The Saturday List: Ten Love Songs by Lerner and Loewe

February is the month of love and this Saturday has caught me in a romantic mood. There’s simply no better time to compile a list of ten great love songs by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Loewe writes gorgeous music that really recalls the eras in which this famed team’s musicals are set, whether it is Edwardian England or the Age of Chivalry as much as it does the sound of Broadway in its Golden Age. While Lerner doesn’t measure up to the likes of Oscar Hammerstein II or Stephen Sondheim, he certainly deserves his place in the musical theatre canon, even if he is rather the Tim Rice of his day. I often wonder if he would have had a better time in the heyday of musical comedy when he would have not been required to craft his lyrics so specifically to character and situation. It’s almost always in those aspects that his lyrics fall short. I guess my point is that I don’t believe he was always as meticulous as he should have been given the era in which he was writing. But that’s opening up a whole can of worms into which I don’t wish to delve today, so let’s just jump into the love songs of Lerner and Loewe. Oh – and by the way, this is a countdown list, so I’ll be ranking the songs as I go.

10. “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady

The bottom spot on this list was either going to belong to this song, or to “I Talk to the Trees” from Paint Your Wagon. But even though the lyric of “On the Street Where You Live” is flawed, it at least has a winning accompaniment that doesn’t push into the ideologically shaky territory by using generic rhythms to indicate cultural heritage, as Loewe does in “I Talk to the Trees” by associating generic Latin American rhythms as a character marker for Julio. (“I Talk to the Trees” has its own fair share of lyrical transgressions too, making ample use of purple imagery.) As for “On the Street Where You Live”, Lerner would have been better off had he written something like:

People stop and stare; I don’t care at all –
For there’s nowhere else in town that could compare at all

– and thought up something different for the ending. At least that way, we wouldn’t have to suffer through that truly awful ‘bother me’/’rather be’ rhyme that is second only to the suggestion that Eliza should be taken out and hung, like a drape, for her transgressions against the English language.

9. “How Can I Wait?” from Paint Your Wagon

Numbers during which people dance with other people’s clothes make for good romance it seems. It worked here in it would work when Disney staged “Once Upon a Dream” in Sleeping Beauty. There’s a kind of uninhibitedness about this kind of expression through imaginative and transgressive role play that makes the emotions felt, in this case by Jennifer, feel completely convincing in the world of Paint Your Wagon.

8. “I Loved You Once In Silence” – Camelot

This song comes late in Camelot and the tendency is to take the tempo a little more “up” than it should be. Although this perhaps makes sense towards the end of a long show, it’s a song that needs space to land dramatically. It’s a key moment for Guenevere, balancing her first number, “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” and needs to reflect the development of her character since the top of the show. Bouncing the number along doesn’t help that cause. But Camelot is that most frustrating kind of musical, the flawed masterpiece, a show with a huge emotional impact that seems never quite to have found its best form.

7. “The Heather On The Hill” from Brigadoon

There’s something so seductive about this song, sung in Brigadoon by Tommy and Fiona as they gather heather for Charlie and Jean’s wedding. We all know that Fiona’s been ‘waiting for [her] dearie’ and here, it seems, he is. I’ve loved this song since the first moment I heard it in a revue in which I performed in 1997. That led me to seek out Brigadoon, a show which has always appealed to me more in idea than in execution, although I’ve come to like it more as the years have passed. But however I feel about the show, I’ll always adore this song.

6. “If Ever I Would Leave You” from Camelot

If love is timeless, then this is a song that does its best to capture that sentiment. Lancelot’s thoughts on how he could never leave Guenevere at any time of the year are accompanied by a seductive melody. With a set of lush orchestrations, it’s time to swoon. Yet there’s a curious shallowness that keeps this song from creeping up higher on my list. The song always makes love feel so full of promise and possibility, but there’s an emptiness that remains once it’s gone. Perhaps the kind of love here is a romantic ideal of courtly romance, an idea of love rather than love itself. I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on it. Any ideas?

5. There But For You Go I – Brigadoon

Sometimes the biggest battle of being in love is admitting that you are. This song is one of the big moments in Brigadoon, but it so often turns out to be a big blustery ballad and I think that is why it passed me by for a long time. Enter Robert Goulet and his understated and beautifully acted interpretation of the song – and now I find the song haunting, compelling and something that one wants to admit someday, no matter how difficult it might be.

4. “Gigi” from Gigi

I discovered this song long before I discovered the film, as a youngster playing songs that I found in the seat of our piano stool. Besides its simply enchanting melody, I think something in this song immediately connected with me. I often feel quite funny and awkward, as Gigi is described as having been, and I think that I also wanted – and am lucky to have found – someone to see past that and love me the way that Gaston realises he loves Gigi in this song.

3. “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” from My Fair Lady

Some people will argue that My Fair Lady is not a love story, but they’re most likely confusing it with its source material. Pygmalion is not a love story; My Fair Lady is. The ending has something to do with it, so do other key moments in the score and certainly, this song does too. Sometimes love is hard to express. Sometimes the expression is restrained. That’s what makes “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” so moving. It holds back what is there. But those who deny that it’s there would have a difficult time convincing me that it’s not.

2. “How To Handle a Woman” – Camelot

“How To Handle a Woman” is a song that is, in fact, about how to handle anyone you love. Love them. That also means putting aside things like your job, so that you can have the time to love them. It means being passionate about them. It means engaging with them and loving them actively. Arthur doesn’t quite get it right in the end but hopefully, we aren’t all destined for a tragedy of classical proportions. And hopefully, we know that trying to get it right means getting it wrong sometimes. We’re all flawed, and getting that across is a huge part of what makes Lerner and Loewe’s take on Camelot so effective.

1. “I Could Have Danced All Night” – My Fair Lady

The “My Fair Lady is a love story” naysayers may come after me with fire and pitchforks now, but that’s probably not going to change my mind that this is my number one love song by Lerner and Loewe. In Shaw’s Pygmalion, Eliza would be buoyed by her mastery of the English language. Here it is the moment, she says, ‘when he began to dance with me.’ Capturing Eliza’s ebullience in the moment of the recognition that it is the connection made between herself and Higgins as a result of her mastery of the English language is what shifts “I Could Have Danced All Night” into love song territory. And no matter where it ends, that first moment of joy is unique.

So that’s my list for today. Which Lerner and Loewe love songs you would choose for yours? Any that you’re passionate about that didn’t make my list? I’d love to hear about them via the comment box below. In the meantime, here’s a playlist of the songs mentioned in this column. Enjoy!

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