The Magazine

Their Fair Lady

The making of a postwar/Broadway/Hollywood musical blockbuster.

Nov 12, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 09 • By GINA DALFONZO
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One of the most entertaining parts here deals with the way in which Shaw originally fought to keep Pygmalion from turning into a love story between the fiery Eliza and the hardheaded Higgins—and how his efforts were repeatedly, almost comically, thwarted. McHugh leaves out the famous anecdote about how Shaw’s original Eliza, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, defied the playwright by going off-script and coming back to Higgins at the end. But her rebellion was only one of many by those who have worked on various stage and screen versions of Pygmalion and have insisted that the characters belong together. 

Thus, while McHugh fights valiantly on Shaw’s side, arguing that Eliza and Higgins should never be anything but friends, history suggests that he’s fighting a losing battle. The genius of My Fair Lady may indeed lie partly in the very ambiguity that McHugh celebrates: Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, as Lerner and Loewe quickly became aware, are not conventionally romantic characters, and they defy conventional attempts at portraying romance. But they are nonetheless uniquely suited to each other. (It’s worth recalling in this context that Shaw’s own source material, the story of Pygmalion and Galatea from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, was unabashedly a love story.) To many of those who first came to the story through the musical version—and even to many of those who didn’t—for Eliza to end up with her drippy suitor Freddy, and for Higgins to end up alone, sounds like the most terrible of fates.

Perhaps even McHugh has some faint recognition that his cause is a lost one. He dryly remarks at one point that it seems meaningless to argue over a potential marriage between two fictional characters who, after the curtain falls, have no life of their own. But the strength and vitality of this story in its various incarnations, and the tie between those two characters that no one has yet been able to break convincingly, holds out the teasing possibility that, just maybe, they do.

Gina Dalfonzo is editor of and Dickensblog.