Previously unpublished letters written in March 1986 by Lerner — obtained by Dominic McHugh, a musicology lecturer at the University of Sheffield, from Lloyd Webber for a book he is editing entitled "Alan Jay Lerner – A Lyricist's Letters" — state that he pulled out of the project because of his battle with lung cancer.
In the first letter, dated March 20, 1986, Lerner wrote, "I really don't see any way that all my parts will be reassembled on time to do the show and I am desolate. All the more because I had a whiff of an exciting collaboration… When I am finally, truly well and no longer look like The Phantom of the Opera, I will call. If there is still time to do one or possibly two lyrics, perhaps I can throw in a few rhymes."
Eleven days later, Lerner wrote again, explaining that what the doctors thought was pneumonia had been diagnosed as lung cancer.
He said, "I am deeply disconsolate about The Phantom and the wonderful opportunity it would have been to write with you. But I will be back! Perhaps not on time to write The Phantom, but as far as I am concerned this is a temporary hiccup. I have a 50/50 chance medically and a 50/50 chance spiritually I shall make it. I have no intention of leaving my beautiful wife, my beautiful life and all the things I still have to write. As far as I am concerned it is a challenge, and I fear nothing."
Lerner died June 14, 1986, at the age of 67. In "Alan Jay Lerner – A Lyricist's Letters," scheduled to be published by Oxford University Press at the end of August, McHugh includes Lerner's letters to Cameron Mackintosh, Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison and more.
Charles Hart wrote the lyrics to Phantom, which features music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and a book by Richard Stilgoe. The score was Tony-nominated in 1988, and the production took home the 1988 Best Musical Tony. The Phantom of the Opera currently runs at Broadway's Majestic Theatre.