Authors: Dominic McHugh
Tags: #The Life And Times Of My Fair Lady
Geoffrey Block, Series Editor
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Loverly: The Life and Times of “My Fair Lady”
The Life and Times of
My Fair Lady
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Loverly: the life and times of My fair lady /Dominic McHugh.
p. cm.—(Broadway legacies)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Loewe, Frederick, 1901–1988. My Fair Lady.
2. Lerner, Alan Jay, 1918–1986. My Fair Lady.
3. Musicals—United States—History and criticism. I. Title.
Publication of this book was supported in part by a grant from the
AMS 75 PAYS Endowment of the American Musicological Society.
1 3 5 7 9 8 4 6 2
Printed in the United States of America
on acid-free paper
MUM AND DAD
When I received the proposal that would evolve into the book you are about to read, I immediately recalled Mozart’s apocryphal but no less prescient remark after meeting with the seventeen-year-old Beethoven: “Keep your eyes on him—someday he will give the world something to talk about.” The analogy may be imperfect, but Mozart’s prophecy remains fundamentally apt to describe the thoroughly accomplished young author of
Loverly: The Life and Times of “My Fair Lady,”
Dominic McHugh, of the University of Sheffield. Indeed, McHugh has produced the first comprehensive and most accurate account of how this great and perennially popular show came to be, and
will give us much to talk about, just as the revered subject of this book has for generations added immeasurable wealth to the American musical treasury.
In telling the story of how Alan Jay Lerner (1918–86) and Frederick Loewe (1901–88) created what one opening night critic described as “a new landmark in the genre fathered by Rodgers and Hammerstein,” McHugh, in contrast to most of his predecessors, turns to Lerner’s 1978 memoir,
The Street Where I Live
“only where no other source exists.” Although never less than engaging and indispensable, and although we have grown accustomed to accepting Lerner’s recollections at face value, McHugh’s approach is a welcome one. By looking more closely at Lerner’s street—without, however, drawing comparisons with his stage characters as I am doing here—McHugh’s reliance on his documentary exploration reveals that Lerner’s memory shares much in common with that of Honoré and Mamita in
, who think they “remember it well” but clearly do not. Among many polite but firm refutations in the course of
, McHugh carefully points out that contrary to Lerner’s claim in his memoir, Mary Martin did appear to be a “natural” for the role of Eliza. Lerner wrote at the time that “everyone else after Mary has to be second choice” and that despite Lerner’s assertion Rex Harrison was the first choice for Higgins, in fact Lerner and Loewe approached both Noël Coward and Michael Redgrave before turning to Harrison.
Instead of following Lerner at every turn as most previous writers have done, McHugh offers a meticulous exploration of voluminous contemporary sources, including letters, memos, lyric and libretto drafts, and scores both discarded and replaced. The saga begins with the Theatre Guild (entirely omitted in Lerner’s expansive narrative) and its attempt to find a talented
composer and lyricist, starting with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein in 1951, who had produced the great Guild hits
(and the miss
) in the 1940s. About a year after Rodgers and Hammerstein concluded, as Hammerstein later allegedly reported in a conversation with Lerner, that “it can’t be done,” the Guild solicited Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin before turning to Lerner for the book and lyrics and Loewe for the music. If I may borrow a song title from the completed show, they “did it.”
McHugh next details the two stages of Lerner and Loewe’s attempt to adapt Shaw’s
, the abandoned project of 1952 and the successful second effort from 1954 to 1956 that led to the historic opening night March 15, 1956, which was produced by Herman Levin rather than the Theatre Guild. The next chapters look at Shaw’s original play of 1914, the 1938 film adaption directed by Gabriel Pascal that became the principal source for the stage version, Lerner’s outlines prior to script changes during the crucial rehearsal process, the development of the score based on a rich treasure of musical source material, and the finished show’s stage and film legacy to date. In his final chapter McHugh reviews selected commentary on
My Fair Lady
and offers a provocative and well-argued interpretation of “the nature of the ambiguous relationship between Eliza and Higgins.”
We don’t know if Porter, among the composers approached by the Theatre Guild to adapt
to the musical stage, regretted not taking on this daunting assignment, but Rex Harrison’s recollection that “Porter reserved himself a seat once a week for the entire [six-year] run” suggests the possibility that he had. Thanks to a surviving letter—supplied to me by Dominic, naturally—we now know that when the first season tickets arrived Porter wrote to Lerner expressing his deep gratitude for obtaining his “‘subscription’ seats.” Although
My Fair Lady
was not customarily regarded as revolutionary in its own time or since, its perfect blend of story, words, and music along with its verve and originality have earned the show an honored place in the history of the musical. After he first saw it Fred Astaire wrote an effusive note to Lerner to share his enthusiasm for what he considered “simply the best show that has ever been produced.” More recently, although he dismissed Lerner’s work for its lack of interest compared with his predecessors Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim found Shaw’s characterization “more layered and surprising,” and even questioned the notion of doing this musical at all. Sondheim, who was just a few years too young to have been asked to adapt
, recalled in his “attendant comments” in
Finishing the Hat
My Fair Lady
was “the most entertaining musical I’ve ever seen (exclusive of my own, of course).”
Many of us might say the same about
, a book that tells us how Lerner and Loewe transformed Shaw’s fine play into an enduring musical capable of pleasing such diverse critics as Porter and Sondheim, and of course millions of musical theater aficionados for more than fifty years.
Series Editor, Broadway Legacies