TheaterMania Logo
Theater News

Lunch with Richard Adler

Filichia dines with Richard Adler, who's still got heart -- and lots of great stories. logo
Richard Adler and cast of the 2002
Wagner College production of The Pajama Game
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
It's August, the one time each year that Richard Adler lets me buy him lunch. We see each other about five or six times annually and, each time, he either hosts me at his classy East Side townhouse or we go out to a restaurant where he insists on paying the check. As he always says good-naturedly, "I suspect I have more money than you."

Yes, he does. What Adler accomplished in the '50s will surely never be matched by any other composer-lyricist. In the span of less than a year -- 357 days, to be exact -- he had two musicals open that would win consecutive Best Musical Tonys. With Jerry Ross, he co-wrote the music and lyrics to The Pajama Game, which opened on May 13, 1954. Then, by the time everyone knew "Hey There," "Hernando's Hideaway," and "Steam Heat," suddenly there was Damn Yankees on May 5, 1955 with "Whatever Lola Wants," and "You Gotta Have Heart." The latter is also the title of Adler's autobiography.

It's an apt title. Adler really had to have heart to go on after his beloved partner died of a bronchial disease at the frighteningly tender age of 29. I still can remember when I was 16, after having read in one musical theater history book about Ross's premature death, seeing in Stanley Green's The World of Musical Comedy a picture of Adler and Ross. It was the first time in my life that I ever said, "Oh, he was so young!" about anyone who'd died; the picture shows a genuine kid with a brush cut, open-necked shirt and sleeveless sweater.

Adler has pretty much worked by himself ever since. His tribal songs for Kwamina are the greatest stretch by any Broadway composer that I've ever witnessed -- and that includes the worthy, Gallic-infused scores that Jerry Herman provided for Dear World and Stephen Schwartz bestowed on The Baker's Wife. Adler wrote Kwamina for his wife Sally Ann Howes, who went on to have an affair with her leading man during the Toronto tryout. (Talk about trouble out-of-town!) After the show's quick closing, Adler went to Washington to arrange the entertainment for the Kennedy administration. He's the one who suggested to Marilyn Monroe, "How about singing 'Happy Birthday' to the President?"

In 1967, he did the TV musical Olympus 7-0000. That score contains one of his best songs, "Better Things to Do"; it can only be heard on LP but it's worth the price of a turntable. A year later, Adler wrote A Mother's Kisses. The show closed in Baltimore but we will soon be able to assess its score because Robert (Sherry!) Sher is planning to release a studio cast album. Music Is, Adler's 1976 adaptation of Twelfth Night, made it into town but only played a couple of weeks -- yet everyone I know who caught it loved his music.

I first met Adler in 1994 when his musical Off-Key, with a book by Bill C. (Mass Appeal) Davis, was being produced at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He appreciated my enthusiasm for his work, that I asked questions about the old days, and that I recognized the names of everyone with whom he had collaborated; "Few critics do," he said dryly. The fact that I later wound up raving about Off-Key couldn't have hurt. The wonderfully quirky yet tender show is about two developmentally disabled adults who want to get married and the two teachers who go to bat for them. Alas, Adler and Davis didn't see eye-to-eye on what needed to be done, and they eventually abandoned the project. But I'll never forget that day in June, 1997 when we had finished lunch and Adler looked me square in the eye, saying: "I'm glad I did Off-Key because, otherwise, I wouldn't have met you."

Cole Porter
I'm sure glad I met him, too. I cherish our time together, when he tells me of his musical theater adventures. A few months ago, at Rain, he told me about the 1955 phone call in which the fellow with a high-pitched voice on the other end identified himself as Cole Porter. "And I'm Irving Berlin," said Adler, assuming that a pal -- probably his dearest friend, Bob Merrill -- was playing a trick on him. But the man kept insisting that he was really Cole Porter and he invited Adler to dinner at Michael's Pub that night, "after I see Damn Yankees for the fifth time." Adler went to Michael's Pub at 11:30, assuming that he'd find no one there or maybe Merrill -- "but there he was," he says, his voice still tinged with astonishment.

That part of this story appears in You Gotta Have Heart, but not the rest of it. Says Adler, "He was most fascinated by 'Whatever Lola Wants' and wanted to hear everything that went into making that song." Frankly, I understand why; I can see where it's a second cousin to Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." Porter must also have been fascinated by the way that Adler and Ross worked; notice that their credits don't say "music by Richard Adler, lyrics by Jerry Ross" or vice versa. It's "music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross." They sat in a room together and fed each other lines -- and oh, what lines they were!

As I mentioned above, Adler always picks up the check when he and I dine together; only in August does he not fight me, albeit reluctantly, because that's his birthday month. He turned 83 on August 3 and I'm happy to say that he looks tanned and well-rested, with a spring in his step despite his battles with cancer and heart problems, both of which he won. Best of all, he's still writing -- ballets, mostly, which get done around the country. He's looking forward to next season's Broadway revival of The Pajama Game, to be directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, and to the movie remake of Damn Yankees.

I showed up at his townhouse and was very careful as I walked into the entrance hall; there was that winter day three years when I took off my heavy coat too quickly and almost knocked over one of the ceramics that he has displayed there. I learned in January that such an accident would have been even worse than it sounds, for when I was in Barcelona and went to the Picasso Museum, I recognized the ceramics there as brothers of those in Adler's place. "Yeah," he said when I asked him about it, "I bought them for about $60 to $100 each when I was in Majorca in 1958."

Adler also owns a Gauguin fan, which the Metropolitan Museum borrowed a while back when it had an exhibition on that noted artist, and a self-portrait by Zero Mostel. What isn't displayed in his home is any hint whatsoever that the songwriter of two classic Broadway shows lives there -- no framed window cards, sheet music, or CD covers like you see at, say, Wright and Forrest's apartment. "I'm not good about holding on to the past," Adler says, and I'm very sorry that he isn't.

So what did I learn during this year's birthday lunch? That he and Bob Merrill once collaborated on a musical version of W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage so that Sally Ann Howes could play Mildred. Though David Merrick optioned it, the show went unproduced. Worse, Adler has no idea where the score is now -- any more than he knows where to find all the work that he did on When in Rome, his musical version of Roman Holiday. I'm starting to think that, if either score had been buried under one of those Picasso ceramics, I might have done better to smash the pieces to the floor.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

Tagged in this Story