The original My Fair Lady poster with art by Al Hirschfeld.
It was called “the perfect musical.” From that first night on the Broadway stage, March 15, 1956, at the Mark Hellinger Theatre audiences leapt to their feet cheering, critics wore out the Thesaurus in search of superlatives, trophies could not be cast fast enough. My Fair Lady had to be moved twice to larger theaters and set a record of 2,717 performances in its first production. The world, it seemed was singing its songs.
But the path to theatrical glory was long. Very long. It begins with a lost legend on Cyprus about a Phoenician king named Pumayyaton who the Greeks called Pygmalion. Centuries later the Roman poet Ovid cast Pygmalion as a sculptor who creates a perfect statue of a woman out of ivory who he named Galatea. After sacrificing to Aphrodite, Goddess of Beauty on her feast day, he returns home where he kisses the perfect idol he has created only to learn that her lips were sweet and breasts yielding. The goddess had granted his wish to turn the statue into a woman.
The story of the artist and his art sprung to life resonated, especially during and after the Renaissance and was told and re-told many times and was depicted in painting and sculpture. It was the subject of many poems in Victorian England. William S. Gilbert’s blank verse Pygmalion and Galatea, an Original Mythological Comedy was produced in London in 1871 and was so popular that it was revived three times in five years and other companies rushed their own versions of the tale to the stage. A young Irishman struggling to make his mark as a critic took notice.
Forty years later at the height of his powers George Bernard Shaw recast the themes of a woman metamophisized by her creator into one of his didactic lessons on social class and his own pet theory that standardized pronunciation of English could help liberate the poor, who were stigmatized by their crude accents. Written in 1912, in his Pygmalion the creator is Henry Higgins a tyrannical, misanthropic professor linguistics and phonetics and the object of transformation is a Cockney flower girl named Eliza Doolittle.
Shaw needed another character to who Higgins could expound his theories and to whom Eliza could turn for comfort. He found the perfect model in Dr. Watson, Sherlock Holmes’s side kick whose main function is to listen to the flights of brilliance of the detective. In the play the character is transformed into Col. Pickering, like Watson a veteran of the Indian Army.
Pygmalion opened in London in 1914 with the object of Shaw’s unrequited love, Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Eliza. It was by far the most popular play Shaw had brought to the stage. But audiences were dissatisfied with the ending in which the now completely emancipated Eliza abandons the professor. During the run of the play the producers substituted a final scene in which Higgins appears at a window and throws flowers at departing Eliza, hinting that such a gesture would woo her back to him. Shaw was furious and added a postscript essay, What Happened Afterwards to printed editions of the play to explain why that was impossible. He continued to fight attempts to soften the ending through revivals and other productions of the play.
In 1937 Shaw licensed his plays to Hungarian producer Gabriel Pascal for the cinema. He reluctantly agreed to allow Pygmalion be the first film on the condition that he retain full artistic control. Shaw collaborated on the screenplay and wrote whole new scenes, including the ballroom scene where Eliza is put to the test of passing for a lady. Knowing Pascal wanted a happier ending Shaw offered to write a new final scene showing Eliza and her callow suitor now husband Freddy Eynsford-Hill tending their flower shop catering to gentlefolk. Instead, without Shaw’s knowledge, Pascal inserted a short scene following Eliza’s departure in which she returns with her bags and the self-satisfied Higgins leans back, cocks his hat over his face and demands, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?” Shaw was outraged, but the scene stayed.
The 1938 film starred Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. It was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic and even won Shaw an Oscar for his contributions to the screenplay.
Part of Shaw’s agreement with Pascal was that none of the plays could be made into a musical. He had earlier been greatly disappointed with The Chocolate Soldier, a Viennese operetta based on Arms and the Man. Despite numerous pleas over the years, Pascal could not get Shaw to yield. But when the old man died in 1950 at the age of 94, the producer approached Alan J. Lerner, the lyricist and librettist who had created Brigadoon with Frederick Loewe and Kurt Weill on Love Life. Lerner worked on the project intermittently for two years before abandoning it.
Other tried their hands at it—Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz and then Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the reigning kings of American musical comedy. Rogers told Learner that it was impossible because “it has no sub-plot.” The other problem was the talky nature of the play and the lack of big scenes for an ensemble.
Lerner had become estranged from Lowe, his original partner on the project. But when he chanced on Pascal’s obituary in the newspapers, he decided to give the project a second chance. Reuniting with Lowe, Lerner realized that the key to the production was opening it up from the stage play, as Shaw himself had done with the addition of the ballroom scene in the film version. Lerner added other “action that takes place between the acts of the play” as Shaw had written them, notably the Covent Garden scene after Higgins departs in which Eliza sing Wouldn’t it be Loverly, Alfred P. Doolittle’s rollicking I’m Getting Married in the Morning number, and the extended Ascot racetrack scene. In between he preserved most of Shaw’s witty dialog and even the social messages. He did, however, retain the ending of the film, not Shaw’s beloved declaration of independence.
Learner and Lowe went ahead with their work not knowing if they could get the rights from Pascal’s estate which was being managed with flinty business no-nonsense by Chase Manhattan Bank. There were other bidders, most notably MGM which tried threats to muscle Learner aside. He bet that when the time came the fact that he and Lowe had a completed libretto and music would tilt the bank in their direction. It did and they won the right to mount the musical on the stage. MGM would latter have to spend a ton of money to buy Learner and Lowe’s show from them for the big screen.
After securing the services of one of Broadways most successful directors, Moss Hart, attention turned to casting. Everyone’s first choice for Higgins was Noel Coward but he turned down the part. He did suggest that they try Rex Harrison who had starred in other film adaptations of Shaw’s work. Harrison was a huge star in Brittan once dubbed Sexy Rexy for his appearances as a leading man in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s but he was less well known in the U.S. Harrison was interested but both he and the creative team were concerned with one little problem. Harrison could not sing, or rather he had a very narrow vocal range. After some tinkering by Lowe and handing the most soaring melodies off to other characters, it was agreed that Harrison could sing/speak his numbers.
Casting Eliza was more difficult. The part was first offered to Texas born Mary Martin who wisely concluded that she was unsuited to play a Cockney. Gertrude Lawrence who Learner had envisioned for the role when he first started work on the project in 1950 had inconveniently died in 1952 and was unavailable. They finally settled on a young English singer/actress, Julie Andrews. Legend would have it that she was plucked from obscurity for the part, but she already had one Broadway hit under her belt, The Boyfriend.
The cast was rounded out with veteran character actor and music hall performer Stanly Holloway as the philosophic dustman Alfred P Doolittle; Robert Coote as Col. Pickering; John Michael King as Eynsford-Hill who got to sing On the Street Where You Live, the show’s only love song; and Kathleen Nesbitt as Higgins’s mother.
The title My Fair Lady made oblique reference to the title Shaw used in early drafts of Pygmalion, Fair Eliza and to the repeated refrain from the nursery rhyme London Bridge is Falling Down.
The show almost did not go on for its first performance in out of town tryouts in New Haven, Connecticut. Hours before the curtain Harrison became frightened by the pit orchestra that was much larger than anything he had encountered in rehearsals. Fearing that they would down him out he told producers that, “that under no circumstances would he go on that night...with those thirty-two interlopers in the pit.” He then locked himself in his dressing room. After fruitless pleading, producers decided to dismiss the company for the night and make an announcement to the audience that was beginning to assemble. Less than an hour before curtain time, Harrison got a grip on himself and emerged from the dressing room. Producers frantically recalled the cast and the show went on. It ended with a thunderous standing ovation. Everyone knew that this would be a hit.
Indeed it was. The original cast album became a perennial hit. After Edward Mulhare and Sally Anne Howes took over the parts on Broadway, Harrison, Andrews and most of the original cast took the show to London where it debuted at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the West End on April 30, 1958. The show would run for 2,281 performances there.
Since then there have been numerous revivals in both New York and London, each wining slews of awards for its casts as the original production swept the Tony Awards. There have been touring companies, productions in almost every language conceivable—an interesting challenge for a play revolving around English pronunciation,—regional, community, college, and high school productions.
In 1964 MGM brought My Fair Lady to the screen as one of the grandest of its musicals. But not without controversy. Although Harrison, Holloway, and other members of the Broadway cast were signed, studio big wigs did not think Julie Andrews was a big enough star to carry the expensive film. They cast Audrey Hepburn as Eliza. Broadway fans were furious. Many vowed never to see the film—a threat virtually none of them carried out. Hepburn’s songs were dubbed by Marni Nixon, the soprano behind many non-signing Hollywood actresses.
Recently the Wouldn’t It be Loverly scene has surfaced with Hepburn singing. She turns out to have a pleasant, if breathy voice, and acquitted the song quite well. But convention decreed a traditional stage soprano sing the parts. If the movie could be made today, she would probably be allowed to sing her own songs.
Andrews got her revenge, however, when she was cast the same year in Mary Poppins which became Disney’s biggest grossing live action picture. She also took home the Academy Award for Best Actress. Hepburn herself was not even nominated despite turning in a charming performance.
Not the My Fair Lady was snubbed at the Oscars. The film took home the statuettes for Best Picture; Best Director, George Cukor; Best Actor for Harrison; and five other awards. In addition Learner was nominated for Best Adapted Screen Play, Holloway for Best Supporting Actor, and Gladys Cooper for Best Supporting Actress as Mrs. Higgins. It remains one of the most beloved films of all time.