By ROY BERKO
What do Rogers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser and Cole Porter all have in common? Yes, they are all composers of American musicals, but they are also just some of those who attempted, and failed, to make George Bernard Shaw’s classical Pygmalion into a musical.
At one point, Shaw had given permission to transform his Devil’s Disciple” into the musical operetta. The resulting The Chocolate Soldier was not to his liking and he stated, “Nothing will ever induce me to allow any other play of mine to be degraded into an operetta or set to any music except its own.” This was especially true of Pygmalion, supposedly his favorite work. He was immovable on the point until he died.
After his demise, and the proclaimed barrier was lifted, many tried but failed to transform Pygmalion.
The problems were great. Foremost, from the time of Rogers and Hammerstein’s smash hit Oklahoma, which ushered in the Golden Age of the American musical, certain “rules” of writing the book for a musical were set. Included in this format was that there would be numerous settings, a B-level plot with a supporting couple, a chorus, dance numbers, and that it be about a romance. (Think Carousel, Camelot and Annie Get Your Gun.)
Pygmalion didn’t have any of those elements. Basically, the plot centers on “two old gentlemen who meet in the rain one night at Covent Garden. Professor Higgins is a scientist of phonetics, and Colonel Pickering is a linguist of Indian dialects. The first bets the other that he can, with his knowledge of phonetics, convince high London society that, in a matter of months, he will be able to transform the cockney-speaking Covent Garden flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a woman as poised and well-spoken as a duchess.”
“The next morning, the girl appears at his home on Wimpole Street to ask for speech lessons, offering to pay a shilling, so that she may speak properly enough to work in a flower shop. Higgins makes merciless fun of her, but is seduced by the idea of working his magic on her. Pickering goads him on by agreeing to cover the costs of the experiment if Higgins can pass Eliza off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party. The challenge is taken.”
This is not the “stuff” on which traditional musicals are made.
Mainly, there is no love story. The plot is a reflection of Shaw’s attitudes about the rigidity of the British class system and his strong stand against the view that a person cannot shape his or her own destiny.
A look at the ending of Pygmalion clearly illustrates this lack of a romantic tale. In the play Eliza leaves Higgins after a quarrel, and Higgins remains onstage alone, in what Shaw describes as “a highly self-satisfied manner.”
When attempts were made to give his tale a “happy ending,” Shaw fought back. He even added a postscript essay, “What Happened Afterwards,” to the 1916 print edition of the play in which he explained precisely why it was impossible for the story to end with Higgins and Eliza getting married [or having a romantic relationship].
Another problem with making the conversion from play to musical is that, in contrast to many other such adaptations, the play is so tightly written that any attempt to shoe-horn songs or dance numbers destroys that language and flow of ideas.
It wasn’t until Lerner and Loewe realized that “the lyrics and music have to be an extension of Shaw’s dialogue,” that the classic masterpiece of straight theater could be reimagined as one of the greatest of all musicals.
Other problems needed to be confronted before My Fair Lady became a staged reality.
Shaw was specific that Eliza be 18. Mary Martin, who was decades older than being a teenager, wanted to play the lead, but was too old for the role.
Legend has it that Rex Harrison, who was cast as Henry Higgins, was insecure of his “singing” ability. He also seemingly had difficulty working with the young and non-classically trained Julie Andrews. In fact, legend has it that the duo never really got along. As recounted in one discussion of the two “There was chemistry on stage, but they were never close off-stage.”
Then there was the issue, whether caused by Harrison or her youth and lack of self-worth, that Andrews didn’t consider herself to be the star of the show until the musical’s director, Moss Hart, convinced her of that.
The original script played out at four and a half hours in its early development. Technical problems were also encountered when, for the first time on Broadway, twin turntables were used causing balance and coordination problems for the cast and crew.
In spite of the issues, the show did open on Broadway on March 15, 1956 to critical raves and resulting long lines at the box office. The production set a record for the longest run of any show on the Great White way up to that time. It was followed by a hit London production, a film, and many revivals.
The 2018 Broadway revival – Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” – opened on April 19, 2018. This Bartlett Sher-directed and Christopher Gattelli-choreographed reimagining has breathtaking scenery by Michael Yeargan and equally astounding costumes by Catherine Zuber. The reconceived orchestrations add depth to the actions, as do the clear characterizations and fine staging.
This is a work of beauty and creativity.
Laura Benanti gives her own slant to Eliza. She gives us a bright young lady, caught in the British societal system that has cast her as a “prisoner of the gutter,” but who has the grit to rise above her surroundings. The performance makes clear that her “I want” desires, as expressed in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” are destined to be accomplished, achieved not by Henry Higgins, but by Eliza’s own gumption.
Harry Hadden-Paton is no Rex Harrison clone as Doolittle. He gives a sensitive, if somewhat obtuse image to the role. He doesn’t disdain others. He just doesn’t even consider them as being important. His universe has the world revolving around his wants, desires and needs, as clearly set out in “A Hymn to Him.” Eliza has no role in “his” success of turning her into a lady. It is all his talent that accomplished the task. Of course, he did it. Even in his singing of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” the character, as interpreted so well by Hadden-Paton, doesn’t have the slightest understanding of why Eliza is not going to continue to be his puppet. As the Brits would say of Hadden-Paton’s Higgins, “Good show!”
Danny Burstein delights as Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’a father. His “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” are show stoppers. His transformation in becoming a “gent” is a smile inducer.
Normally, “On the Street Where You Live” is a wistful song, showing a love-struck Freddy blindly enamored by Eliza. The song becomes an audience entrancing anthem when sung by Christian Dante White, he of outstanding voice and consuming presence. This is one talented young man.
Rosemary Harris (Mrs. Higgins), Allan Corduner (Colonel Pickering) and Linda Mugleston (Mrs. Pearce) are all excellent, creating nicely textured roles.
Capsule judgment: My Fair Lady has deservedly been called “the perfect musical” and the Lincoln Center revival will do nothing but increase the respect level. The staging is glorious. The stage pictures exquisite. The performances universally enchanting. “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” if all Broadway shows could reach this pinnacle of writing, staging, performance and musical excellence?
Lerner and Loewe’s ‘My Fair Lady’ continues its open run at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St. in New York. For ticket information, click here.