5/4/11 - god help you if there is no one to reach out to

In today's excerpt - after years of planning and months of agonizing preparation, Alan Jay Lerner and Fritz Loewe had the smash hit of 1956 on their hands—My Fair Lady—the biggest hit in the history of Broadway up to that point. As the curtain fell, Lerner, who had written the book and lyrics for the show, had something unexpected to deal with, enormous success:

"At the end of 'The Rain in Spain,' the applause exploded like nuclear fission. Walking down the side aisles of the theatre, I saw almost a thousand faces with eyes sparkling with tears, smiling as if it were a contest and applauding like cymbals. I walked to the back of the theatre and stopped pacing. When the final curtain fell, the members of the audience rose from their seats and surged forward down the aisles, crying 'Bravo,' and applauding with their hands over their heads. There was curtain call after curtain call.

"It was so overwhelming that I felt lonely. I rushed backstage to [lead actor and star] Rex Harrison's dressing room. The first person I saw en route was Marlene Dietrich who was all in white from top to toe, her face covered in white powder. She embraced me so forcefully that when we separated her face had the normal skin tones and I had the powder. I went around to see everyone to thank them and congratulate them. The stage was filled with members of the audience who were, in some way, connected with the people in the cast. I cannot recall what anybody said to me, nor can I even remember my own feelings. It was too far beyond any experience that I could have been prepared for.

"There was no opening night party, and had there been one I would not have gone. I have always avoided them out of self-preservation. One is so easily fooled by opening night applause that every opening night party is high on hopes alone before the first drink is served, and the higher the expectations the shorter they fall. Nothing is more painful than a New Year's Eve atmosphere that comes to an abrupt halt when the first reviews come in and they are bad. To me it is difficult enough to live through an opening night without having to be a good sport afterwards. So I usually sequester myself in some small room with a small group of steadfast chums who will love me in December as they did in May.

"On this opening night I had taken a small room at '21' to which, along with my civilian chums, came Moss and Kitty [Hart], Rex, the Liebersons and Irene Selznlck. [My songwriting partner] Fritz, having not a doubt in the world of the outcome, followed the tradition and went to Sardi's for the standing ovation. The reviews were idyllic, but Rex was Rex to the very end and flew into a blinding rage (which, of course, passed quickly) because he felt the New York Times had not given me my due.

"By two in the morning I was numb. Not from alcohol—I could not have gotten drunk on a case of brandy. All I knew was that when we separated everyone seemed blissfully happy, and I reacted more to their happiness than to the reviews.

"By the time I arrived home I was calm and very tired, but I clearly remember one thought that crowded my mind—or was it a feeling? When I fail I withdraw into myself in search of some place to keep warm. A triumph, as I was fortunate enough to have that night, is quite a different matter. You cannot hide and so you instinctively reach out. If one is alone, one can survive a failure reasonably intact: but success steals your defenses and leaves you on top of the world, stark naked. When you reach out, God help you if there is no one there to reach out to."


Alan Jay Lerner


The Street Where I Live


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 1978 by Alan Jay Lerner


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