This past weekend, the Missus and I took in a Sunday matinee performance at the shiny new Cobb Energy Performance Centre. (OK, it’s not exactly new, having opened four years ago. But the crappification process has not yet begun.)
The show was My Fair Lady, a venerable Broadway opus that David Richards of the New York Times once called “the perfect musical.” It’s a show that may have found its perfect expression - so sayeth Mr. Richards - in its original 1956 production, which starred Rex Harrison and a young Julie Andrews, but the version we saw was just fine.
Somewhere in the bowels of Chez Eli, there’s a Playbill from the original Broadway run of My Fair Lady. It was a long run, over 2,700 performances over a six-and-a-half year period, a record-setter at the time. My folks liked it enough to buy the Broadway cast album (on good old long-playing 33⅓ RPM vinyl, of course), and when I discovered that LP as a young lad of about twelve, I practically wore the grooves out listening to the damned thing.
With this show, the creative team of Alan Jay Lerner (lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music) did for the Broadway musical what Lennon and McCartney would later do for popular music, raising the bar to new heights. Many of the show’s numbers have gone on to become standards: “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” “On the Street Where You Live,” “Get Me to the Church On Time,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “The Rain in Spain,” “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”- who doesn’t know these songs? (If you don’t, shame on you.) Even the less-familiar tunes are well constructed, with catchy melodies and carefully crafted lyrics.
That they were able to adapt George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and turn it into so good a musical is all the more remarkable because Rodgers and Hammerstein had taken a stab at the job and given it up as a hopeless task: Shaw’s play was not primarily a love story, a key ingredient in the recipe for musicals at the time.
Moss Hart, the noted playwright and director - and husband of the inimitable Kitty Carlisle - helmed the original Broadway production. The material probably would have held up under a lesser director, but Hart helped make it shine with its full inherent brilliance.
As for me, I cannot see this production (or watch the 1964 movie version) without hearing Rex Harrison (Henry Higgins), Julie Andrews (Eliza Doolittle), and Stanley Holloway (Alfred Doolittle) in my mind’s ear. Would the show have had the same impact had Noël Coward and Mary Martin been cast in the roles of Professor Higgins and Miss Doolittle? I guess we’ll never know.
[The other thing I hear in my mind’s ear is the MAD Magazine parody “My Fair Ad-Man,” appearing in Issue #54 (April, 1960), a copy of which still resides in the Elisson Archives. Imagine Mort Drucker caricatures of Frank Sinatra as Irving “You’re A Pig” Malion and Dean Martin as Professor Higgins singing “An Ad That’s Bad (Will End Up Spoofed in MAD” and you’ll get the picture.]
Anyone who has seen the 1964 movie version knows that Audrey Hepburn, not Julie Andrews, snagged the female lead despite her inadequate singing voice (most of her vocals were dubbed by one Marni Nixon). Hepburn, unlike the young Andrews, was a bankable film star. But Andrews got the last laugh: Not starring in the filmic My Fair Lady allowed her to accept the title role in Mary Poppins, for which she won the 1964 Academy Award for Best Actress. Take that, John Warner!
They don’t make musicals like My Fair Lady any more. A literate libretto, memorable melodies, and a superb storyline (not to mention too much fucking alliteration in this sentence), and not a single F-bomb anywhere (except in this sentence). No dildo jokes, either. Harrumph.
Alas, Henry Higgins is hopelessly out of date. Bad enough that he is a misogynist bachelor of the Old School, a uniquely British archetype, but even worse is his expecting someone to learn via rote, repetition, and practice, practice, practice. Puhleeeeze. Nowadays, his job could be reduced to an iPhone app: pronounce your vowels correctly and you get an electronic coupon redeemable for a free chocolate.
Ah, but where’s the fun in that?