Theatre yesterday and today



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One of the greatest composers to work with both equal distinction on the Broadway stage and during the Golden Age of Hollywood, was Burton Levy. Better known as Burton Lane, his professional moniker, it's not a name as well known as some of his friends and fellow tunesmiths of the era like Harold Arlen or Johnny Mercer. Nor does he hold the stature of the stable of lyricists with whom he collaborated, such as Ira Gershwin, Alan Jay Lerner. Frank Loesser or E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, who was the person responsible for guiding Lane towards the biggest Broadway hit of both their careers, 1947's Finian's Rainbow, the first show to be awarded the Best Musical Tony. Lane's choosiness with projects and partners was mainly responsible for his output not being equal to those already mentioned, but it doesn't diminish how much he should still be celebrated and remembered. Born on this date in 1912, anyone who wrote the soaring melody for "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" or the plaintive "Too Late Now," deserves a birthday tribute.

Burton Lane (circa 1965).

A child prodigy, Lane was working professionally by the age of fourteen. In fact, he would have scored one for the record books as the youngest composer to have ever hit Broadway had the Greenwich Village Follies, for which he had been hired, hadn't been cancelled due to the illness of its star, James Barton. Quickly, this young talent was hired as a pianist (or song-plugger) at Remick's, the fabled publishing house, where he came under the early support and tutelage of none other than George Gershwin. While there, he also met the lyricist Howard Dietz, who became another champion and eventual collaborator, and with whom he wrote many songs.

Through Dietz's good graces, Lane was able to make his Broadway debut by age eighteen, contributing two songs to a successful revue titled Three's a Crowd (1930). But this was the Depression, and so Lane had to do some arranging and accompanying of cafe singers in order to earn a living. He began a partnership with lyricist Harold Adamson, which yielded some good songs, one of which caught the ear of an MGM writer Allen Rivkin. Upon hearing Lane playing at a party, Rivkin was so impressed that he made an introduction at MGM, which led to Lane being employed at what was then the largest movie studio in the world. The song Rivkin heard, "Everything I Have Is Yours," was quickly dropped into the Joan Crawford-Clark Gable musical Dancing Lady, which is how Lane's West Coast career began in earnest.

After seven years in Hollywood, Lane got his passport stamped to return to the place of his birth and compose the music for a new Broadway show starring the one and only Al Jolson. Hold on to Your Hats (1940) featured some terrific numbers, one of which, “There's a Great Day Comin', Mañana,” has one of my favorite stanzas from lyricist Yip Harburg:

"There'll be high times, pie in the sky times,

So come you mourners and pick your plums.

There's a great day coming, Mañana ... if Mañana ever comes."

Not sure if it’s a fact or not, but I believe I recall once reading that it was on Jolson's

insistence his billing read “World’s Greatest Entertainer"—and that it was non-negotiable.

Unfortunately for the Hold on to Your Hats producers, Jolson’s clout was still so strong that he was the one calling the shots on the show. In spite of good reviews and good business, the egomaniacal star got quickly bored and (yearning for some sun and fun in Florida), forced its premature closing. Lane then hotfooted it back to Hollywood, where many of the songs he wrote for films would go on to become classics, such as “How About You?” (lyrics by Ralph Freed), first introduced by Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in Babes on Broadway (1941).

When Yip Harburg's usual partner, Harold Arlen, declined to write the music for a show Harburg had devised with co-book writer, Fred Saidy, Lane got the call to come east to write the score for Finian's Rainbow. A smash, with nearly every song recorded by leading artists of the day, Lane's graceful melodies fit perfectly with Harburg's delicious lyrics. It would be foolish to offer every number from the score as proof, but these five titles should suffice: "Look to the Rainbow," Old Devil Moon," "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love," "Something Sort of Grandish," and "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?"

Ella Logan as Sharon and Albert Sharpe as her father in Finian's Rainbow (1947).

It wasn't for want of trying, but it was nearly twenty years before Lane returned to Broadway. Being in constant demand in Hollywood (he ended up writing for thirty film musicals), Lane enjoyed the quicker deadlines and the finished product up on screens (and on radio) in what felt like no time. He did attempt a number of theatre projects during those years, but for a host of reasons, they never came together. Musicals of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Al Capp's L'il Abner (both successfully done by others in good time), were first explored via the keyboard of Burton Lane. What prompted his taking on another Broadway show in 1965, was another case of a first choice falling through, as it did with Finian's Rainbow. Alan Jay Lerner had been working with Richard Rodgers on an original musical about a young woman with ESP, but Lerner's poor writing habits, which involved constant delays and disappearances, drove Rodgers crazy. So Lane came on board, having previously worked with Lerner on the film score to Royal Wedding (1951). But Lerner’s erratic behavior, mostly the result of his being an amphetamine addict in those days, made for a rough time, even though the score they produced for On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is filled with great music. Fourteen years later, in spite of vowing never to work with Lerner again, Lane was cajoled into another show, Carmelina, which wound up folding quickly; an more miserable experience than On a Clear Day. It would be Lane's last Broadway show, and save for a minor cartoon score, composed with lyricist Sammy Cahn in 1982 for Heidi’s Song, the last we would ever hear from this wonderful composer, musically speaking.

A rare moment of conviviality between Alan Jay Lerner (standing) and Burton Lane (1965).

An activist, and a nurturer of talent (and steadfastly giving back all that was given to him as a youth), Lane served for ten years as President of the American Guild of Authors and Composers, as well as three terms on ASCAP's board of directors. He lived a long, happy and productive life, dying one month shy of his 85th birthday in February 1997.

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at