Obituary: Burton Lane

Tom Vallance
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:51

Although Burton Lane wrote superb melodies for films and shows for over 50 years, he is one of those composers who is revered within the profession but whose name is less familiar with the public than it deserves to be. His work for the stage includes one of the acknowledged masterpieces of musical theatre, Finian's Rainbow, while his film work includes such hits as "Everything I Have is Yours", "I Hear Music", "How About You?" and "Too Late Now".

Born Burton Levy in 1912 in New York, he studied classical piano as a child and at the age of 11 started composing, blending classical forms with modern rhythms. At 14 he was heard by an agent of theatrical producers, the Shuberts, who commissioned him to write songs for a revue, Greenwich Village Follies. When the revue was cancelled due to the illness of its star James Barton (Lane would have been the only 14-year-old composer with a score on Broadway), Lane declined to follow his father in his real estate business and found work as a pianist at the publisher Remick's, where he became a protege of George Gershwin, who both encouraged him and gave him advice. (One of Lane's later hits, "Says My Heart", imitates the broken descending scale of an earlier Gershwin tune, "Tell Me More".)

He also became friends with the lyricist Howard Dietz, and his first two Broadway songs were interpolations in the Dietz-Schwartz revue Three's a Crowd (1930). The following year, with the lyricist Harold Adamson, he wrote "Say the Word" for The Little Show and the complete score for Earl Carroll Vanities. With the Depression, he turned to arranging and accompanying cafe singers, and with Adamson had two modest song successes in 1933, "Tony's Wife" and "Look Who's Here".

The MGM writer Allen Rivkin heard Lane playing a melody at a party and was impressed enough to recommend him to his studio. The song was "Everything I Have Is Yours" (lyrics by Adamson), which was immediately interpolated into the Joan Crawford-Clark Gable musical Dancing Lady (1933). Further films to feature Lane/ Adamson melodies included Bottoms Up (1934), Strictly Dynamite (1934), Kid Millions (1934), and Folies Bergere (1935).

Signed by Paramount in 1937, he persuaded them to put the young lyricist Frank Loesser under contract. "I heard a couple of songs Loesser had written with Manning Sherwin," said Lane, "and I was bowled over by Frank's lyrics." Lane and Loesser wrote a beguiling score for the Bob Hope/ Martha Raye musical College Swing (1938), including "Moments Like This" and "Howdja Like To Love Me?", plus "Says My Heart" for Cocoanut Grove (1938), "The Lady's in Love With You" for Some Like It Hot (1939), and "I Hear Music" for Dancing on a Dime (1941). Lane returned to Broadway to collaborate with the lyricist/librettist E.Y. Harburg on the score for Hold on to Your Hats (1940), which was Al Jolson's final Broadway show. (It closed prematurely when Jolson decided to return to the sun of Florida.)

Back at MGM, Lane wrote (with lyrics by Ralph Freed) one of his greatest hits, "How About You?", introduced by Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in Babes on Broadway (1941), a wistful ballad, "Poor You" (lyrics by Harburg), sung by a young Frank Sinatra in Ship Ahoy! (1942), and for the screen version of Dubarry was a Lady (1943) a catchily syncopated comedy number (lyrics by Ralph Freed) called "Madame, I Love Your Crepe Suzettes".

Al Dubin, a former lyricist on the Busby Berkeley musicals, collaborated with Lane on the Broadway score for Laffing Room Only (1944) starring the comedy team Olsen and Johnson. The Shuberts, who were producing the show, were feuding with Ascap, the songwriters' union, and refused to have the songs broadcast, but three years later Lane persuaded the singer Dorothy Shay to sing the show's hillbilly tune, "Feudin' and Fussin' " on Bing Crosby's radio show and it became an enormous hit.

In 1947 Lane had the biggest success of his career with the score for Finian's Rainbow. E.Y. Harburg, the most socially conscious of all songwriters, stated: "I had long wanted to do a show about a Southern racialist who is turned black, and I'd always loved the idea about a leprechaun with a pot of gold." The merging of the two ideas produced a show which dealt with race relations in the context of an escapist musical comedy. ("My family have always hated immigrants," says the Southern senator. "Ever since we came to this country.") Harburg's long-time collaborator Harold Arlen had turned the project down as "too political", and Lane battled with Harburg over some of the content, persuading him to take out a lynching sequence, and ensuring that the politics were tempered with humour and compassion as well as a host of gorgeous melodies.

The biggest immediate hit song was "How Are Things in Glocca-Morra?", but others to achieve popularity included "If This Isn't Love", the captivating waltz for the leprechaun, "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love" and "Old Devil Moon", an unusually constructed ballad. The gavotte, "Something Sort of Grandish", the lilting "Look to the Rainbow" and the madrigal "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich" are other numbers with enchanting melodies to match Harburg's sharp lyrics.

Lane then collaborated for the first time with Alan Jay Lerner on the score for MGM's Royal Wedding (1951), which included a lovely ballad, "Too Late Now", which was nominated for an Oscar, and the song with the longest title in song history, "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I've Been a Liar All My Life?" "We thought the film was getting too cosy," said Lane, "and needed something ricky-ticky." He later expressed dissatisfaction with some of Lerner's works. "I thought some of my tunes deserved better, especially `Every Night At Seven' and `I Left My Hat in Haiti', which was contrived." One of the melodies, used for Fred Astaire's celebrated dance on the walls and ceilings, had originally been heard in Kid Millions as "I Want to Be a Minstrel Man". With Lerner's new lyrics, it became "You're All the World to Me".

A 1953 television musical, Junior Miss, had songs by Lane and Dorothy Fields, and in the same year Lane collaborated with his longtime friend Ira Gershwin on the film Give a Girl a Break, which, despite some good songs ("Applause, Applause", "In Our United State") and fine dancing by the Champions, Bob Fosse and Debbie Reynolds, was given little fanfare by its studio.

Lane started working with Harburg again on a screen musical based on Huckleberry Finn to star Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye and William Warfield, but when Harburg was blacklisted by Hollywood for his left-wing leanings, Alan Jay Lerner was brought in as lyricist. Though they completed a full score, the film was never made. Later, when Lerner wrote a musical about extra-sensory perception called I Picked a Daisy, his initial composer was Richard Rodgers, but when the two men terminated their partnership Lane stepped in and composed a fine score for a flawed show, now titled On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965).

Lane blamed the problems on the show's book and Lerner's unwillingness to cut material. When it became apparent to Lane during the try-out tour that the show would not succeed, he allegedly organised the firing of the leading man, Louis Jourdan - not because he was playing the part badly, but because Lane felt a better singer would preserve the songs more viably on the eventual original cast album. The songs were indeed highly praised though the show was not. The title tune immediately became a standard, but the buoyant "SS Bernard Cohn", torchy "What Did I Have I Don't Have", lilting "Hurry, It's Lovely Up Here" and bouncy "Wait Till We're 65" are among other delights in one of the last great "traditional" Broadway scores.

Despite complaining that working with the drug-addicted Lerner resulted in "the worst two years of my life", he worked with the lyricist again on what was to be Lane's last Broadway show, Carmelina (1979), starring Georgia Brown and based on the Gina Lollobrigida film Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell. It lasted only two weeks, but boasted some good melodies, notably two wistfully nostalgic numbers, "It's Time for a Love Song" and "One More Walk Around the Garden".

The following year, Lane and Harburg teamed one last time to write a ballad, "Where Have I Seen Your Face Before", recorded by Maxine Sullivan and Michael Feinstein on their respective album tributes to Lane. In 1982 Lane and Sammy Cahn wrote songs for a poorly executed animation feature, Heidi's Song.

But Finian's Rainbow is the score for which Lane will always be most remembered and it was to have an effect on his writing too. "I used to think in terms of having hit songs in a show," he said, "but this libretto was so strong I decided not to try to be commercial, but to write what I thought the characters should sing - and that's when your best writing comes through. I've never tried to write a hit song since, and I've had more hits since then than I ever had before." Harburg said of Lane, "He was very critical of himself, always changing things and wanting to get things better - but that's true of any good writer, isn't it?"

Burton Levy (Burton Lane), composer: born New York 2 February 1912; twice married (one daughter); died New York 5 January 1997.

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