Richard Adler, the composer and lyricist who helped shape two of the most ebullient musicals of the mid-20th century, “Damn Yankees” and “The Pajama Game,” from which emerged enduringly popular songs such as “Hey There,” “(You Gotta Have) Heart” and “Whatever Lola Wants,” died June 21 at his home in Southampton, N.Y. He was 90.
His family announced the death but did not disclose the cause.
Brimming with memorable songs, “Damn Yankees” and “The Pajama Game” were Broadway powerhouses in the 1950s, became Hollywood films and have been in theatrical revival ever since. They catapulted Adler and his collaborator, composer and lyricist Jerry Ross, to the front rank of theatrical songwriters for several years.
Between them, “Damn Yankees” and “The Pajama Game” provided hit parade standards for a bevy of pop singers: Rosemary Clooney (“Hey There”), Patti Page (“Steam Heat”), Eddie Fisher (“Heart”), Sarah Vaughan (“Whatever Lola Wants”) and Archie Bleyer (“Hernando’s Hideaway”). Singers as varied as the Shirelles and Burl Ives have interpreted the duo’s work.
The voluble Adler described his flourishing partnership with Ross for the New York Times in 1955. “We’ve got rules,” he said. “If I come in with what I think is a beautiful idea and he says, ‘I don’t like it,’ I can scream, I can rave, but it’s out.”
The songs ranged from the colloquially lyrical “Hey There” (“Hey there, you with the stars in your eyes . . .”) to the novelty madcap “Hernando’s Hideaway.” The latter, Adler told the Associated Press, was dashed off after George Abbott, director of “The Pajama Game,” was explicit about his need for a zippy tune to round out the second act.
“He said, ‘Write a song that can be performed in a dimly lit, smoke-filled nightclub with a lot of fervent-looking people. Oh, and make it Latin,’ ” Adler said. “It was a piece of cake for me.”
The result was a tango-tinged number with an unmistakable whiff of a tryst in the making: “I know a dark secluded place/A place where no one knows your face/A glass of wine, a fast embrace/It’s called Hernando’s Hideaway . . . Ole!”
Adler and Ross achieved an unexpected songwriting credit in 2000 when the rhythm-and-blues singer Debelah Morgan heavily sampled “Hernando’s Hideaway” on her club standard “Dance With Me.”
Proteges of composer and lyricist Frank Loesser, Adler and Ross first emerged as a bankable songwriting team in 1953 with top hits for Fisher (the ballad “Even Now”) and Tony Bennett (“Rags to Riches”).
Adler and Ross were the principal songwriters of the 1953 revue “John Murray Anderson’s Almanac,” which became a Broadway success with Harry Belafonte in the cast.
Their reputation was cemented with “The Pajama Game” (1954), a romance set amid labor-management tensions at a pajama factory, and “Damn Yankees” (1955), a baseball-meets-Faust story. Both shows swept the Tony Awards, including honors for best musical, and played for two years on Broadway.
“The Pajama Game,” adapted by Abbott and Richard Bissell from Bissell’s novel “7 1/2Cents,” was distinguished by its modern dance choreography by Bob Fosse and its stars John Raitt and Carol Haney. Besides “Hernando’s Hideaway,” “The Pajama Game” helped popularize such songs as “Hey There” and “Steam Heat.”
Abbott and Fosse were also deeply involved in “Damn Yankees,” based on the Douglass Wallop novel “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant.” The show was best remembered for its star turn by Gwen Verdon as the vampish Lola, a devil’s disciple who entices a baseball fan to sell his soul to play for the Washington Senators.
While the Adler-Ross shows broke little ground, Time magazine noted that the exuberant music, first-rate cast and racehorse pacing made for a crowd-pleasing formula that “fills the theater with the kind of scintillant noise, color and action that movies and TV can never imitate.”
Ross died at 29 in November 1955 of a chronic lung infection, and Adler never again achieved the same level of sustained success.
With songwriter Robert Allen, Adler emerged with a bouncy pop hit for Doris Day in 1958 (“Everybody Loves a Lover”). He also wrote advertising jingles, but he had dismal luck with later Broadway ventures. His 1961 musical “Kwamina,” set in a West African village, folded quickly. So did “Music Is” (1976), based on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”
He served as an arts consultant for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the 1960s. He produced the May 1962 gala event at New York’s Madison Square Garden honoring President John F. Kennedy’s birthday, which is mostly remembered for actress Marilyn Monroe’s sultry delivery of “Happy Birthday to You.”
Richard Adler was born Aug. 3, 1921, in Manhattan, where his father, Clarence Adler, was a noted concert pianist and music teacher. The younger Adler showed talent for writing poetry, which led him to study writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
After graduating in 1943, he served in the Navy during World War II and then focused on his burgeoning interest in songwriting.
Adler’s marriages to Marion Hart Rogier, actress Sally Ann Howes, Ritchey Banker and Mary St. George ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 21 years, Susan Ivory; three children, and three grandchildren.
The death of his son Christopher in 1984 after a bout with throat cancer proved transformational, he said. He became a devotee of a form of meditation called Siddha yoga, which he said brought him strength after a lifetime of being a “devout coward.”
In the latter part of his career, Adler composed ballets for dance companies in Chicago and Miami. Calling himself “the Anniversary Kid,” he earned commissions for symphonic and orchestral works often tied to celebrations such as the Statue of Liberty centennial. He was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 1984.
“With my lucky bonanzas — the royalty checks from ‘Pajama Game’ and ‘Damn Yankees’ are getting bigger, there are hundreds of stock and amateur productions a year, and an Australian ‘Pajama Game’ is being produced this year — I can do what I want to do, and I don’t always have to be identified with ‘Steam Heat,’ ” Adler told the Times in 1989.