Composer, Richard Adler dies at 90
Composer writing music and lyrics for TV jingles “Let Hertz Put You in the Driver’s Seat”

June 23, 2012

By Margalit Fox

Richard Adler, a composer and lyricist whose towering early successes on Broadway in the 1950s — the smash hits “The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees” — were followed abruptly by the death of his creative collaborator, died on Thursday at his home in Southampton, N.Y. He was 90.

His family announced the death.

With Jerry Ross, Mr. Adler wrote music and lyrics for “The Pajama Game” (1954), a comedy about labor agitation in a pajama factory, and “Damn Yankees” (1955), a Faustian romp about a man who sells his soul to the Devil so that he may lead his beloved Washington Senators to victory on the baseball diamond.

Each show ran for more than 1,000 performances, each won the Tony Award for best musical, and each teemed with songs that quickly became standards — including “Hey There” and “Hernando’s Hideaway” from “The Pajama Game” and “Heart” and “Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets)” from “Damn Yankees.”

By mid-1955, Adler and Ross songs had sold millions of recordings and made the two men among the most sought-after creators of American musical theater. But their collaboration — just five years in all — ended a few months later with Mr. Ross’s death, at 29, from bronchiectasis, a lung disease.

Afterward, Mr. Adler, a largely self-taught composer, wrote relatively little for Broadway. He confined his output mainly to symphonic works and advertising jingles and also embarked on a producing career.

As a producer, he was responsible for the lavish Madison Square Garden fund-raiser of 1962 that featured Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy birthday, Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy.

Richard Adler was born in Manhattan in August 1921; his father, Clarence, was a pianist and teacher of some distinction. As a child, Richard disdained the family business: whenever a young male pupil came to the Adler home for a lesson, he would answer the door, baseball bat in hand, and pronounce the caller a sissy.

The Tony Award-winning composer and lyricist Richard Adler in 1961 with Sally Anne Howes. Credit Associated Press
But his father was too clever for him. Knowing that Richard wrote poetry, he engaged a colleague — a student of Aaron Copland’s — to set to music a verse by his son, then 7.

The resulting song (which included the lines “The moon, the moon, the moon, the moon/The moon came up in the afternoon”), pleased young Richard immensely, and with that, he later said, the course of his life was set.

Mr. Adler earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina and during World War II served with the Navy in the Pacific. In 1950 he met Mr. Ross outside the Brill Building, the hive for songwriters on Broadway at 49th Street.

They developed a modus operandi that was so seamless — each man contributed words and music to each song — that it was ultimately impossible, they said, to pinpoint who had done what.

In 1953 the two men wrote music and lyrics for “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac,” a Broadway revue. That year, a song of theirs, “Rags to Riches,” became a hit for Tony Bennett.

But nothing could have prepared them for the success of “The Pajama Game” (directed by George Abbott and Jerome Robbins and starring John Raitt) and “Damn Yankees” (directed by Mr. Abbott and starring Stephen Douglass, Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston), which opened within a year of each other.

By 1955, with two hits running, the pair were exhilarated but exhausted. They planned to wait at least a year before starting another musical, they told The New York Times that June. That November, Mr. Ross died.

“I was devastated,” Mr. Adler said on the NPR show “Fresh Air” in 2006. He added, “I’m still devastated.”

Alone, he wrote music and lyrics for “Kwamina,” a musical about Africa starring Brock Peters, Robert Guillaume and Sally Ann Howes, which ran for 32 performances in 1961. Mr. Adler’s work on the show was nominated for a Tony Award.

He turned to writing music and lyrics for TV jingles (“Let Hertz Put You in the Driver’s Seat”) and to orchestral works like “The Lady Remembers,” inspired by the Statue of Liberty.

Mr. Adler was married several times, including to Ms. Howes. Survivors include his wife, Susan A. Ivory; three children, Andrew Adler, Katherine Adler and Charles Shipman; and three grandchildren. A son, Christopher Adler, died in 1984.

Mr. Adler’s work with Mr. Ross endures in film adaptations (“The Pajama Game” was released on screen in 1957, “Damn Yankees” in 1958); occasional Broadway revivals; ubiquitous amateur productions; and in movies, TV shows and commercials.

Though he and Mr. Ross contributed more or less equally to every number that bore their names, some songs began as the exclusive brainchild of one man or the other, as Mr. Adler recalled on “Fresh Air.”

“I went to the bathroom one day, and when I got in there, I decided, ‘I’m not leaving this room until I’ve written a song about something in the room,’ ” he said. “There were certain things you can’t write about in a bathroom. Then, all of a sudden, the radiator started clanging and hissing.”

The result was “Steam Heat,” the jazzy opening number of Act 2 of “The Pajama Game.”