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Rich Life of Frederick Loewe Composed in Elegant Notes

February 16, 1988|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

Composer Frederick Loewe died in Palm Springs Sunday night at the age of 83. Fritz Loewe hadn't written a show in years, but oddly enough he had come to mind just recently, at the opening of "Phantom of the Opera."

The Phantom's big seduction number, "The Music of the Night," opened with a wistful six-note phrase that sounded oddly familiar.

Of course. "Come to Me, Bend to Me," from "Brigadoon" (1947). How had Alan Jay Lerner's lyric gone? "Come to me, bend to me, kiss me good day/Gie me your lips an' don't take them away."

"Gie me" because "Brigadoon" was supposed to happen in Scotland. The simplicity of that line! Very different from the rococo ambience of "Phantom of the Opera." Lerner and Loewe wrote scores for some big shows--"Camelot" (1960) was the biggest--but they never tried to blow the audience out of the theater. That was for peasants.

The art for these gentlemen (Lerner died two years ago) was to draw the listener in. First the ear, then the heart. The words, Lerner's department, would be literate, but not literary. The music, Loewe's department, would be gay or tender, without overstating its case or overstaying its welcome.

"Too many notes" the emperor had once said to Mozart. "Just as many as necessary, your Majesty," he had replied. That was Loewe's credo as a theater composer. Elegance excluded overpreparation. The song was to fall naturally on the ear to say what the character would have said if he could liquefy his feelings into notes.

"I've grown accustomed to her face . . . Like breathing out and breathing in." The songs from "My Fair Lady" (1956) were as fresh and fragrant as a lilac sprig, so right that the listener immediately felt he owned them, had always known them. This was the show that Rodgers and Hammerstein had turned down. Set Shaw's "Pygmalion" to music? Impossible. Too dry. Too special. Lerner and Loewe showed them how.

Loewe could write in the American mode, as in "Paint Your Wagon" (1951), but even there, he seemed to be writing about an imaginary place. Like the composers of the Viennese operettas that he had grown up with, he wrote a romantic line. Not hearts and flowers, perhaps--he was too witty for that--but certainly hearts.

Loewe and Lerner wrote for the movies too. Remember Louis Jourdan pacing through the Tuileries Gardens in "Gigi" (1958), astonished to find that his favorite young lady has become a young woman?

This isn't a fragrant little song, but an extended musical sequence, as skillfully wrought, if not as deep, as Billy Bigelow's soliloquy in "Carousel"--a tracing of a character's mind up to the brink of a tremendous revelation.

And as Jourdan reaches that realization, all the fountains in Paris burst on. "Gigi" made a nice musical on the stage too; but that effect, they couldn't get.

Another song from "Gigi" was "The Night They Invented Champagne." Loewe's best songs are champagne. Not burdensome, not message-laden, but good for the spirits and the heart. He ordered well, lived well (once even flying to Vienna just for dinner), wrote well. And when he didn't feel like writing any more, he stopped. Wise man.

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