Theatre yesterday and today



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On March 15, 1956, a new musical opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. It was adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which told the story of Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl who by way of a chance meeting with Professor Henry Higgins, a renowned phoneticist, is transformed from a “guttersnipe” (his words) to a radiant young woman, passed off at a ball as a princess. First titled Lady Liza, it has been better known these past sixty-one years as My Fair Lady, one of the most beautifully crafted musicals ever conceived. With Rex Harrison, perfectly cast as Higgins, and the incredibly young Julie Andrews (twenty-years-old when the it opened), the show’s run of 6 1/2 years would go on to surpass Oklahoma! by 500 performances, giving it the distinction as the longest running musical in Broadway history.

Julie Andrews in the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady.

For those who might be in the dark why Shaw called his play Pygmalion, it goes back to the Greek myth. As the tale goes, Pygmalion was an artist who supposedly sculpted an ideal woman — only to fall in love with the statue. The idea that Henry Higgins “sculpts” Eliza into something that to him portrays an ideal woman, makes Shaw’s clever title pretty perfect, although Higgins’s love is never declared, but merely hinted it, by his declaration at having “Grown Accustomed to Her Face."

Pygmalion and Galetea (Jean-Leon Gerome)

Though many be unaware of this story made famous by the poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, everyone is familiar with My Fair Lady — the love story with no love story A very tricky business. And what librettist Alan Jay Lerner accomplished in his adaptation was something many who came before him thought impossible. He took Shaw’s unromantic story and turned it into something ravishingly romantic without changing a thing. He didn’t even have to rework Pygmalion’s dour ending, as Shaw himself changed it from the original play when he wrote it for the screen in 1938 (and for which he won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay). My Fair Lady is more a musical version of the film of Pygmalion, rather than Shaw’s play, which had its first production in 1913. As theatre historian Ethan Mordden wrote: “Lerner did not adapt Pygmalion as much as adopt it.”

Morden also cleverly wrote that “Lerner didn’t make Pygmalion into a musical. He made a musical into Pygmalion.” By doing so, Lerner achieved what such masters as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein could not, as they were the first team offered the show when the producer of the film Gabriel Pascal (who owned the rights), asked them to give it a try. They couldn’t crack it. Most reports cite that it was Hammerstein who was confounded by the play having no overt love story, though I have never quite bought into this due to the beautifully articulated love story he successfully navigated in The King and I. That said, there is no denying that Higgins being cerebral and unemotional presents quite a challenge in trying to come up with ways of making him sing. Also, Shaw’s story being as tight as it is, leaves little room for a chorus to sing and dance. According to Nicholas Everett in his book The Cambridge Companion to the Musical, Pascal went on to offer it to Noel Coward and Cole Porter, as well as the teams of Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz and Fred Saidy and Yip Harburg. All of them turned him down.

When the production was out of town and first getting its feet wet, My Fair Lady met with the double blast of a twist of weather and the twisted Rex Harrison. On the day of its first preview that evening at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Harrison had done his first rehearsal with the full orchestra. It unnerved him so much that he announced he wasn’t going on that night. The producer Herman Levin and the director Moss Hart had no choice but to cancel the performance. But that’s when the weather played a powerful role. Due to an impending storm, the audience showed up early, unaware there would be no show. Angry customers at a first performance is not only bad business, but in the superstitious world of the theatre, bad luck. As its assistant stage manager, Jerry Adler, told me in a conversation I had with him for my book Up in the Cheap Seats, he and everyone he could find went out to “restaurants, gyms, and even announced at a movie theater mid-screening that actors from My Fair Lady should report back to the theatre!”

Eliza and HIggins at the Embassy Ball.

The show went on as scheduled and by the time mid-way through act one when “The Rain in Spain” stopped the show, not only was Rex Harrison finally relaxing into things, but history was being made. My Fair Lady went on to delight audiences all over the world and — I’m happy to report — will be back on Broadway next year in a production to be directed by Bartlett Sher (The Light in the Piazza and the recent revivals of South Pacific, The King and I and Fiddler on the Roof). Rumor has it that it will star Colin Firth As Higgins, which in the words of Eliza sounds “loverly.”

My Fair Lady would probably be known today by its original title Lady Liza, if it weren’t for the objections of (you guessed it) Rex Harrison. He despised the idea that there would be a title character that didn’t refer to him. The composer Fritz Loewe fancied Fanfaroon, an obscure English term which means “a person who brags about himself.” Wiser heads happily prevailed and, the words “my fair lady” were lifted from the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down,” which was enough to placate Harrison.

One final footnote: when I was a small boy, the album cover of My Fair Lady was of great interest to me. I have told people many times, that the Al Hirschfeld drawing depicting George Bernard Shaw as a puppeteer controlling the marionette figures of Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews was without a doubt my first image of what I imagined God to look like. How much more God-like (and damn good casting) is George Bernard Shaw? Whenever I mentioned this over the years to fellow theatre lovers, I am never surprised to hear someone say, “You too?”

The album cover for the original cast recording (in mono sound — stereo hadn’t been invented yet).

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: