Of all the great songwriting teams that have flourished on Broadway, none appeared so unexpectedly, burned so brightly and vanished so quickly as that of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross.
Adler and Ross had only two big hits—but, to be fair, they wrote only two shows: The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. Their initial success was due to the support of one of the most prominent men of mid-century Broadway—composer-lyricist Frank Loesser, a great songwriter and a shrewd businessman.
After his triumphant 1950 musical Guys and Dolls, Loesser decided to build his personal publishing house, Frank Music, into a real competitor to the established firms that dominated the music business. But to do that he would need product, not just his own songs but those of up-and-coming, unaffiliated writers—talented youngsters he could put under contract, then publish and promote their songs.
In the early 1950s, aspiring tunesmiths peddled their wares in the Brill Building, the hub of the songwriting trade. They would spend their days taking their songs from office to office, floor to floor, looking for a receptive ear. When they needed a smoke they hung out on the sidewalk at Broadway and 49th Street—what they called The Beach— where they would swap stories and gripe about the music racket.
That’s where Richard Adler met Jerry Ross.
They were both young, they liked each other on sight and decided to try collaborating. They both wrote words and music, although all Adler could play was a toy xylophone.
One of their early efforts was a novelty about the hissing and clanging of a steam radiator:
Well, they knew this was a masterpiece, so they shopped it to Mitch Miller, the song chief for Columbia Records. He listened patiently and said, “Boys, save it for a show.”
That was Miller’s way of saying, “It’s crap.” But, unintentionally, Miller was partly right. Adler and Ross’s songs were theatrical, more situation-specific than the usual Tin Pan Alley product.
And that stage instinct was what caught the attention of Frank Loesser—that and the chart success of their first solid record hit: Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches,” which sold over two million copies.
Loesser wasted no time. He “collected” the boys for his stable of writers and soon placed a couple of their songs in a now-forgotten Broadway revue. Their work was dismissed as “routine,” but Loesser believed in their talent and continued to mentor them in the art of theatrical song writing. After a few months Frank called them into his office and said “I think you’re ready to write a real show.”
He brought in director George Abbott, the veteran hitmaker whose motto was “LOUDER, FASTER, FUNNIER!” Abbott said, “Boys, I have a property I’m going to direct. It’s about a strike in a pajama factory. I know it doesn’t sound like Rodgers and Hammerstein, which is why they’re not writing the score.”
The show was The Pajama Game, and “the boys” finished the songs in five weeks.
And it wasn’t a Rodgers & Hammerstein show, it was a musical comedy. But it was a rational musical comedy, in the new “musical play” style, with a few elements thrown in “just because”—for example, an irrelevant novelty (their old trunk song “Steam Heat”) which became a legendary showstopper.
The Pajama Game was a show about real, everyday people, the kind of folks you’d meet on the job or at the ball game. Audiences saw themselves on stage, and responded with gusto. It had a pop score; the songs sounded like current jukebox hits, which many of them became: “Hey There,” “Hernando’s Hideaway,” even “Steam Heat.” The Pajama Game established Adler and Ross as 1954’s most promising new team, and they delivered on that promise one year later with Damn Yankees, the Faust legend translated into the world of pro baseball.
Like The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees won the Tony for Best Musical. It gave the Broadway Songbook a few more standards: “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets,” the locker room anthem “Heart” and the slithery duet “Two Lost Souls.”
It’s hard to imagine Adler and Ross adapting their Hit Parade style to a period show, or adjusting to the new sound that would take over the record charts in 1956: rock ’n’ roll.
But we’ll never know. Jerry Ross suddenly died in November 1955 from a lung disease that had been dormant since childhood. Richard Adler continued to write musicals and pop songs, but he never found a partner to reignite his writing talent and ended his career as a successful producer and director.
By ALBERT EVANS, Artistic Associate