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Frederick Loewe

Frederick Loewe

Austrian-American composer Frederick Loewe (b. Berlin, Germany, June 10, 1904; d. Palm Springs, California, February 14, 1988) was the creator, along with American librettist and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, of some of the most durable and beloved works of the American musical theatre in the twentieth century. Winner of two Tony Awards® (Best Musical, My Fair Lady 1957, Best Score, Gigi 1974), an Oscar® (Best Song, “Gigi” 1959), and three Golden Globes® (Best Score and Best Song, Camelot 1968; Best Score, The Little Prince 1975), he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972.

Fritz Loewe’s parents were from Vienna; his father Edmond Löwe was an eminent Viennese operetta star who made his home in Berlin but traveled all over Europe and North and South America. Though the boy regularly attended a Prussian cadet school, he frequently toured with his father, learning to play the piano by ear at age four, and composing songs for his father’s music hall performances by the time he was nine. At fifteen Loewe wrote a popular song that sold a million copies (of sheet music). He had advanced piano instruction with Ferruccio Busoni and Eugène d’Albert, and had already debuted as a soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic at thirteen before entering the music conservatory. He studied composition with Nikolaus von Rezniek and was awarded the prestigious Holländer Medal upon graduation.

In 1924 Frederick Loewe accompanied his father to America, never to return home. He gave a recital at Town Hall but it failed to lead to other engagements, and soon he was reduced to taking pupils and playing in night clubs. Unable to make a living, he tried a variety of supplementary jobs: busboy, riding instructor, boxer. He went west to Montana and worked sporadically as a cowboy, gold miner, and mail carrier, eventually returning to New York to eke out a living playing in bars and silent movie houses.

Loewe contributed a song to Petticoat Fever on Broadway in 1935 and wrote a musical, Salute to Spring, which was produced in St. Louis in 1937. His next effort, Great Lady (1938), was produced on Broadway with an enormous stellar cast, but it survived for only twenty performances. It appeared that the Viennese operetta style, which was in Loewe’s blood and toward which his music strongly leaned, had gone out of fashion.

Loewe’s persistence began to pay off in 1942 when he met the witty, urbane, Harvard-educated story-writer and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner at The Lambs, a New York social club for professionals of the entertainment industry, and proposed a collaboration. The first project this historic team would undertake was for a stock company in Detroit, a musical adaptation of twenties farce-writer Barry Conners’s The Patsy called Life of the Party. It ran for nine weeks and sparked another joint venture, What’s Up?, this time for Broadway (with director and choreographer George Balanchine!). Its modest success – sixty-three performances – was followed by another, The Day Before Spring (“You Haven’t Changed At All”), which ran for nearly the entire 1945–46 season.

Lerner and Loewe’s first decisive hit was the romantic fantasy Brigadoon (1947), with its enduring classic, “Almost Like Being in Love,” and other memorable tunes, “Waiting for My Dearie” and “The Heather on the Hill.” A few years later, Paint Your Wagon (1951) was less successful at the box office, but made a powerful impression over the popular air waves with “They Call The Wind Maria,” “I Talk To The Trees,” and “Wand’rin’ Star.”

In 1956 the curtain went up on the biggest hit ever to flow from the pens of Lerner and Loewe, My Fair Lady. With the delightful accents of Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle and Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins setting off ineradicable tunes like “Wouldn’t it be Loverly,” “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and “On the Street Where you Live,” this adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion broke box-office records in both New York (2,717 performances in its first run) and London. It won a Pulitzer Prize and six Tonys®, and was made into a movie with Audrey Hepburn (ghost-sung by Marni Nixon) in 1964, winning eight Academy Awards®.

But the collaborators’ next project in 1958 broke even that record: the classic film musical Gigi, based on Colette’s novelette and starring Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, and Louis Jourdan, won nine Oscars®, including Best Screenplay and Best Song. That “Best Song” was the title number, “Gigi,” but far easier to recall now are “Thank Heaven For Little Girls” and “I Remember It Well.”

Lerner and Loewe had one more big Broadway hit in 1960 with Camelot (“If Ever I Would Leave You,” “The Lusty Month of May”), starring Julie Andrews, Richard Burton, and Robert Goulet. The screen version, with Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Harris, followed in 1967, winning two Golden Globe Awards® for Loewe. But by that time, the partnership had broken up and Loewe, who had suffered a heart attack in 1958, had retired to Palm Springs, California.

The pair did work together on an augmentation of the score of Gigi for Broadway in 1973, which won a second Tony Award® for Loewe. The next year they again collaborated on a film version of Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. Although Loewe’s music was nominated for two Oscars® and won a Golden Globe Award®, the film was not a commercial success in its own time. It is currently available on CD and DVD and gaining in popularity.

Loewe was married once, to Ernestine Zwerline, in 1931; the marriage ended twenty-six years later in divorce. His death was due to cardiac arrest.