the book, and his fascination with Lerner.

You’ve just edited Alan Jay Lerner’s letters. Before that you wrote Loverly, an exhaustive guide to My Fair Lady. What is that draws you to Lerner?

I wanted to write about My Fair Lady because it’s my favourite musical, I really love it, But I felt that not much much has been written about it, even though it’s really famous and the show gets revived a lot – it’s ‘present’, but we don’t know very much about the making of it. The more I did research on it the more I found all sorts of interesting backstories about how hard they found it to write the show.

As a result of the research process for that book I found a few of Lerner’s letters and they really stood out. One one hand they contain interesting, previously unknown information, but on the other hand the quality of the writing and the wittiness and the charm are unusual. Lerner was entertaining even when he was writing business letters, or when he was annoyed with people. So the first book led to the second.

is that sort of letter writing is a dying art? Will it be possible to write a book like this about today’s artists?

I think we communicate more than ever, just in different ways. I know that the Library of Congress have started asking major artists and writers, asking them to archive and save their emails so they won’t be lost.

But I do think the charm that Lerner had, and the sense of community that existed in the theatre, probably isn’t quite the same any more. It’s incredible that sometimes Lerner had to sit there and write letters all day long just to move things forward with his production team, whereas nowadays you’d just send a few emails and carry on. Easier travel and more use of the telephone have changed collaboration – in those days things had to be written down to collaborate.

It’s one of the things that comes out so strongly in the book – Lerner’s deep involvement in a wider theatre community. Throughout a difficult childhood he still saw almost every show on Broadway, and later that developed into a career that involved working with most of the key names in theatre over several generations. How do you think this ingrained love of theatre translated into the work he produced? 

I think it meant he had lots of points of reference. He really enjoyed the wit and romance of a lot of earlier musicals that he saw as a child, but he was more interested in telling stories in a stronger way. He described himself as wanting to combine the best of Hart and Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers’ main collaborators. Hart was his mentor, who helped him to gain technique in writing lyrics, but Lerner was interested in telling more serious stories. On the other hand, he wanted to be a more graceful lyric writer than Hammerstein, who could be a bit clunky and sentimental.

Towards the end of his career, he struggled to find collaborators of all kinds – not just composers but producers, actors and directors – who were interested in doing the kind of work he was. With the kinds of musicals that were popular at that time, there was a tension between wanting to remain Alan Jay Lerner – author of My Fair Lady – whilst mapping onto the trends of the time.

You make the point in the book that though he’s famous for writing My Fair Lady, as classic a Broadway musical as you can imagine, he also wrote some much more experimental shows. Lolita, My Love is an adaptation of Nabokov’s controversial novel, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is about the history of the White House, and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever deals with extra-sensory perception. Given that they weren’t successful, do you think this subject matter could every have worked in musical theatre?

I think they could all have worked, and they could all have been fixed. On A Clear Day didn’t actually flop, but it was very troubled. He lost his original composer, then he had a lot of squabbles with Burton Lane who took over. They got rid of the leading man in previews, It did run for about a year on Broadway, and after it closed Lerner continued working on it. It went out on tour twice, and was then made into the film with Barbra Streisand – so it’s not like it was terrible, it just didn’t hit the spot as much as My Fair Lady, but it’s hard to know how anything could.

I think 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is a really good work, it just needed some aspects sorting out. He hadn’t finished writing it when it went into rehearsal, so it never got polished, and Bernstein got very upset but as you can see from one of the later letters, they were going to have another go at it the year before Lerner died. And Lolita, I think that now might be the time for it. The composer was John Barry, who wrote the music for James Bond. The subject matter was too shocking for the time, but it might resonate today. Maybe it needs producing in a slightly smaller way.

Lerner was in the unusual position of living to see a piece of his work become legendary, which he did with My Fair Lady especially. In the letters about the 1979 Cameron Mackintosh production of the show, it seems to cause him a lot of pain to see a bad production of the piece. How did he deal with that?

I think the problem was he remembered the original, which no production could ever live up to. It was perfect, it was just a moment where everything came together in a kind of miracle.

None of the revivals were as good as the original, it’s as simple as that. He had to be grateful that they were there and he was being remembered, but at the same time he wasn’t that old, and he was very much still writing. He wanted to be considered as a current writer, but he was only remembered as a great writer of something 30 or 40 years ago.

There is a sense of him feeling misunderstood, and having to deal with people who were less able and less intelligent than himself, and with less experience. But because they were young and new they might have more traction in their careers.

But it surprised me that in lots of ways, he didn’t change. He never becomes ‘eminent’, even though he had nothing to prove any more, there was no reason to continue working once you’d written My Fair Lady and Camelot and Gigi and American in Paris and Brigadoon. That’s more than enough work to leave a legacy, but at least in the letters he remains young. He was still enjoying himself, and he still seemed to believe in everything. He genuinely believed that Lolita would be the next My Fair Lady. There’s a great sense of optimism and intelligence about him. A lot of biographies are quite patronising about his ‘flops’ after Camelot, but reviewing the work properly and looking at what he was doing, there’s a more complex picture there.

In one letter Lerner talks about being ‘in the middle of one those lovely periods when I was absolutely convinced I couldn’t write a line’. How often was he affected by this lack of confidence? 

All the time. He was very neurotic, very nervous, very self-critical and he didn’t find writing particularly easy. Sometimes when he was writing My Fair Lady it would take him several weeks to write just a couple of lines. I think that was all part of his humanity that he suffered like that. He worked very hard, and it wasn’t relaxing, but it kept him alive – the sense of it mattering, of meaning something. Successes were stressful, because he had to live up to them, and failures were depressing, so he suffered one way or the other all the time.

It’s always interesting how composers and lyricists work together. What was the process for Lerner and Loewe?

Their standard way of doing things, which was they’d decide where the song would come in the show, then they’d come up with a title and then Loewe would start improvising some music on the basis of the title. When it was written down and they were happy with the music, Lerner would then take the music off and write words for it. But there also instances where the words were written first. And there are a lot of ‘trunk songs’, which were written for one project but never used, and then Lerner would take it and write new words for a different character in a completely different show.

One of the most tantalising potential collaborations in the book is the revelation that Lerner was going to write lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, but wasn’t able to due to failing health. If that had happened, what kind of a Phantom might we have today?

It’s impossible to know, but I think Lerner would have brought out the humour more, added more wit and wordplay to some characters, and the romantic songs would certainly have been written in his own style. Given the success of Phantom it’s hard to imagine it any other way, but it’s more interesting to imagine what musicals Andrew Lloyd Webber might have written had it been a success with Lerner’s lyrics. What else might they have gone on to write together? I can’t imagine Lerner writing Whistle Down the Wind, for instance. Sunset Boulevard would have been of much more interest – one of his wives was in the original film, and he was a great friend of Billy Wilder.

You’re a lecturer at the University of Sheffield, specialising in musicals. It seems reading this book that there’s so much that’s interesting about musical theatre, especially the process behind its creation. Do you think the area deserves more serious study?

Absolutely! So many books on musicals are written by critics and journalists, who are employed to go to the theatre and have a point of view, and they interview writers and performers. So they think they know the genre from a professional point of view. But when you start reading their books, you realise they don’t really get the complicated, serious and sophisticated way that musicals are put together. When you read Lerner’s letters were he’s dissecting lyrics word by word, or explaining why an actress won’t work in a role for 10 specific reasons – it’s just the same as putting on an opera, or studying Shakespeare, or any other artform. Just because it’s commercial and because it’s musicals doesn’t mean it isn’t equally difficult to create.

You go and watch Guys and Dolls and have a good time, but you don’t realise how much intelligence and imagination and originality behind these shows really had. I hope that collecting this correspondence from various people (I’m now working on Cole Porter’s letters) there will be more appreciation of how difficult it is to get a musical right.

If you had to pick a single Lerner line to put in a time capsule for posterity, what would you choose?

I’d have to pick one from each of his two best ‘modes’ – comedy and romance.

I always like,

I’ve grown accustomed to the trace
Of something in the air;
Accustomed to her face

It’s an amazing way to end a musical. Most end with something brash and in-your-face, but this is wonderfully delicate.

His best comedy song is Come Back to Me from On a Clear Day. It goes on for several minutes, and it’s a series of complicated and clever rhymes about extrasensory perception. The psychologist is speaking to a girl who’s not there, through her mind. He’s singing this song to drag her back to him.

Come in pain, come in joy,
As a girl, as a boy.
I don’t care how you come.
Let your bed go unmade,
Your soufflé unsouffléd


Dominic McHugh’s Alan Jay Lerner: A Lyricist’s Letters is available now from the Samuel French Bookshop, in store and online.


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