Rob Hardy on books


Article Comment 

Essential Details on the Greatest Musical



Rob Hardy


My Fair Lady is perhaps the grandest musical that ever came from Broadway. It emerged from the romantic tradition of American musicals, but it is a distinctively different romance. The two main characters are not only not lovers, they do not kiss or embrace. The ambiguity of their relationship is what makes the show a success; that's one of the lessons in Loverly: The Life and Times of My Fair Lady (Oxford University Press) by Dominic McHugh who lectures at the University of Sheffield. He also obviously loves the musical; he seems to have looked at every letter and memo regarding its inception, and if there is any trace of a discarded lyric, he has evaluated all its implications. The detail is at times overwhelming, but a show this beloved deserves it. Among the other lessons here is how astonishingly much work had to go into getting the show produced, and how close it came to not happening at all. Those who love My Fair Lady will value it anew for this, and for the wealth of history brought by this, the first comprehensive account of the musical's origin. 




If you want to go back to first sources, there is the Greek myth, recounted by Ovid, about the sculptor Pygmalion who sculpted a woman in ivory, a sculpture so beautiful that he prayed to Aphrodite to make her human. The goddess consented, and Pygmalion married his former statue; it is a fully romantic tale. Shaw drew from the legend, but didn't write a love story. His play Pygmalion instead nicely encapsulates Shaw's thinking about language and the British class system. The great phoneticist Henry Higgins undertakes as a bet the transformation of Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower seller, through lessons in elocution and deportment, into a model young lady. In the play, the stubborn Higgins and the fiery Eliza circle each other in combat more than in love; indeed, the word "love" does not come between them. Shaw was so tenacious in his attempts to keep the play from being regarded as a love story that he wrote a non-theatrical epilogue in which he explicitly stated that Eliza married her suitor Freddie.  




Shaw also fought off any attempts to make a musical of his play. He didn't mind a movie adaptation of Pygmalion, and indeed wrote some the screenplay for the 1938 version. (This script was to be a foundation of the musical.) His Arms and the Man he had allowed to be musicalized into The Chocolate Soldier in 1908, and he thereafter said that "nothing will ever induce me to allow any other play of mine to be degraded into an operetta or set to any music except its own." It was only his death in 1950 that allowed his estate to make such decisions. Many had seen the musical potential of the play, but turning it into a musical proved too difficult for Rodgers and Hammerstein, who gave up on the task. The lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and the composer Frederick Loewe had written shows together, including the hit Brigadoon, and they tried their hand at Pygmalion only to give up in their turn in 1952. Part of the problem is that they had wanted Mary Martin to play the role of Eliza, and she was eager, but once she heard the songs, she thought Lerner and Lowe had lost their talent. The idea was dropped but would not fade; Lerner and Lowe went back to the project in 1954, and things began to line up, but anyone who reads this book will be astonished at how many things had to be aligned for a Broadway debut to happen. It seems so obvious that Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews were ideal for their roles, but that's hindsight. Also considered for Higgins were John Gielgud, NoŽl Coward, and Michael Redgrave; for Eliza, Gertrude Lawrence, Judy Holliday, Judy Garland, and Petula Clark. Just getting a cast together at the right time proved enormously difficult, mostly because Rex Harrison was booked to continue playing in Bell, Book, and Candle; only a payoff to that show's producer freed him. And Harrison, who wanted the role, was skittish about singing and making his voice carry over an orchestra. In the first ever performance in New Haven in 1956, he refused to go on. There was a blizzard that night, and the producers used it as an excuse to announce the performance's cancellation, but an audience showed up anyway; Harrison only went on, forty minutes late, after his agent gave him an ultimatum. He did fine, and everyone there knew the show was going to be a smash. 




It still required work, the sort of collaborative snipping and tailoring required to keep a musical from being overlong or to weed out substandard music, words, and lyrics. McHugh has meticulously examined whatever remains of the cast-off portions, though, and finds more to the cuts than just standard editing. Lowe, after huge amounts of work, was fearless in cutting out chunks of that work (or recycling it to other later musicals). McHugh gives plenty of examples. The song "Why Can't the English" was overhauled in many places: "The change from 'Hear a Yorkshireman converse, / Cornishmen are even worse' to 'Hear a Yorkshireman, or worse, / Hear a Cornishman converse' is another example of an enhancement process: the original is adequate, but the change propels the song forward more effectively because the 'or' tells us that the next phrase will add something to the initial thought." 




McHugh shows repeatedly, though, that in an effort that would defy the commonsense idea of what a musical was about, the overtly romantic songs and lyrics were snipped or toned down. There was a song called "Shy," in which Eliza was to express much more explicit emotion than "I Could Have Danced All Night." The song about dancing stayed, but the one with a flagrant admission of love for Higgins was cut (even though Julie Andrews called it "a very pretty song"). Higgins was to sing a song called "Come to the Ball" with a chorus of "Come to the ball, come to the ball / With me." Of course they go to the ball, and of course Higgins famously extends his arm so that he and Liza can enter together, but the full scale expression of wanting her to go with him imbalanced the relationship between the two. For all their circling of each other in the musical, by turns provoked or entranced, they do not fall in love. "Lerner and Lowe," writes McHugh, "resolve the characters' ongoing battle without defining their relationship any more explicitly than it has been earlier in the show." The famous last line, "Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers?" confirms that Eliza and Higgins have cemented a prickly friendship, and the audiences go out happy with the idea that the friendship will continue. In a traditional musical, nothing but love and marriage would have resulted, but here is instead "the perfect ambiguous conclusion: the 'serenely independent' Higgins cannot love Eliza but is happy to admit that he has grown accustomed to her face." 




McHugh goes heavily on the musicology, and these sections of the book will baffle most readers. (It certainly does not take being a musicologist to enjoy the show or the book; it was seldom when reading these pages that the music was not playing in my head.) There is also scads of folklore about the musical and its first production that McHugh does not include; this is not a light anecdotal read. My Fair Lady, however, merits the careful attention, and will make any fan of the musical happy for new reasons to love it. 




back to top




Follow Us:

Follow Us on Facebook

Follow Us on Twitter

Follow Us via Email