By Christine Frezza
The musical My Fair Lady is based, as everyone knows, on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, written in 1916 and later turned into a successful film starring Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard. Gabriel Pascal, the film’s producer, knew that the play would make a brilliant musical, and sought for two years to find a composer and lyricist who would attempt such a transformation; but he was turned down first by Noël Coward and then by Rodgers and Hammerstein, who gave up after struggling with the script for a year.
Two years after Pascal’s death, the team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe decided to undertake the project, and My Fair Lady opened on Broadway in March of 1956. Its run lasted for 2,717 performances, becoming the longest-running Broadway musical in history, easily outclassing the then-record holder, Oklahoma; it lasted through 1962 on Broadway and launched both national and international touring companies.
In 1964, George Cukor made My Fair Lady one of the most beloved movie musicals of all time, retaining the original Higgins and Alfred Doolittle (Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway), but creating somewhat of a scandal by replacing Julie Andrews with Audrey Hepburn in the title role (the singing given to the popular Marni Nixon). Though Andrews had created the role and had a far superior voice, Hepburn was at this point more of a “star,” carrying a financial guarantee of the film’s success. Andrews got some of her own back, though; My Fair Lady won the best picture Oscar that year, as well as seven others including those for actor, director, costumes, and music; but Hepburn wasn’t even nominated for best actress. That year the award went to Julie Andrews for her title role in Mary Poppins.
One of the most prominent reasons for the musical’s popularity lies in the retelling of the Greek myth of Pygmalion, the sculptor who created a statue of Galatea, the perfect woman, brought to life for him by Aphrodite, giving rise to the many popular transformations of “clay” into perfection, as in Phantom of the Opera, and Petruchio’s “taming” of Katherina into a perfect wife in The Taming of the Shrew. In Pygmalion, Higgins is the sculptor and Eliza the clay which he molds into a pleasing and deceiving shape. However, the Eliza of My Fair Lady takes a more active role in her own transformation and at play’s end becomes a necessity for Higgins, who has “grown accustomed to her face.” Shaw didn’t want this romantic ending at all, despite describing his play as a romance in five acts: he says in the postscript to Pygmalion, “She will, if she marries either of them, marry Freddy. And that is just what Eliza did” (Pygmalion [Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1956], 116).
He goes on to explain that only Eliza’s speech had been improved; her business sense was still undeveloped, but she opened a flower shop and had a hard time of it because Freddy was a poor businessman. Pickering, the quiet unsung hero, saves them. However, the sparring between Higgins and Eliza continues in Shaw’s “sequel” and Alan Jay Lerner makes us think it will continue in My Fair Lady by his last line: “Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers?” (My Fair Lady [New York: Signet, 1956], 128). What gives the audience a different kind of joy in My Fair Lady than Pygmalion is, of course, its music, which enables a more complete transformation of Eliza and, eventually, the reluctant Higgins. The dryness of Shaw’s dialogue, when matched with the wit of Lerner’s lyrics and the cleverness of Loewe’s setting, result in a seamless and ever-pleasing production. According to Brooks Atkinson: “The great thing . . . is the uniformity of its skill: it brings as much enthusiasm to the intellectual elements of the story as it does to the characters. . . . It radiates some mysterious rapture and incandescence that are unique and enduring” (Atkinson, Brooks, “original notes for the movie soundtrack release of 1965,” cited at www.audrey1.com/articles/articles15.html).
The songs cover the entire spectrum of musical and lyrical genius. From the ballad “On the Street Where You Live” to the hope song “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” which demands that Eliza’s dream be satisfied, from the comedy songs “A Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church” to the irony songs “Just an Ordinary Man” and “Just You Wait” from the dance numbers “The Ascot Gavotte” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” to the plot songs “You Did It” and “The Rain in Spain” which leaves the audience breathlessly anticipating the necessary outcome —Eliza says it right!
The last song “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” finalizes the transformation of spirit of not only Eliza, but of Higgins himself; it mirrors Freddy’s soaring “On the Street Where You Live” but in a quieter, more wistful vein—a recognition of what Higgins thinks he’s lost. Hearing this song the audience knows that Eliza will come back—she must come back for the reconciliation of these two hearts. Even Higgins’ last attempt to keep the upper hand by demanding his slippers gives way to the swell of the orchestra, whose demand for the happiest of endings will not be denied.