By Robert Simonson
22 Jun 2012
Following a collaboration on the 1953 revue John Murray Anderson's Almanac, the team hit it big with The Pajama Game, which depicted a pajama-factory-set duel of wills between a handsome male superintendent and a spitfire female union representative. Naturally, animosity gives way to romance. "Richard Adler and Jerry Ross have written an exuberant score in any number of good American idioms," wrote Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times, "without self-consciousness…[They] write like musicians with a sense of humor." The show ran for more than 1,000 performances on Broadway and won a Tony Award for Best Musical. The title tune, "Steam Heat" and "Hernando's Hideaway" were quickly inducted into the nation's Popular Songbook. (Both men took credit for music and lyrics.)
While Pajama Game was still running on Broadway, Adler and Ross scored again with Damn Yankees, a modern retelling of the Faust legend in which a fan sells his soul to the devil in order to become the power hitter that will send his beloved Washington Senators to the championship. As with The Pajama Game, the score was infectiously tuneful and showed the influence of jazz and blues. "Heart" became a standard; star Gwen Verdon—as her sexiest as a devil's assistant—sold "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets"; and Ray Walston won stardom and a Tony playing Satan. Like its predecessor, the show ran for 1,000-plus performances and claimed the Tony.
The fruitful collaboration between the two men was cut tragically short on Nov. 11, 1955, when Ross died from complications of lung disease at the age of 29, just five months after Damn Yankees opened on Broadway.
Mr. Adler's last Broadway musical came in 1976 with Music Is, an adaptation of Twelfth Night. It received poor reviews and closed after eight performances. (A concert version of the forgotten show was produced earlier this year by the theatre school at Western Carolina University.) That same year, he served as producer only on Rex. Songs by Adler and Ross were used in the 2000 dance revue Fosse.
He also worked in other art forms, composing symphonic works, including "Wilderness Suite," commissioned by the U.S. Department of the Interior, and "The Lady Remembers," commissioned by the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation celebrating the statue’s centennial. He was commissioned to compose two ballets for the Chicago City Ballet, "Eight by Adler" and "Chicago." The Miami City Ballet commissioned him to compose a ballet based on Garcia-Lorca’s "The House of Bernarda Alba" in 1998.
During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Mr. Adler staged and produced numerous presidential entertainments, including the birthday celebration for President Kennedy featuring Marilyn Monroe singing a seductive "Happy Birthday, Mr. President."
Richard Adler was born Aug. 3, 1921. His father, concert pianist Clarence Adler, gave him a musical education. Following service in the Navy, he met Jerry Ross in 1950 and began writing songs with him. An early composition, "Rags to Riches," was recorded by Tony Bennett in 1953 and became a major hit for the singer.
In his later years, Mr. Adler's two classic entries in the musical genre kept him busy. Pajama Game and Damn Yankees are among the most produced musicals in American history. The former was revived on Broadway in 1973 and 2006, the latter in 1994.
Richard Adler was married a total of five times. He is survived by his wife, Susan A. Ivory; his children, Andrew Adler, Katherine Adler and Charles Shipman; and his grandchildren, Damien and Scarlett Adler and Lola Jane Shipman. He was preceded in death by his son, Christopher in 1984.