When I get interested in something, I really get interested in something and I want to know everything there is to know about it…I think it’s called obsession. Anyway, my current obsession is “My Fair Lady.” I’ve been listening to it for months now; I take it with me when I have errands to run and sing and gesture while I’m driving and hum my way happily through stores and libraries. If I am in the middle of a song when I finally pull up to the house, I pause a moment with the motor idling so I can finish it. I even fall asleep listening to it.
I’ve been feeding this obsession with a book called The Making of My Fair Lady (1993) by Keith Garebian. Garebian takes the reader through a brief history of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and how it was made into a movie in 1938 by the unlikely producer, Gabriel Pascal….who was broke at the time. Garebian then proceeds to a brief summary of the life of Alan Jay Lerner, the lyricist, and his collaboration with composer Frederick Loewe. Before “My Fairy Lady,” the two had done “Brigadoon” and “Paint Your Wagon” and would go on to write “Gigi” and “Camelot.”
Evidently, many composers had considered turning Shaw’s play into a musical, but had all found the task too challenging. Oscar Hammerstein felt that it couldn’t be done. At the time, musicals were supposed to have subplots (“Pygmalion” does not) and a chorus, which no one could figure out how to insert into a musical Pygmalion. There was also the problem of how the play was not a romance (believed to be necessary for a musical) and was essentially confined to a drawing room (many of the events we associate with the musical – the ball, Eliza’s finally speaking correctly – occur offstage in the play).
They solved their difficulties, however, by determining to follow the film version more than the stage version of Pygmalion. They also felt they could dispense with adding any subplots since the characters present were sufficiently interesting. Likewise, they decided to embrace romance, although Lerner felt that Leslie Howard (Professor Higgins in the movie) was a little too sympathetic and aware of Eliza’s feelings and Lerner wanted to make the musical Higgins more self-absorbed, as in the play. “My Fair Lady’s” Higgins only has his moment of self-awareness and revelation at the end, when he sings “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”
From a very early stage, Lerner and Loewe wanted Rex Harrison to play Higgins. He couldn’t technically sing, but developed something similar to Sprechstimme (German for speech-voice) and would basically talk on pitch. Lerner and Loewe wanted the actress who played Eliza to be roughly the same age as the character Eliza and they cast nineteen year old Julie Andrews, who was getting good notices for her performance in “The Boyfriend.”
The rehearsals were slightly tense. Rex Harrison was irascible (just like Higgins) and was constantly trying to make sure that the Americans writing the musical (Lerner and Loewe) stayed true to the very British “Pygmalion” and the lines. He was so insecure about singing (especially with the full orchestra, which made it difficult for him to find his pitch in the mass of sound) that he nearly refused to sing on the opening night in Connecticut. People had come through a blizzard to attend the opening and Rex Harrison only emerged 30 minutes before the show began.
Julie Andrews also encountered difficulties. She’d been performing for most of her life, but she was lost at the beginning of rehearsals. Eliza Dolittle is a difficult role to play and she couldn’t get a handle on the character. The stage director, Moss Hart, wasn’t sure she would ultimately cut it, so he dismissed the rest of the cast and spent two days drilling her in the role. Miles Krueger, who as acting as an assistant, was the only witness to the session and later said “it was like lifting the veils. And two days later, when rehearsals resumed, Julie Andrews was, full-blown, the Julie Andrews we know today…”
The results for the musical were spectacular. Both Andrews and Harrison were superb on opening night (and how I wish I could have been there). Along with rave reviews, it became the longest running musical of the time and won 6 Tony awards, was nominated for 10 (Harrison won, Andrews lost). Alan Jay Lerner always thought it was simply the perfect combination of actors, director, set designer, costume design, everything.
Garebian spends the last portion of the book detailing why the musical was so successful and how the songs fit so well, psychologically, to the story. Garebian considers it one of the most literate musicals ever performed, with an attempt to take Shaw seriously and not just use his play as inspiration. Dedicated Shavians never quite forgave the addition of a romance, but they did admit the musical was delightful.
Garebian also makes the case that although it does not look like a particularly cutting-edge musical, it was quite unique at the time. There are no duets, no real choruses. Eliza and Higgins never have a duet…let alone a romantic one. In fact, the word “love” is never even mentioned. It is the music that brings in the romantic subtext, while the lyrics stay largely true to Shaw’s original words.
Notes: I have been alternating between listening to two cast recordings. “The Original Broadway Cast Recording” (1956) and the “Original London Cast Recording” (1959). Both Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews reprised their roles in London several years after opening in New York, where the British were eagerly – almost ecstatically – waiting for the musical to arrive in England, where they adored it and were impressed at how well Americans were able to adapt one of their plays.
Both recordings have Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway (as Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Dolittle). One difference is that the Broadway album was recorded in mono and the London album was recorded in stereo, but I’m not a very astute listener, apparently, and difference is almost negligible to me.
The big difference is the speed of the music. The London recording is much more upbeat and when I’m listening to it while driving, I find myself speeding along at a slightly unlawful pace, especially with songs like “Show Me”. Also, Julie Andrews had to put back some of the Cockney in her accent for the British audiences that she had toned down for the Americans.
When the original Broadway recording was released, it became such a huge seller that it topped the charts for 15 weeks (at various stages in 1956). I wonder what was the last time a musical topped the charts?
Random Thought: I was thinking about what “My Fair Lady” would be like as a non-romantic musical. I don’t think it would have been as good a musical…at least musically speaking. I’m not sure what kind of a musical it would have made. Garebian argues that Lerner and Loewe make the romance work, mostly through the music (specifically through the last song “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”) and that his last line “Where the devil are my slippers’ is more an example of saving face than anything else. However, whether you agree with him or not, I don’t think there’s any denying that without a romantic framework, Lerner and Loewe could not have written music as gloriously, romantically, sweepingly thrilling as they did.
See here for images of the recording session for “My Fair Lady.”
And to hear Jeff Lunden’s story, on NPR, about the making of “My Fair Lady,” see here.