Last week, Hubs and I went to a production of My Fair Lady by Playmakers Theater, the oldest theater that is part of a university (UNC). This production did not have the glitz and glam of a Broadway play – with two pianos in place of a full orchestra, a horseshoe- shaped stage, and an audience of 200 – but the story is ageless, the voices were excellent, and I fell in love with Alfred P. Doolittle all over again.
Most of you know that the musical My Fair Lady is based on a play by George Bernard Shaw called Pygmalion, first performed in 1914. Pygmalion is, of course, the story told by the Roman poet Ovid of a celibate sculptor who creates and falls in love with a statue of Galatea. Galatea is brought to life by Venus, and Ovid created a love-conquers-all sentimental finish.
A lifelong champion of progressive causes and a reformist crusader on a host of fronts, Shaw used the stage to engage and confront the world, a venue for a clash of ideas. My Fair Lady is the story of an increasingly combustible relationship between a humorless, goal driven teacher (Pygmalion) and a lively, intelligent female pupil of the lowest class (Galatea), a pointed critique of the class system in England. In1912, Shaw was experiencing the decline of Victorian moralities, the rise of women in society as embodied by suffragists, shifts in politics that led to the destabilization of Europe and ultimately WWI.
Shaw loathed the adaptation of plays to musicals, as a result of what he saw as a terrible transposition of his play Arms and the Man to a operetta, The Chocolate Soldier. He stated “nothing will ever induce me to allow any other play of mine to be… set to any music..” The first step in the creation of My Fair Lady occurred because Shaw held the cinema in slightly less contempt.
Hungarian filmmaker Gabriel Pasqual charmed Shaw into giving him the film rights to Major Barbara, Androcles and the Lion, Caesar and Cleopatra, and…Pygmalion. Shaw insisted that no happy ending be given to his play, even though actors knew this is what audiences wanted. Nevertheless, Pascal’s film ends with the implication of a love match for Eliza and Henry Higgens.
Pascal’s film studio retained its licensing to Shaw’s plays, and after Shaw’s death in 1950 at the age of 94, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe signed on to reinvent Pygmalion as a musical, with the creation of My Fair Lady. My Fair Lady, as described in our program notes by Gregory Kable, is a delightful marriage of contraries in the stage and screen version, and captures the tensions Shaw wanted to portray.
The perfection of Lerner and Loewe’s musical adaption of Pygmalion is such that six decades later, audiences still experience the context of the original play – the tension, the beauty, the humanity, and now the soaring lyrics – of which even Shaw would approve.
PS Some trivia
Rex Harrison, who played ‘enry ‘iggens in both the stage and movie version of MFL, was very disappointed when Audrey Hepburn was cast as Eliza, since he felt she was miscast and had hoped to work with Julie Andrews, who had played Eliza on stage. He told an interviewer, “Eliza Doolittle is supposed to be ill at ease in European ballrooms. Bloody Audrey has never spent a day in her life out of European ballrooms.” Nevertheless, when Harrison was once later asked to identify his favorite leading lady, he replied without hesitation, he replied, “Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.“