They collaborated on only two musicals and one revue, but Richard Adler and Jerry Ross were two of the greatest composers for Broadway in the 1950s. Their scores were memorable, exciting, and popular and critical successes. But their reputation has faded. Part of that is because showtunes are no longer a popular form of music. But even among Broadway aficionados, they were hurt because of their small output.
Adler and Ross grew up in New York City and soon took to composing music. They met in 1950 and, under the mentoring of Frank Loesser, became a songwriting team.
They were different from most other songwriters working together. Usually, when two people collaborated, one did music and the other did lyrics. But Adler and Ross were both composers and both could write lyrics. The result allowed them to let the other have a go at it if they were stuck. It seems a logical way to go, though most composers are probably not willing to let anyone else work on a song of theirs.
Their first success was in a few popular songs, which led to them contributing songs to the revue, John Murray Anderson's Almanac. It was successful enough to have the start on their first book musical. Teaming up with Broadway great George Abbott, who wrote the book, the result was The Pajama Game.
The Pajama Game is an unusual musical, one of the few where the boy gets the girl halfway though the first act. It's set in Sleepy-Time Pajama factory, it deals with the unlikely subject of labor-management relations. The plot is not all that much, but the songs make it into one of Broadway's greatest musicals.
Here's an example (Broadway buffs should recognize who choreographed it by about 25 seconds in):
But Adler and Ross were just getting started. The next year, the same team produced their best-known musical Damn Yankees, the story about how the upstart Washington Senators finally won the pennant, with a little help from the devil himself and his female demon Lola, who gets whatever she wants.
Damn Yankees cleaned up at the Tonys, winning the three awards The Pajama Game won the year before, plus Best Actor* , Best Featured Actor and Actress, and other technical awards.
Winning consecutive Tonys in your first two book musicals should have been the beginning of a superb career, but, alas, a few months after Damn Yankees premiered, Jerry Ross had died at age 29.**
Adler could never recapture the magic. Though he did provide musicals for a couple of shows, they flopped (though he did have some success doing musicals for TV). He returned to advertising and wrote some very successful jingles.***
Their two musicals are perennials in community theater circuit,**** but though people remember the shows, the names of Adler and Ross don't create any connection. But they deserve to be remembered as two of Broadway's greatest composers.
* Given to Ray Walston, later of My Favorite Martian and Picket Fences.
**Accounts differ as to whether it was due to leukemia or bronchiectasis, a lung disorder.
*** Including jingles for Kent Cigarettes, and "Let Hertz Put You in the Driver's Seat" (If you're unfamiliar with the ad, watch it to the end).
****Especially Damn Yankees; The Pajama Game is hurt by the effect of inflation: the plot involves trying to get a 7 1/2 cent an hour raise from the company, something that seems pretty paltry today.