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ALAN JAY LERNER preferred to live with his head in the clouds, in a fantasy world where marriage was an endless honeymoon, his giddy creative high never ceased, and life’s mundane details couldn’t touch him. The ultimate romantic, he never really grew up, or wanted to.

Lerner was the dashing Oscar- and Tony-winning lyricist and librettist of four classics –
Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, Gigi, and Camelot. He wrote rhapsodically of love in words that seem to dance off the page: “Here we are together in the middle of the night/Don’t talk of spring, just hold me tight” (“Show Me”); “Your hair streaked with sunlight, your lips red as flame/Your face with a luster that puts gold to shame” (“If Ever I Would Leave You”). Even in 1986, when he died with eight marriages and almost twenty years of flop shows behind him, he had never lost faith in the transforming power of love.

That optimism is the essence of cabaret singer Barbara Brussell, a zany, poignant California blonde, long based in New York. Her sweet, silvery voice is the sound of eternal spring, and she uses it with the impetuousness of someone who’s always ready to put her heart on the line, whatever the cost. Whether as a madcap comedienne or a torch singer, her smiling-through-tears quality tugs at the heart. Since the mid-‘80s, Barbara has brightened the country’s top cabarets, including the Cinegrill and the Gardenia Room in Hollywood, San Francisco’s Plush Room, the Colony Hotel’s Royal Room in Palm Beach, and the Oak Room of New York’s Algonquin Hotel. In 2004 she made her symphonic debut with the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra.

On January 17 of that year, Barbara launched her Lerner tribute in the Oak Room. Stephen Holden of the
New York Times wrote that the show “ought to establish Ms. Brussell as a singer and storyteller ready to join the dozen or so performers on cabaret’s top rung.” It also revealed her to be a perfect interpreter of Lerner. “He was writing Cinderella stories for us,” says Barbara, who gives off the same sunshiny air of the girl at the ball. “Like Brigadoon – a town comes back to life only once every hundred years, comes back for love. He hoped for that ideal. It breaks my heart. It broke his heart too. Living in reality broke his heart.” Only rarely, as in “I Loved You Once in Silence,” did Lerner allow himself to peek behind the twinkly veil and see the other side of Camelot.

Born in Manhattan on August 31, 1918, Lerner was a Harvard- and Juilliard-schooled intellectual and a staunch left-winger. In 1942 he began a profound partnership with Frederick Loewe, the Viennese composer whose airy, lilting music gave his lyrical fantasies wing. The team’s first smash,
Brigadoon (1947), ran 581 performances; M-G-M later brought it to the screen. He parted temporarily from Loewe to work with Kurt Weill (the musical Love Life), and to write the screenplay and score (with Burton Lane) for M-G-M’s Royal Wedding (1951). It includes “You’re All the World to Me,” in which Lerner looks into the face of true love and can’t contain his joy. Neither can Barbara, whose performance is pure bedazzled glee.

In 1956 came
My Fair Lady, which ran a staggering 2,717 performances and yielded at least six future standards. “Show Me,” Eliza Dolittle’s flustered complaint to a verbose suitor, is slowed into a dreamy bossa nova by Todd Schroeder, Barbara’s sensitive arranger and pianist. Gigi (1958) won nine Oscars; Lerner was honored for his screenplay. He & Loewe had one more Broadway smash in store: Camelot (1960), the love story of King Arthur and Guinevere.

Ever the unruly child, Lerner needed the grounding of such disciplinarians as Loewe and Moss Hart, who staged
My Fair Lady and held his hand throughout its creation. Dealing with Lerner could be a trial. For years he was hooked on speed, which kept him a workaholic, but an erratic one. As a husband, he lived for the initial golden glow, and couldn’t hack the maintenance work that followed. “He needed excitement,” says Barbara. “He needed glamour. He needed acknowledgment constantly.”

After Hart died in 1960 and Loewe retired in 1962, Lerner’s output faltered. He turned his passion for E.S.P. into
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965), a musical with a fine score, co-authored by Lane. But Lerner’s book was panned, and his failings in that regard helped sink his later shows. Never one to fuss over such plebeian duties as taxpaying, he was sued by the IRS for $1.4 million.

His autumnal work had a newfound nakedness.
Carmelina, which ran two weeks in April 1979, included “One More Walk Around the Garden.” It sounded like the piercing elegy of a man who couldn’t bear to see life end. A few years later, for what would be his last produced show, he wrote “There’s Always One You Can’t Forget.” Barbara’s version shivers with the acceptance of an ache that can never be soothed.

The Broadway musical it came from,
Dance a Little Closer, opened and closed on May 11, 1983. Its failure was blamed mostly on Lerner’s convoluted book. But it was a valiant effort, with a score, composed by Charles Strouse, that Barbara calls “absolutely exquisite.” To its theme of anti-war, Lerner added an element that was far ahead of its time: a subplot about two gay flight attendants who want to marry but cannot. Lerner based them on a gay couple he knew and adored. Outside a church, the characters sing “Anyone Who Loves.”

Barbara’s soaring rendition of that brief, powerful statement sums up what Lerner believed and what she does, too. The song, she says, relates to “any injustice. Life is fragile. It’s like walking through a field of land mines. But there are man-made land mines in the field of life, instilling fear rather than love, tolerance, unity. ‘There ought to be a ray of sun that shines on anyone who loves …’ A shield, a light of protection from the war mongers. LOVE BRINGS HOPE.”

-- James Gavin, New York City, 2005

[James Gavin, the author of
Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret, is writing a biography of Lena Horne for Simon & Schuster.]