Tag Archives: Lerner and Loewe

Gigi (1958)

22f11555026If I had a time machine and could go anywhere at all, I would go back to the opening night of My Fair Lady in 1956. My Fair Lady has what is for me one of the most glorious, exhilarating, beautiful, even magical, scores of any musicals. However, while My Fair Lady was enjoying its sensational run on Broadway, the composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner came to Hollywood and helped turned Colette’s novella Gigi into a musical.

The stories are so similar, it’s almost impossible not to compare the two. Critic Bosley Crowther even joked that Gigi “bears such a basic resemblance to My Fair Lady that the authors may want to sue themselves.” The first time I saw it, my reaction was tepid. The music just never seemed to take off and soar like it does in My Fair Lady. However, on viewing it a second time, I have to admit that as a movie, Gigi might be more successful than the later 1964 film adaptation of My Fair Lady. Vincente Minnelli directed, some filming was done in Paris and on the whole it feels far more fluid and attractive than the more stage-bound and slightly stiff My Fair Lady (which I still watch frequently because it’s the closest I’ll ever get to the opening night in 1956 and I really shouldn’t complain).

The story occurs during the turn of the century in Paris. Gigi (Leslie Caron) is being raised to be a courtesan by her grandmother, Mamita (Hermione Gingold), and Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans). Meanwhile, Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan) is wealthy and bored, while his uncle, Honore Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier), seems to love every minute of his life as a roue. The only people Gaston feels like he can relax with is Gigi and Mamita…until he realizes that Gigi’s no longer a child and he offers to make her his mistress.

When I watched Gigi this second time, it struck me that though the musical is called Gigi, it’s not really about her as much as it is Gaston (though I suspect that is not the case in the novella). Gigi seems like an enigma to me. We never find out why she’s like she is – unaffected, innocent despite being trained up as a courtesan, dissatisfied with the prospect of being a courtesan and playing the games of love. What makes her so different? Was it her grandmother’s doing?


Louis Jourdan, Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Hermione Gingold

Hermione Gingold as Madame Alvarez – “Mamita”-  provides an unexpected center and heart for the film, suggesting all sorts of depths of character. She’s savvy, has a sense of humor, knows how to ingratiate herself with men, even Gaston. She was, after all, a professional courtesan, though she doesn’t seem to have made out as successfully as her very wealthy sister Alicia. Was she, perhaps, not as hard-core as her sister? Alicia is the one who really preaches to Gigi about pleasing men and making sure you get the right kinds of jewels from one’s lovers and so on.

But Mamita, after all these years, seems to harbor a soft spot for Honore Lachaille, though he was untrue to her while they were together, and carries a touch of sadness and wistfulness. Life didn’t really give her all that she wanted, it seems. And she lets her daughter work in opera, even though she cannot sing. Whatever makes her daughter happy, apparently. Ultimately, Mamita has the same approach with Gigi. They seem to be an unorthodox bunch.

I have not seen Louis Jourdan in much (except in the beautiful Letter From an Unknown Woman), but he evidently did all his own singing, somewhat in the style of Rex Harrison. Initially, when we meet his character, he seems like a crank. He’s “bored” with everything, while his uncle, Honore, finds so much to enjoy in life. However, as the story progresses, one begins to understand why Gaston is so bored and to feel less sympathy with Honore’s attitude towards life and women.

Gaston pretty much does what everyone tells him to do – especially Honore – and what society expects of him. Ironically, the film shows how a promiscuous society can be just as much a prison as excessive puritanism, with its own rules and codes of conduct. Gaston hops from mistress to mistress, without love or affection. He must defend his “honor,” pretend to be a cheerful bon vivant and at all costs never appear ridiculous. Why? Because that’s what everyone does and he hasn’t yet realized that he neither needs nor wants to live that way.

The best songs in the film, in my opinion, are the ones that Gaston sings. They reveal his character and show his inner thoughts and how he comes to understand himself better – especially in the song “Gigi” when he realizes that he loves her. Lerner and Loewe seem especially good at using music this way. They do the same thing in My Fair Lady when Professor Higgins sings that he’s “grown accustomed to her face.” And the songs are long enough to make the transformations feel plausible.

leslie caron & louis jourdan - gigi 1958I was watching a video on youtube recently, where a film editor explained that emotions take time and film editors have to take that into account and not rush the scene along. What Lerner and Loewe do is use music and song to give us that time. Those moments, for me, are some of the most compelling in Gigi.

One of the best scenes is when Gaston realizes that Gigi has grown up and he loves her – something that comes as a complete shock to him because it never before occurred to him that she was someone he could love (like how we put certain people off-limits for ourselves. It doesn’t occur to people to love siblings or cousins because it is not really an option. It’s partly a social construct, a mental block we put up. Gaston discovers that he doesn’t need to have that mental block about Gigi).

The other song is between Honore and Mamita, as they sit and reminisce. It’s such a gentle song, witty and amusing, but with a touch of sadness and a layer of irony. Honore clearly does harbor fond memories of Mamita, but the lovely things he tells her (like how he loved her so much he had to have an affair with another women to remind him that he was not the marrying kind) sound so nice we want to believe them, but it is clear that Mamita does not, but she harbors no rancor towards him.

I still can’t entirely decide what I feel about this movie. It’s charming, I like it, the story is intriguing, but the music never quite captures my imagination the same way that My Fair Lady does. My Fair Lady is sheer exhilaration. The acting in Gigi is good. I was especially impressed with Louis Jourdan and Hermione Gingold this time around. Perhaps the greatest mark of its affect on me is that I would like to watch it again and give the movie a chance to grow on me, because I suspect I will like it the more I see it.


Posted by on June 10, 2016 in Movies


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Discussing My Fair Lady: The Ending

Poster - My Fair Lady_03In his introduction to the Penguin edition of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion, Nicholas Grene calls the ending of the musical “a vulgar travesty of the play’s design.” Vulgar? Good heavens.

I appreciate what Grene is saying, that “the whole point of the play is the independent autonomy which Liza achieves, denying her status as Higgins’ male artifact,” though I disagree that that is Shaw’s whole point. He has a variety of them going on, which confuses things and prevents the play from being divided up into neat points. And there are certainly some issues I have with Shaw’s epilogue to “Pygmalion,” which he wrote later to detail once and for all what happens to Eliza and Henry Higgins so people would stop trying to put a romantic spin on his un-romantic play. However, after some reading of the play, I have concluded that the romantic spin is partially his own fault and that his epilogue is not very satisfactory at all and far too neat (but I want to write about that next week).

Perhaps I am just being defensive, because the truth is, I love the musical and I love the play. It is the musical that brought me to Shaw. I am obsessed with all things “Pygmalion” and I don’t think it’s right having one manifestation played against the next, as if they were in antagonism with each other. But in my mind, complaining that the musical is a travesty of the play is like saying the play is a travesty of Ovid’s Pygmalion account. Shaw has completely changed the meaning and ethos of Ovid’s passage in Metamorphoses. This is not a travesty. It’s genius.

But when people discuss the ending of the musical, they forget that there was a movie made in 1938, produced by Gabriel Pascal, adapted from his own work by George Bernard Shaw and starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. There had been two previous adaptations of “Pygmalion” into film, a Dutch and German version that Shaw loathed and thought were highly sentimentalized. It was generally thought that the play could never really be turned into a good movie. One, because it is a drawing room comedy of manners and all the action that we associate with the story – the ball, teaching Eliza how to speak and act – occurs offstage. Second, not only did the play not have a happy ending, it did not really have an ending at all. Imagine, for a moment, a movie that ends simply with Eliza walking out of the room. It would be a bit abrupt.


Shaw worked very closely with Pascal on the adaption of his play and ultimately was extremely pleased with it, despite the ending that Pascal managed to slip in without his knowledge. He also opposed the casting of Leslie Howard – he wanted Charles Laughton – because it slanted Higgins towards possible romance (something I don’t think people would have been as inclined to anticipate if Laughton had been in the film). But the film remains remarkably, delightfully literate for a movie and Shaw wrote to Pascal that it was “an all-British film, made by British methods without interference from American script writers, no spurious dialogue, but every word by its author, a revolution in the presentation of drama in the film.” He remained grateful to Pascal for taking many of his plays (including an excellent film adaption of “Major Barbara,” also starring Wendy Hiller) and faithfully doing them justice in a cinematic setting.

But about that ending. In the epilogue to the play, Shaw has Eliza marry Freddy, a man she neither loves nor respects. I suppose he married her off to be cranky and to try to settle her fate so no one else could, even in their imagination, marry her to Higgins. I don’t find it very convincing, however. It seems more likely that she would marry neither man.

But when Lerner and Loewe came together to make a musical, they could not for the life of them figure out how to turn the play into a musical. Oscar Hammerstein II declared that it was impossible. No romance, no chorus, a whole lot of talk. Finally, the solution hit them and they decided to base their musical, not on the play, but on the 1938 film adaption. And indeed, when you watch the 1938 adaption, it is remarkable how similar they are, in dialogue, in action, in events. One almost expects Leslie Howard to break into song. So really, the musical is a very good adaptation of a movie that Shaw approved of. Except the ending, of course.

But I have no real problem with the romantic ending, since it is perfectly internally consistent with the story that the movie and musical are telling. And neither musical nor movie is highly sentimental. In the musical, there are no love duets, the word love is never even mentioned, the characters don’t sit around contemplating their love, since they don’t even realize it. Higgins’ moment of revelation comes at the end, when he sings “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

Pygmalion_serialized_November_1914For Alan Jay Lerner (who wrote the book and lyrics of the musical), “My Fair Lady” involves a transformation not just for Eliza, but most fundamentally for Professor Higgins. Eliza’s character doesn’t fundamentally change, but his does. He’s been unconsciously softened by her. In Lerner’s words, “in a far less tangible way, Higgins goes through as much of a transformation as Eliza, the only difference being that Shaw would never allow the transformation to run its natural course.” Shaw’s Higgins remains fixed in character, Lerner and Loewe, and even Pascal, have their Higgins undergo a character arc.

Another reason I think this works is because movies and musicals are fundamentally different from a play. A movie naturally tends towards romance – or at least strong emotional ties – because it is a more intimate art form than a play. And a musical must have some transcendent emotions to express musically, otherwise, why bother writing a musical? The romance is told, the characters change, through the music, not through words. In fact, because of the music of Frederick Loewe, Rex Harrison is able to play Henry Higgins as a far less romantic figure than Leslie Howard, because he has the songs to express his feelings. Howard must do it on his own and is therefore slightly softer than Harrison.

I do, however, have one complaint about the ending of the film version of My Fair Lady, with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. My complaint mostly rests in the casting of Hepburn. She’s really not bad in the role, but she lacks that fundamental spunk and strong individualism that is found in the play and 1938 movie Eliza. I don’t think this is the fault of the musical, but of Hepburn’s persona. When she goes back to Higgins, it looks like a defeat, desperation on her part to be with him, without his having to change. But I suspect that with Julie Andrews it was different. You can even hear the difference in her singing of “Just You Wait, Enry Iggins” and “Without You” in the Broadway and London cast recordings. Hepburn is overwhelmed by Harrison, but I would have believed Andrews when she said she can do without him. Her return would have signaled a change in their relationship. I don’t have that same sense with Audrey Hepburn.


The Making of My Fair Lady – Keith Garebian

Introduction to the Penguin Edition of “Pygmalion” – Nicholas Grene


Posted by on July 24, 2015 in Books, Movies


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Making of My Fair Lady – Keith Garebian

Julie_Andrews_Rex_Harrison_Robert_Coote_My_Fair_Lady[2]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.”

Julie_Andrews_My_Fair_Lady[1]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.

My_Fair_Lady_Cast_Recording[1]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.

Leave a comment

Posted by on April 24, 2014 in Books


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: