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The Oxford Companion to the American Musical

Thomas Hischak

My Fair Lady 

My Fair Lady(Mark Hellinger Theatre 1956). Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe's (music) greatest triumph as well as one of the glories of the American theatre, the unlikely hit may be the best post-World War II Broadway show.

Plot: London phonetics professor Henry Higgins observes the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle selling her wares outside St. Paul's Church after the opera lets out and boasts that with proper training in speech he could pass her off as a duchess. Liza comes to Higgins' home asking for speech lessons and he bets his fellow bachelor friend Colonel Pickering that he will turn the squawking, ignorant girl into a lady in six months. The training is rigorous and ruthless and after showing her off at the Ascot races, Higgins and Pickering bring her to an embassy ball where she not only comes across as a lady but charms the royal members present. The bet having been won, Eliza turns on Higgins, demanding to be treated like the lady he has made her and threatening to wed the youth Freddie Hill who has been courting her. Higgins denounces Liza as an ungrateful upstart but after she walks out on him he realizes that he is rather fond of her and is more than pleased when she eventually returns to continue their relationship on more equal terms. The comic subplot concerns Eliza's father Alfred, a common dustman, who inherits a bundle of money and is forced to become respectable, much against his nature and sense of happiness.

My Fair LadyClick to view larger

My Fair Lady. Some critics found Audrey Hepburn's cockney flower girl Eliza unconvincing but everyone admitted she made quite a lady. In this still from the 1964 film, Hepburn is dressed for the races at Ascot and even Rex Harrison's Henry Higgins seems impressed. (Photofest)

George Bernard Shaw's drawing room comedy Pygmalion (1914) opened up elegantly for the musical stage and the Cinderella tale may have resembled the romantic musicals of the 1920s, yet it was highly literate and witty with the romance muted almost to invisibility. Lerner's libretto is one of the masterpieces of adaptation, with the new scenes capturing the old play's style so accurately that it is hard to tell where Shaw leaves off and Lerner starts. Even the ending, more romanticized than the play, is in character. My Fair Lady is such an established and familiar classic that one forgets how unlikely it was for Broadway success. There is no overt love story, the action is that of a drawing room comedy, there is more talk than music, the story requires very little dancing, the major characters are more comic than romantic, and there is absolutely nothing American about it. Several other songwriters, including Rodgers and Hammerstein, had attempted to musicalize Pygmalion and gave up in frustration. The musical Lerner and Loewe created is not only unusual but also rather daring. The score is a master blending of operetta, British music hall, and musical comedy with unforgettable songs in each genre. The standout hits were the ballads “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “On the Street Where You Live,” but few theatre songs are as easily recognized as “The Rain in Spain.” In fact, the whole score was so memorable that American (and later British) music lovers opted to own the original cast album rather than just recordings of the top songs by various artists. Numbers such as “Wouldn't It Be Loverly,” “Get Me to the Church on Time,” “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “Just You Wait,” and “Show Me” seem unlikely to work outside of the context of the show, yet they also are well known. Another astonishing feat is the way Higgins is musicalized. He is not a romantic person and cannot

Casts for My Fair Lady


Henry Higgins

Eliza Doolittle

Alfred Doolittle

1956 Broadway

Rex Harrison

Julie Andrews

Stanley Holloway

1964 film

Rex Harrison

Audrey Hepburn

Stanley Holloway

1976 Broadway

Ian Richardson

Christine Andreas

George Rose

1981 Broadway

Rex Harrison

Nancy Ringham

Milo O'Shea

1993 Broadway

Richard Chamberlain

Melissa Errico

Julian Holloway

express himself in musical terms. Also, the role was cast with the nonsinging Rex Harrison. Yet Higgins' character songs “I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” “I'm an Ordinary Man,” and “A Hymn to Him” are triumphs in musical characterization. Equally impressive is the way the songs for Eliza develop from the simple-phrased “Wouldn't It Be Loverly” to witty “Just You wait” to the complex “Without You.” Few Broadway scores are so effective in tracing the change in the character's psyches. Rave reviews for Harrison, Julie Andrews, and all the cast, the sharp yet poignant direction of Moss Hart, and the Edwardian sets and costumes by Oliver Smith and Cecil Beaton helped make the Herman Levin production the hit of the decade, running 2,717 performances and breaking the current record.

Five New York revivals over the years have kept the musical fresh in the memory of Manhattan theatregoers. The New York City Light Opera Company recreated the original staging and design in 1964 and featured Myles Eason as Henry Higgins and Marni Nixon as Eliza. The supporting cast included Reginald Gardner (Doolittle), Russell Nype (Freddy), Byron Webster (Pickering), and Margery Maude (Mrs. Higgins). The same organization featured Fritz Weaver (Higgins) and Inga Swenson (Eliza) in 1968 with George Rose (Doolitle), Evan Thomas (Freddy), Byron Webster (Pickering), and Margery Maude (Mrs. Higgins). For the twentieth anniversary of the musical, the original sets, costumes, and staging were recreated for a well-received 1976 production with Ian Richardson (Higgins), Christine Andreas (Eliza), and Robert Coote, the original Pickering. Produced again by Herman Levin, the revival ran 377 performances. The seventy-three-year-old Harrison returned to his most famous role, and the ninety-two-year-old Cathleen Nesbitt again played his mother in a 1981 revival that faithfully recreated the original look if not spirit of the musical. Both Harrison and the production looked tired but audiences wanted to see both so the limited engagement in the large Uris

My Fair Lady (stage) Musical Numbers

“Street Entertainers”

“Why Can't the English?”

“Wouldn't It Be Loverly?”

“With a Little Bit of Luck”

“I'm an Ordinary Man”

“Just You Wait”

“The Rain in Spain”

“I Could Have Danced All Night”

“Ascot Gavotte”

“On the Street Where You Live”

“The Embassy Waltz”

“You Did It”

“Show Me”

“Get Me to the Church on Time”

“Hymn to Him”

“Without You”

“I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face”

Theatre was extended to fifteen weeks. Mixed notices greeted the 1993 Howard Davies-directed revival in which the scenery was more abstract than romantic and the performances uneven. Richard Chamberlain was a somber Higgins but Melissa Errico was complimented for her sparkling Eliza. Julian Holloway, the son of Stanley Holloway, who had originated the role of Alfred Doolittle, took on this father's part. The production ran 165 performances and then took off on an extended (and successful) national tour. My Fair Lady remains a favorite with all kinds of theatre groups in America and Europe.

My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady(Warner 1964) had to try and live up to the reputation of the Broadway production so some disappointment was inevitable. When producer Jack Warner opted not to use Julie Andrews and wanted Cary Grant to play Higgins, omens were not good. But Grant refused to play it, Audrey Hepburn (singing dubbed by Marni Nixon) was a very effective Eliza, and much of the movie was very enjoyable. Lerner wrote the efficient screenplay, the score was not tampered with in any noticeable way, and the production values, idealized and with a studio look to them, were in the style of the golden age movie musicals. George Cukor directed and the film moved too slowly at times, just as Harrison's performance sometimes seemed a bit more weary than was comfortable. However, when the movie worked, it worked beautifully. Warner paid over $5 million for the screen rights and spent a bundle on the production but the film was a major box office hit and turned a healthy profit.

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