Alan Jay Lerner Responded to my Blog from the Grave

One of my readers is a Medium.

No, I’m not talking about his t-shirt size.  I mean, he hears the voices of Dead People.  And after last week’s blog about Adaptations (which got a ton of reads), Justin – The Medium/Reader in question – emailed me with a response to the blog from none other than the long deceased lyricist and librettist, Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady, Brigadoon, Gigi).

It looks like Mr. Lerner had some very strong and surprising feelings about my blog, and about adaptations versus original works.  His feelings were so strong that he spoke to Justin through his 1952 published script of Paint Your Wagon.  Yep, Justin opened his script last week and there it was, so he sent it to me.  Because it was actually like the masterful Mr. Lerner was right here talking to us today.

I’m going to let Mr. Lerner’s words do the opinion-ating about this subject, because he pretty much says it all.  Oh, and he told Justin, through the published script, that this column should be titled “Advice to Young Musical Theater Writers.”

Enjoy it, and thanks to Justin for passing it along:

by Alan Jay Lerner
Originally Published in 1952

In recent years there has been an ever-increasing number of adaptations in the theater and, by consequence, a steady decline of original works. This has been especially true of the musical play (musical play as opposed to musical comedy). There have actually been only three successful original musical plays in the last decade. This dearth has frequently been mentioned in the press, and when it has been, it has always been accompanied by a mournful cry for more fresh creation. As one who has written four originals, the one between these covers included, let me hereby warn all aspiring authors and composers to stuff their ears with cotton and pay no heed to this soulful wail. No one, neither critic nor public , is clamoring for originality. The only desire is for something good. And to be good is quite original enough. If you create a total work that finds general acceptance, no mention will be made of what you have done. If it’s unsuccessful, no one will commend you for your effort and encourage you to continue. All this I can state as a positive fact. And though it may seem edged with bitterness, I can assure you it is not. I have always been fully aware of the folly of that end of my endeavor and have often cursed ambition that drives me. But with it all, my rewards in the musical field have been far in excess of what I truthfully feel I have contributed. No, my reasons for the above advice are sound and practical and come from one who loves his trade and has deep respect for it as a medium of expression.

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  • Jim says:

    I love that article, and I think of it often is these discussions. If you would like the full text of Lerner’s essay, you can find it on my link above.

  • Polo says:

    The biggest problem for any writer of musical theater (regardless of age) IMO, comes early on when the writer/s must decide which project to work on. First decision, original or adapt? If you choose to adapt, it can be way out of reach to get the ‘rights’ to said project, let alone pay for an option, unless you are one of the 2% or have backers in place. Not an easy feat. Most writers can’t get the rights.

    But we also know that most original musicals are ultimately doomed fail at the box office. The irony is that every movie, or book, or story that was ever adapted to a musical, started it’s life as an original piece. Book of Mormon was an original story, showing it can be done, but those guys have recourses most writers don’t have.

    There are hundreds of classes throughout the U.S that teach musical theater composition. So maybe hundreds of musicals are being generated by both students and professionals, each year, all vying for one of the twenty-something available venues on Broadway. If it doesn’t ever get to Broadway, you lose money. Sure it’s great art, but that’s all.

    It’s a game for the 2%. Probably also that way in Alan Lerner’s day. That guy had a ton of money.

  • Cydney Halpin says:

    OMG!! This is too fabulous!!! Everything old is new again! It’s not everyday that one hears from the grave…Way to go Ken!

  • George says:

    That’s pretty much my original take i.e. not to worry about being “original” just be good!

    And I think – to that point – if the Music is good – people won’t care about whether the story is derived from something else…

    But what is “Good Music?” Lerner knew… and was talented enuff to compose solid songs.

    I still think that – having a Known Story – allows the audience to sit back and better enjoy the musical interpretation of that story… as is the case with 90% of Opera.


  • Elisa Clayton says:

    Great article! However, I rarely enjoy plays or musicals adapted from films that I’ve seen. They tend to bore me.

  • Ilene Argento says:

    Best line, that really is the strongest take-away, for me …. “And to be good is quite original enough.” No need to elaborate – it says it all!

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