Where does Alan Jay Lerner fit into the history of musicals? A prolific librettist and lyricist, Lerner had moments of genius (most of My Fair Lady and the film version of Gigi and parts of Camelot, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Paint Your Wagon and Brigadoon). However, I’d say that, as a whole, his body of work is flawed somewhat by:
- a tendency to show off at the expense of character and believability (e.g. “The Seven Deadly Virtues”, “The First Thing You Know”);
- a tendency to go for the broad strokes and not commit as much effort to the small details (e.g. the American bobolinks that are mentioned a couple of times in Camelot); and
- focusing more energy on the drama going on around the show than getting the drama of the show working in tandem with an underlying belief that his choices – and no one else’s – were completely infallible (evident especially in his writing about Camelot but in evidence generally throughout his writing in The Street Where I Live).
Consequently, I could quite easily suggest that (for slightly different reasons) Lerner is the Tim Rice to Oscar Hammerstein II’s Stephen Sondheim. In fact, I think that sums up his contribution to musical theatre, in particular, rather nicely.
You didn’t just say that! Lerner and Hammerstein were both geniuses in their own right. As a lyricist, Hammerstein doesn’t come close to Lerner. As a poet, Hammerstein is the winner. No one has mastered the internal rhyme like Lerner. And how can you dismiss his brilliant work minus Fritz such as On a Clear Day You Can Live Forever? His “Clear Day” work surpasses Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon easily.
P.S. The bobolink was mentioned but once in Camelot, not several times.
The problem is that Lerner gets enamoured by his own linguistic prowess at the expense of things like characterisation. So if Hammerstein’s wordplay doesn’t quite measure up to Lerner’s, his ability to create, develop, manipilate and comment on character and situation is far better.
Lerner hit his stride in the late fifties and early sixties with My Fair Lady and Gigi. Camelot has moments of sheer brilliance, but fell short of the standard set by his previous work. And the rest of his career offered mere variations and shadows of the characters he created before, tempered only by the narrative differences from piece to piece.
As such, his work in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is not consistently brilliant. In this case, Lerner needed someone to challenge him more strongly and thereby push his work further further. Lerner’s lyrics for the show flirt with brilliance in a couple of songs like “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?” and the titular song (in its choruses, at least). At other times, the lyrics are, by turns, self-conscious, lazy, repetitive and/or trite. This is especially but not only true of the verses that lead into the songs. One really becomes aware of them as lyrics rather than experiencing them as a dramatic experience.
P.S. Bobolink is mentioned at least twice, once in a lyric and once in the book. The reference in song is an obvious one, but the reference in the libretto can be seen in Act One Scene 3, where Arthur tells Guenevere about how Merlin changed him into different animals, saying ‘I was a fish, a bobolink, a beaver and even an ant. From each animal he wanted me to learn something.’ Maybe its one of the lines that’s since been altered, but it certainly was there originally.