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 Pygamlion into a musical.
At one point, Shaw had given permission to transform his Devil’s Desciple into a musical operetta. The resulting The Chocolate Soldier (by Oscar Straus) 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 Pygamalion, supposedly his favorite work.
He was immovable on the point until he died. After his demise, and the 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 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 older 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. 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 Lincoln Center revival opened on April 19, 2018, also to rave reviews. This is the edition that is now being staged.
What about the touring production on stage at the Key Bank State Theatre?
(Personal note: Having seen the Lincoln Center production in New York, it would be easy to compare the local staging with that version, but that would not be fair to local audiences as they are seeing what is on the Connor Palace stage, not what was, so comments will be limited to this staging.)
The Bartlett Sher-directed and Christopher Gattelli-choreographed production has breathtaking scenery by Michael Yeargan and equally astounding costumes by Catherine Zuber.
It is a shame that the touring company’s smallish orchestra, which is light on string instruments, sounds harsh, rather than lush, brassy rather than sumptuous. The sound changes the emotional tone of the performance.
The statuesque Shereen Ahmed, who has a lovely look as well as a strong voice, gives her own slant to Eliza. She gives us a young lady, caught in the British societal system that has cast her as a “prisoner of the gutter,” but who has the instinct and grit to rise above her surroundings. The performance makes clear her “I want” desires, as expressed in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?,” are destined to be accomplished. We see they are achieved not just with Henry Higgins’ assistance, but by Eliza’s own gumption. She just needs the tools (and confidence) to go forth and become an independent woman. She sings meanings, not just words. Bravo!
Laird Mackintosh is no Rex Harrison-clone as Doolittle. He makes the role his own. He doesn’t talk-sing the lyrics, he has a glorious voice. He starts off arrogant and cocky, (“Why Can’t the English?”). He doesn’t disdain others; he just doesn’t 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.” According to Higgins, 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. Gradually, with Eliza’s teaching, he succumbs to his humanness (“I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”). As the Brits would say of Mackintosh’s Higgins, “Good show!”
Martin Fisher gives a questionable interpretation to Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father. Instead of curmudgeon, Fisher, with a football player’s build, and macho personality, misses out on the character’s charming underbelly, eliminating his captivating humanness. Though “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time”are show stoppers, they miss out on the character becoming an accidental “gent.”
In the reimagined orchestrations, “On the Street Where You Live” is written as a wistful song, showing a love-struck Freddy blindly enamored by Eliza. Sam Simahk, who has a powerful singing voice, interprets Freddy somewhat of a buffoon, which carries over into his almost maniac interpretation of the song.
Leslie Alexander is charming as Mrs. Higgins. Kevin Pariseau is excellent as Colonel Pickering. Lee Zarrett is properly obnoxious as Professor Karpathy.
The show has many highlights including the opening (“Why Can’t the English?” and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”), the gorgeous, delightfully interpreted Ascot scene (“The Ascot Gavotte”), the warm-hearted Eliza-Mrs. Higgins-Henry Higgins confrontation, “The Embassy Waltz,” “You Did It” and “Without You.”
Capsule judgment: Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady has deservedly been called “the perfect musical” and the Lincoln Center revival did nothing but increase the respect level. The touring company may not be up to the New York performance level, but it is a visual and production delight. It is well worth a trip to Playhouse Square!
Tickets for Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady, which runs through June 26, 2022, are available by calling 216-241-6000 or www.playhousesquare.org
Roy Berko is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the Cleveland Critics Circle