Musings on "My Fair Lady" on a Saturday afternoon
In reading today’s news I came across the tidbit that Harriet Miers’ favorite movie is “Sound of Music”. This led me to musing on the genesis and creation of the musical “My Fair Lady”.
As I thought about the “Sound of Music”, I realized how fortunate the movie-going world is that Julie Andrews was not selected to play the role of Eliza in the movie version, even though she had premiered it to great success on Broadway.
I’m sure there are those who will disagree, and by all accounts, Miss Andrews did a cracker-jack job on the stage. But a movie is not the stage where a performer needs to project to the back row – movies are really up-close-and-personal, where the viewer can literally see up a person’s nostrils. It’s important not to overact and over-project, and Miss Andrews’ saccharine screen presence that is so prominent in the “Sound of Music” would have forever marred the eventual brilliant screen adaptation, which starred the incandescent and spirited Audrey Hepburn.
The only thing that would have made the screen version of “My Fair Lady” even better, in my opinion, would have been to allow Audrey Hepburn to sing her own music. As it is, the ubiquitous and talented Marni Nixon, who dubbed the singing for Deborah Kerr in “The King and I” and numerous other Hollywood musicals, was tapped to dub the songs for Miss Hepburn. This was a great loss to the movie-going public and to history.
There is a wonderful documentary on the making of “My Fair Lady” which includes a rare out-take from the movie that features Miss Hepburn singing the song “Show Me” in her own voice. The difference between this robust, spunky, natural and emotionally delivered number is miles away from the warbling, sweet generic soprano sounds produced by Miss Nixon, or indeed from the same kind of saccharine soprano which is Miss Andrews’ trademark.
It is at this point in the musical where Eliza truly comes into her own as a person. She has absorbed everything that she has been taught by Professor Higgins, she has brilliantly passed the test of the Royal ball, and has realized that she has been nothing more than a plaything to Higgins. She confronts him, packs a bag and heads out the door. And along comes Freddy, crooning and mooning and spooning, singing his sweet little words of love, when an exasperated Eliza interrupts his song with vehemence -- “Don’t talk of stars burning above, if you’re in love, show me!”
This song, like all of Higgins “singspiel” monologues, needs to be delivered with less emphasis on the beauty of the musical notes and with more emphasis on the dramatic delivery. Here we see Eliza fully integrated as a person. She is the person she has always fundamentally been – a headstrong personality, ambitious, smart, iconoclastic and honest – only now she has the polish of accent and manner that she was previously lacking. Casting aside her former incarnation in song, she moves beyond the schoolgirl crush that she displayed in “I Could Have Danced All Night” and shows herself in full maturity as an independent character who is through being manipulated, and now demands to be accepted on her own terms, in her own right.
If you look at the character of Eliza through the prism of the song lyrics alone, it is fascinating to behold her evolution into the strong and independent character she becomes in the end, when Higgins finally realizes that he has fallen in love – not with his own creation, but with a fully formed and integrated person.
As the musical opens a young Eliza sings of “Wanting a Room Somewhere” -- her ambitions are modest, but already it is clear she is a girl who has dreams of making her life better, and she shows creativity and imagination by taking the step of wanting to take instructions from Professor Higgins.
Her next song, “Just You Wait, Henry Higgins”, is really a cockney version of the later “Show me”. Here Eliza shows her spunk. She shows us that she holds herself in high esteem and does not intend to be trampled even by the likes of Henry Higgins. She imagines her triumph with Higgins lying helpless at her feet as she gives the order to “Take off his head!” In the lyrics Lerner has done a brilliant job of describing the arc of Eliza’s growth as a person, so that the songs carry along the development of the play just as surely as Shaw’s words do.
There is a marvelous piece by Mark Steyn that describes how only the team of Lerner and Loewe could have possibly brought Shaw’s brilliant stage play to the musical theater. To have the temerity to add words and lyrics to the immortal Shaw takes great courage, and the love story of Eliza and Higgins is not your usual young love, moon, June and spoon love story.
In a television interview Lerner’s wife told a fascinating story of the creation of the lyrics to Higgins’ final number, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”.
Lerner had been desperately searching for the lyrics he needed for a love song for Henry Higgins. He was completely stymied. Higgins could not be reduced to the schoolboy trillings of a Freddie, he would not be a man given to rhyming and poetic turns of phrase. How to give the crusty professor words to describe the fact that he had fallen in love? At one point, his wife described bringing her husband a plate of sandwiches and some coffee after he had been up very late one night struggling with his dilemma. As she descended the stairs with the tray in her hand her husband said, “You know, you are really beautiful.” -- and she replied, “How nice of you to notice.” He replied that he had simply grown used to her face and had suddenly realized anew how beautiful she really was. At that point he knew he had it – the key. “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” was born, and the perfect words were found to demonstrate Higgins’ growing realization of his love for Eliza without resorting to typical love lyrics, which would have been out of character.
Well, I could go on all night about this, about the brilliance of the monologues such as “Why Can’t The English Teach Their Children How to Speak”, but that would be getting off the topic.
The musical version of “My Fair Lady” is a brilliant adaptation of Shaw’s play and a depiction of the evolution of Eliza’s character through song, and the only thing that would have immeasurably improved the movie version and made it perfect is if Audrey Hepburn had been allowed to sing her own music. They should have let Eliza be Eliza – instead they chose the equivalent of a British high-born lady to sing the part of a Cockney flower girl.
Click here to read Mark Steyn's piece on the creation of "My Fair Lady".
Click here to read the lyrics to all the songs in "My Fair Lady".