Wednesday, September 28, 2011

BRIGADOON: Stranger Than Fantasy

Brigadoon is a musical fantasy, but in some ways the story of its authors and its history are no less fantastic.

In 1947 Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe hit the jackpot with Brigadoon, the third show they’d written together. Agnes De Mille (Oklahoma) won the Tony for her choreography. Brigadoon was revived on Broadway in 1950, 1957, 1963, 1980, 1986 and 1991. It was transformed into a major motion picture in 1954, starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, and directed by Vincente Minnelli. But probably its most praised non-stage version was a television special in 1966 starring Robert Goulet, Sally Ann Howes and Peter Falk.

Though several songs from Brigadoon are numbered among Lerner and Loewe’s best, one has become a standard: ““Almost Like Being in Love,” recorded by (among others) Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, Natalie Cole and James Taylor.

Lerner and Loewe reunited with Agnes De Mille in the 1951 Broadway musical, Paint Your Wagon. It, too was successful, but like Brigadoon it has been overshadowed by two subsequent Lerner and Loewe shows. My Fair Lady in 1956 set a record for the longest running musical. Camelot in 1960 was a critical and box office hit. Both are frequently performed around the world. Lerner and Loewe also collaborated on the film musical Gigi, which won ten Academy Awards.

But like the course of true love that is the subject of Brigadoon, the road to theatrical success does not always run smoothly. Alan Lerner later boasted that he would routinely reject the first two versions of every song Loewe wrote, knowing he could do better. But when the music was done, Lerner was known to take a very long time to write the lyric. After Brigadoon, Loewe was heard pledging he would never work with Lerner again. But of course he did, beginning again only three years later.

Their working relationship continued to be fractious, and broke down completely during the writing of Camelot. Loewe retired, and Lerner’s subsequent efforts never matched his success with Loewe.

The female lead for Brigadoon in 1947 was a relative unknown: Marion Bell, a light opera singer who had toured with the Marx Brothers (Marxists will remember her from Night at the Opera  as the young woman who asks to use the phone to call her Aunt Minnie in the famous overstuffed stateroom scene.)

Lerner helped cast her, and he soon married her, but the marriage barely outlived the run of the show. (It was Lerner’s second of 8 marriages.) Though Bell was praised for Brigadoon, illness soon virtually ended her career. It was Marion Bell's first and last Broadway show.

Marion Bell figures in one of the more bizarre controversies involving Lerner and Brigadoon, as well as drama columnist and wit, George Jean Nathan (“Some people drink to make themselves interesting,” Nathan once said. “I drink to make other people interesting.”)

Nathan wrote that Lerner had plagiarized the basic story of Brigadoon from an early 19th century short story by the German writer Frederich Wilhelm Gerstacker, entitled “Germelsausen.” Lerner vehemently denied it, and in his autobiography he accused Nathan of carrying out a vendetta against him because Nathan had tried to win the affections of Marion Bell and was rejected. Bell denied this, and said she had met Nathan only once, at an awards luncheon. “This denunciation of Nathan, published thirty-one years after the event, is almost as petty and bitchy as Nathan’s original charge,” wrote Gene Lees in The Musical Worlds of Lerner and Loewe. “Nathan’s accusation seems massively irrelevant, a little like charging Shakespeare with not having invented the plot of Romeo and Juliet.”  In 1992, Miles Kreuger wrote that the German story was indeed the source of Lerner's script--and that it was discovered, translated and given to him by none other than Frederick Loewe.

Alan Jay Lerner came from a wealthy family, and attended the Choate prep school in New England with John F. Kennedy—they were coeditors of the yearbook. (That Lerner’s Camelot came to be associated with JFK closes that particular circle.)

As a lyricist, Lerner might have been slow but as a writer he was prolific. He wrote the original screenplay for the classic Gene Kelly film An American in Paris (with music by George Gershwin), and the Fred Astaire movie, Royal Wedding. He also wrote a string of unsuccessful Broadway musicals with other notable composers including Leonard Bernstein and Andre Previn.

Lerner and Loewe reunited once more, for the 1974 musical film The Little Prince. They both received Kennedy Center Honor Awards in 1985. Lerner died six months later, and Loewe died in 1988, on Valentine’s Day.

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