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The Complete Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner

Edited by Dominic McHugh and Amy Asch
Book Review by Ken Bloom

(Full disclosure: Amy Asch is a good friend of mine and Oxford University Press is the publisher of my last book, Show and Tell as well as my next, a biography of Eubie Blake written with Richard Carlin.)

The Complete Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner is part of a proud series of books (see additional readings below) of the complete lyrics of Broadway greats. And what a book it is, covering Lerner's first lyric, "Choate Football Song" written in 1934 to his final lyrics scribed in 1985. That career spanned a period of time when Broadway and Hollywood went from being the primary source of top pop hits to being an infrequent source.

In the thirties and forties composers could count on songs from their film and stage scores to serve as a valuable gateway to Tin Pan Alley fame and fortune. Of course, times changed and by the mid-sixties, rock and roll had established itself and the sounds of Tin Pan Alley were more likely Elvis and the Beatles. There were some exceptions of course, like the song "On a Clear Day," written by Lerner with composer Burton Lane. And speaking of Burton Lane, he was endlessly annoyed by the slow pace of Lerner's writing. It could take Lerner months to finish a lyric. It took him six months to write the title song of Clear Day and over twenty-six drafts.

Many of the songwriters who wrote Broadway shows from mid-century through today, like Bock and Harnick, Strouse and Adams, Jones and Schmidt, and Stephen Sondheim, devoted themselves almost exclusively to songs meant to be performed on stage or film by a specific character in a specific situation.

And that's exactly what Lerner did. His libretto alone doesn't tell the whole story. The lyric informs every part of the song, it's purpose in the show, what effect it has on the character that sings it and the fellow characters, how it advances or comments on the plot, and what it imparts to the audience. For a theatre lyric serves many purposes.

And, unlike most of the "Complete Lyrics of" books, Amy and Dominic let you know what's happening in the plot up to that point. They also point out especially felicitous turns of phrase, relate the song to others in Lerner's canon, and much more.

Each chapter starts with a factual overview of the show: tryout dates, Broadway run, credits, cast, etc. Then an essay on the history of the production, followed by the lyrics. And the lyrics include an introduction to the lyric and its place in the show. Many also include footnotes on changes during and after production.

Let's just say that I can't think of anything this book does not cover related to the lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner. The scholarship is excellent and thorough. And that makes for a hefty 607 pages. Not exactly a beach read. So, here's what I've done. I have purchased the Kindle edition which fits nicely on the tablet and I can easily scroll to the songs from the comfort of my couch while I following along with the cast recording.

This book is a must have for the musical theatre aficionado. And even if you aren't familiar with shows like The Day Before Spring or Lolita, My Love, it's still a pleasure just reading Lerner's witty, erudite, deeply emotionally, and playful lyrics.

Masterfully arranged. Thoughtfully annotated. Great insight into the author's full oeuvre.

The Complete Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner Edited by Dominic McHugh and Amy Asch
632 Pages
Oxford University Press
Publishing date: March 1, 2018
ISBN: 9780190646738

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