Friday, August 26, 2016

SHOW BIZ | Sag Harbor "My Fair Lady" (Updated Sep 7, 2016)

The original billboard for My 
Fair Lady by Al Hirschfeld, who
summered on Lily Pond Lane
in East Hampton. 
This year's Bay Street Theater (Sag Harbor, N.Y.) production of My Fair Lady is a big hit, extended by several weeks. All the seat sightlines, and the acoustics, are good in this mid-sized theater.

I saw the show over the weekend and it was a stunning production with extremely talented acting and singing. The design of the stage and the choreography to my mind was flawless in the context of its challenging stage-area limitations.

How the musical came to be, and its importance in the Broadway narrative, is instructive. The lessons of the My Fair Lady story include the persistence of some ancient myths that capture hard-to-describe insights into human nature. There are also some lessons in the casting of the leading lady and some early responses to the show.


The roots of the story line go deep. It is well-known that My Fair Lady was based on George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion (1913), but that play was in turn based on earlier productions.

In Shaw's story, the Cockney-speaking flower-girl Eliza Doolittle is discovered in Covent Garden by Prof. Henry Higgins, a phonetics researcher. He “creates” her, like a statue, by teaching her to talk posh. However, his own boorish behavior means that she has to learn how to behave from Higgins' well-mannered bachelor colleague Col. Pickering.

Then, as in the original Pygmalion story, Higgins falls in love with Eliza. Shaw wrote privately that of course by the time she learns how to behave like a lady she would lose interest in Higgins. In 1914, Shaw said he was concerned by Pygmalion's success. "There must be something wrong with the play if it pleases everybody." He gave it deep thought and metaphorically shook his head: "[A]t the moment, I can't find what it is."

The play Pygmalion itself is based on an earlier play by W. S. Gilbert (best remembered today as the libretto-writing half of Gilbert & Sullivan). In Gilbert's Pygmalion and Galatea (1871), a sculptor carves many statues of his wife, Cynisca. She at first admires one of them, named for Galatea. But when the statue comes alive, Galatea falls in love with Pygmalion and in her innocence Galatea behaves wantonly, provoking a savage attack by a jealous Cynisca, Galatea decides to retreat back into her previous statue mode.

Gilbert based his play on the legend of a Cypriot sculptor told by Ovid and other Latin and Greek writers. Ovid said that after seeing prostitutes (the Propoetides) the sculptor, Pygmalion, became uninterested in women. However, the ivory statue Pygmalion made was so realistic that he fell in love with it. This story is easier to appreciate when we remember that many ancient statues that survive today were painted and originally many of them must have looked highly realistic, like wax statues by Marie Tussaud.

(A less well-known related myth is that Hephaestus created automata for his workshop, allowing statues to move and therefore become more lifelike. The use of automata to make statues move includes the Colossus of Rhodes itself, one of the wonders of the ancient world. The hand of the Colossus could be manipulated by the local priest to move forward as if to make or receive a gift. I researched this topic seriously in Rhodes, because of the interest in the subject of a friend, at the Archaeological Service of the Dodecanese Islands in 2008.)

Ovid's Pygmalion came to the altar of Aphrodite and prayed for a bride who would be like his ivory girl. When he got home, he kissed his statue and its lips were warm. He kissed it again, and found that the ivory had lost its hardness and had become a warm human being. Aphrodite (Venus in Ovid's version) had given him his bride. He married her and Ovid says they had a daughter after whom the Cypriot city Paphos is named. I wonder how happy Mrs. Pygmalion was. Did she yearn for more independence? In the Italian story of Pinocchio, a wooden puppet is transformed into a "real" boy, because the puppet yearns to be free of the wood-carver, Mr. Geppetto. This seems to be the question that led Shaw to write Pygmalion.

My Fair Lady

We know that Shaw refused to allow a musical adaptation of his play during his lifetime, probably because he knew the conventions of musical theater would require the leading man to get the leading lady, and the character of Higgins would not have mixed well with the new Eliza. He was afraid that Higgins would end up with Eliza, which he thought would be preposterous because Higgins remains at the end a prisoner of his science while Eliza through her mastery of diction and then behavior earns  her way to choose freely among possible mates.

A non-musical movie, Pygmalion (1938), was produced by Hungarian director Gabriel Pascal, who won for his movie an Oscar for best picture. Shaw thereby became the only playwright to have won an Oscar as well as a Nobel Prize for Literature. The ending of Pygmalion, however, is a copout, because Eliza leaves Freddy and returns to Prof. Higgins at the end, ambiguously (it isn't clear whether how long she will stay with Higgins).

Soon after Shaw died in 1950, Pascal became Shaw's executor. He gave Rodgers and Hammerstein the rights, and they went to work to try to make a musical out of Pygmalion. However, they gave up, deciding it was "unadaptable" because–as Shaw insisted–the boy (Higgins) cannot get the girl. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe decided they could solve the problem by building up the part of Freddy, aided by Shaw's revised ending for the 1938 movie. Excited by the prospect of a successful musical, Lerner and Loewe went ahead collaborating on songs without first getting rights. They were so far ahead with their project that MGM's attempt to freeze them out failed and Chase Manhattan Bank, now executor of Shaw's estate after the death of Pascal, sold them the rights based on their hit Brigadoon.

Lerner and Loewe decided to leave the thread of Shaw's dialog relatively untouched because it worked well on stage. They focused on their songs. Mary Martin didn't like these My Fair Lady songs and declined the part of Eliza. The part was given to Julie Andrews, who went on to star in Camelot and then topped that by getting picked for the role of Maria von Trapp despite Mary Martin's having played the part in the Broadway version of The Sound of Music. Julie Andrews is, perhaps not coincidentally, Trustee Emerita of the Bay Street Theater. Noel Coward was the first choice for the part of Henry Higgins; he suggested his friend Rex Harrison, an inspired choice (he won a Tony for best actor). The resulting musical opened in 1956 and won six Tony Awards, ending after 2,717 performances, the longest run of any musical up to that time.

The movie My Fair Lady based on the musical came out in 1964. Rex Harrison kept the part of Higgins, but Audrey Hepburn got the role of Eliza with her singing dubbed. The movie was criticized from several perspectives (the dialog that worked well on stage was seen as too cumbersome for a movie) but was a big hit with moviegoers. My Fair Lady, having won a Tony for best play, then won an Oscar for best picture, only one of four properties to have won both awards.

The Most Popular Songs from My Fair Lady