Their Fair Lady
The making of a postwar/Broadway/Hollywood musical blockbuster.
Nov 12, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 09 • By GINA DALFONZO
In 1956, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe accomplished what had widely been seen as an impossible task: adapting George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion into a highly successful musical, My Fair Lady. When the script of My Fair Lady was published, Lerner wrote in a cheeky epigram: “Shaw explains how Eliza ends not with Higgins but with Freddy and—Shaw and Heaven forgive me!—I am not certain he was right.”
Lerner’s simultaneous gesture of respect for Shaw’s play and his effort to distance his own work from it is typical of the show as a whole. Similarly, Dominic McHugh shows great appreciation for the source material, but approaches Lerner and Loewe’s musical as very much a work of art in its own right. While it is occasionally bogged down by details, McHugh’s analysis is, on the whole, a fascinating one.
One of the book’s great strengths is McHugh’s use of hundreds of unpublished letters and other documents related to the show, many of which have been overlooked. Previous explorations of My Fair Lady tended to depend overmuch on Lerner’s amusing but unreliable autobiography, The Street Where I Live—a book that proved Lerner to be a far better lyricist than memoirist. Unfortunately, this reliance on the original documents is also one of Loverly’s weaknesses: At times, McHugh gets so caught up in recounting the minutiae of the show’s development that he forgets to craft a larger narrative. In chapter two, for example, we learn who flew to which cities on what date, who got embroiled in contract negotiations with whose agent, who brought which costumes over from England, and how much the extra baggage fees were ($450).
Some interesting revelations and reminders do come out of these pages. McHugh confirms that Lerner, in his own words, was “ready to do anything short of homicide” to get Mary Martin to play Eliza Doolittle. (The mind boggles at how different the show would have been, in terms of Eliza’s vocal range alone.) But by the time we get to the rehearsal period in January 1956, and the author notes that “with the cast and crew in the same place for most of the time . . . there was little need for written correspondence,” the reader is inclined to thank God for small favors.
Things pick up considerably, however, when McHugh moves from studying letters to examining scores. He’s at his best when analyzing the creation of the various songs and their roles and placements in the show. For those of us used to seeing My Fair Lady as a brilliantly polished work, it’s intriguing to learn how it slowly evolved—and to realize how much weaker it would have been had its creators not discarded much of what they had once considered their most important material. McHugh is correct in interpreting the show “as the result of rigorous self-criticism and discerning revision, rather than an organic act of creation from one end of the show to the other.”
The book describes an entire sequence between the Ascot scene and the ball scene, consisting of a ballet and two additional songs, that was considered central to the show from the beginning. But it had to be cut for time during out-of-town tryouts. From some of the descriptions here—one version of the ballet had the kindly Colonel Pickering entering “with Bullwhip + gun + revolver” to help Higgins supervise Eliza’s training—it’s hard to see its deletion as anything but a good thing.
In a similar vein, McHugh includes snippets of unused music and lyrics that demonstrate that, for all of Lerner and Loewe’s greatness as a song-writing team, they could turn out the occasional dud. There was good mater-ial here, portions of which were used elsewhere in the show or salvaged for later shows, such as Gigi and Camelot. But several of these original songs were conventional to the point of being dull. The beloved “I Could Have Danced All Night” didn’t appear until relatively late in the process; two other love songs for Eliza had previously been written and then tossed out.
It’s said that Lerner was bothered all his life by what he considered an unforgivably clichéd line (“My heart took flight”) in “I Could Have Danced All Night.” But considering that he had almost gone with lyrics such as, Where are the words I long to hear? / And where are the words I long to say? / Why can’t I open my heart . . . and so forth, he had little reason to reproach himself for one slightly stale piece of imagery in the finished product. However, there was more to these cuts than simply saving time or getting rid of substandard material. McHugh points out that most of the show’s overtly romantic lyrics were removed in order to maintain the “ambiguous” tone of the relationship between Higgins and Eliza. He has a valid and important point—but not, perhaps, a definitive one.
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 BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.