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Loewe, 'Fair Lady,' 'Camelot' Composer, Dies

February 15, 1988|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Frederick Loewe, whose chance meeting with Alan Jay Lerner nearly 50 years ago led to one of the more productive associations in American musical history, died Sunday afternoon in a Palm Springs hospital.

He was 86 and was admitted to Desert Hospital on Thursday after suffering a heart attack. Loewe had lived in Palm Springs for 25 years.

With such eternally glittering musicals as "My Fair Lady," "Camelot," "Brigadoon" and "Gigi," Lerner and Loewe ascended into the theatrical firmament to join such teams as Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, and George and Ira Gershwin.

Had the World Singing

Loewe's melodies and Lerner's lyrics had the world singing and whistling such songs as "The Heather on the Hill," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "They Call the Wind Maria," "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," "I Remember It Well," "If Ever I Would Leave You" and dozens more.

The association that ended on one of the more artistic and commercially successful notes in the American theater almost never began at all.

Loewe, the Viennese-born son of Edmund Loewe, star of such operettas as "The Chocolate Soldier" and "The Merry Widow," met Lerner, heir to the Lerner Shops chain and a Harvard classmate of John F. Kennedy's, when the two were at the Lamb's (theatrical) Club in New York City just after the outbreak of World War II.

Dissimilar in backgrounds (Loewe liked to brag that he had starved before meeting the already wealthy Lerner), they were exchanging pleasantries in the men's room at the club where Lerner was writing material for a spring revue.

Loewe remarked that he knew Lerner's work and said, "You write good lyrics."

"Would you like to write a musical with me?" he reportedly added.

Their first effort was for a Detroit stock company. It was called "The Patsy" and survived nine weeks.

The next effort went to Broadway but might as well have stayed in Detroit. It was called "What's Up" and folded after 63 performances. They followed that with the mildly successful (165 shows) but now forgotten "The Day Before Spring" in 1945, which did win a New York Drama Critics Award.

Then two years later came the acclaimed "Brigadoon," a fantasy set on the Scottish moors that won the best musical award from the New York Critics' Circle.

Finest Achievement

It led to road performances, revivals and a 1954 film starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse.

"Paint Your Wagon" in 1951 with its California Gold Rush setting was a lesser, albeit prosperous, production. But then--after Lerner had taken time out from the partnership to craft the screenplay for "An American in Paris"--came what most consider their finest and certainly longest-enduring achievement, "My Fair Lady" in 1956.

The adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" was not without its problems. They at first worked on it for five months, abandoned it for several more, but then completed what they hoped might be an acceptable score.

With Rex Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins and Julie Andrews as Eliza, "My Fair Lady" broke all existing Broadway box-office records. It won numerous awards in its first year on Broadway and ran for more than six years with 2,717 performances, then the longest in New York history.

Nine Academy Awards

It grossed nearly $12 million in its first two years and in 18 months sold more more than 1.5 million original cast albums.

The screen version, pairing Harrison with Audrey Hepburn, won nine Academy Awards.

Most of the songs in "My Fair Lady"--"Get Me to the Church on Time," "On the Street Where You Live," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," "With a Little Bit of Luck" and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face"--became a collective bunch of hits most songwriters could fashion only in a lifetime, if at all.

Harrison, in interviews over the years, recalled with fondness the great lengths both Lerner and Loewe were forced to go because of his limited vocal abilities.

"I had just four or five notes they could use," he said. "They produced a song embracing just those four or five notes and it was called 'I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face.' "

Original Film Musical

Then Lerner, the elegant and tightly wound apparel store heir who died in 1986 of lung cancer, and Loewe, the prodigy out of near-poverty who wrote his first song when he was 5, embarked on what many critics believe was the finest original film musical of all time: "Gigi."

It won the 1958 Academy Award as best picture and Oscars for Lerner and Loewe for the title song. It also was judged the best directed, best photographed, best musically directed, best edited and best costumed film of the year.

(They also supervised a 1973 stage production of that paean to youth that made its premiere at Los Angeles' Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.)

What proved to be their final major effort together came in 1960, the larger-than-life musical treatment of King Arthur's mythical court, "Camelot."

Melodious, Dramatic Tunes

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