my fair lady -- 5/21/21

Today's selection -- from Broadway: The American Musical by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon. Lerner and Loewe overcame the odds and turned George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion into My Fair Lady, Broadway’s first true blockbuster:

"When Oscar Hammerstein tells you a show won't work, odds are it probably won't work. Lyricist Alan Jay Lerner encountered Hammerstein at a Democratic rally in 1952 and mentioned that he and Frederick Loewe were struggling to adapt George Bernard Shaw's social comedy Pygmalion into a musical. Hammerstein acknowledged that he and Rodgers had tried to crack the same property for more than a year (although there is no documentation of their attempt) and gave up; despite its appeal, Pygmalion was simply not musical-comedy material. Lerner had to sigh and agree; however, two years later, he and Loewe took another shot at it. The result was the greatest success the American theater had ever seen.

"Lerner and his partner came together by chance at New York's Lambs Club, a water­ing hole for show biz types, in 1942. They were the most unlikely pair since Rodgers and Hart. Loewe, seventeen years Lerner's senior, was a German emigre with an Austrian background, who had studied piano with Kurt Weill's teacher. Loewe was also a seemingly effortless fount of rhapsodic melodies, and a confirmed old bachelor who sought the com­pany of undemanding young ladies to cheer him on at his beloved chemin-de-fer tables. Lerner was the son of New York Jewish privilege, educated at Choate and Harvard, an obsessive-compulsive go-getter with an addiction to serial monogamy (he had two more wives than Henry VIII). The team doctored an out-of-town flop in 1942 but went on to write several other Broadway shows, including Brigadoon, a huge hit in the 1947 season.

"Lerner and Loewe were but one of several teams approached in the early 1950s by an eccentric movie producer named Gabriel Pascal, who owned the film rights to numer­ous plays by Shaw. No one was able to give Pascal the musical he wanted, which raises the questions, why was it so hard to adapt the play, and, if it was so hard, why would anyone keep trying? The answer to the second question is George Bernard Shaw, one of the theater's true titans, a prodigious playwright, critic, speechmaker, social philosopher, and resident intellectual to the world. His new plays were eagerly awaited in London and New York and his older plays were revived frequently because they always offered wonderful parts for great actors.

"Pygmalion, written in 1912, was a popular success in its day, playing around the world. It was made into a well-regarded 1938 film (for which Shaw received an Academy Award for his screenplay), and it had been revived on Broadway as recently as 1945 with Gertrude Lawrence. Like of all Shaw's plays, it was written as a social critique. A phonetics professor named Henry Higgins wagers that he can 'make a duchess' of a young Cockney flower girl by instructing her in the socially acceptable standards of the English language. A pioneering socialist, Shaw was far more concerned with breaking down the arbitrary boundaries of the British class system than he was in writ­ing a romantic lark, but to his contin­ued dismay, from the moment the play opened, audiences wanted the misogy­nistic Higgins to renounce his ways and run off with the transformed flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, at the final curtain.

"The chief difficulty in adapting the play was that it was never a love story. Its only passion was for social equality, not between its leading char­acters. When Lerner returned to the project, after Pascal's death in 1954, he approached the problem from a differ­ent angle. Rather than attempt to shoe­horn Shaw's play into musical-comedy conventions -- a romance, a comic subplot, a colorful dancing chorus -- Lerner realized 'there was enough variety in the moods of the characters Shaw created, and we could do Pygmalion simply by doing Pygmalion ... and adding the action that took place between the acts of the play.' Lerner fought the adaptation battle on two fronts: he developed the needs and desires of the main characters, while dramatizing events that are only referred to, or occur offstage, in the play.

"This liberating approach allowed Lerner to create scenes that expressed Shaw's intentions in more theatrical ways. For example, in the play, Eliza's mastery of the King's English is given a disastrous test run at a small tea party; Lerner transposes the scene to the highly public Ascot racing day, allowing Eliza to commit a similar verbal gaffe in front of a company of aristocrats resplendent in Cecil Beaton's exquisite Edwardian costumes. Lerner also knew that at its heart the play contained that ageless musical-comedy scenario, the Cinderella story. No one in the audience could be immune to the sight of the former 'draggle-tailed guttersnipe' dressed to the nines, about to take her place among dukes and duchesses at the Embassy Ball. The project began to seem irresistible.

"Such sophisticated effects would have fallen flat without the perfect company of actors and creative staff. Lerner and Loewe flew to London to enlist the services of England's redoubtable comedian of manners, Rex Harrison. But Harrison came with two problems: he was a prickly perfectionist and he had never sung in a musical; he was convinced he never could. Lerner and Loewe solved the latter problem by creating songs for Higgins that trod lightly on the melody, allowing the words to skip along. The kind of talk-singing required was just right for Harrison and allowed for a greater verbal dexterity that also suited his character. Harrison's per­sonality would remain a problem, but that could be solved with diplomacy.

"For the role of Eliza, given by the­atrical tradition to grand actresses far older than the character's eighteen years, Lerner turned to a bright new face who was close to Eliza's age. Julie Andrews, who began her career as a child entertainer in England, made her Broadway debut in 1954 in a British musical pastiche called The Boy Friend. Lerner and Loewe were easily persuaded that Andrews had the requisite poise and charm to embody their leading character. She turned down an offer to star in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Pipe Dream (their only huge flop) and eagerly awaited a firm commitment from Lerner and Loewe. …

"My Fair Lady would run for more than six years -- 2,717 performances -- and would make a Broadway star out of Julie Andrews and transform Harrison into an international celebrity. It was the most eagerly awaited show ever to arrive in London's West End; when Harrison, Andrews, and other members of the New York company opened at the Drury Lane Theatre there in 1958, they launched a four-year run. It has played in almost every capital in Europe and South America, was recorded in nearly every language and sold to the movies for $5 million. Columbia Records had put up the show's entire investment -- $400,000 -- in order to procure the recording rights; according to Lerner, twenty years after the show opened it had grossed $800 million for the record company and its creators. Oklahoma! might have been the musical theater's first phenomenon, but My Fair Lady was its first blockbuster."



Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon


Broadway: The American Musical


Applause Theatre & Cinema Books


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