March 15: My Fair Lady

58 years ago tonight at New York’s My Fair LadyMark Hellinger Theatre, the curtain rose on a new musical from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe called My Fair Lady. The famed musical is an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion and tells the story of Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl, and Henry Higgins, a linguistics professor. Higgins makes a bet with a colleague that he can so thoroughly teach Eliza to speak properly that he could in fact pass her off as a lady of high society. It is rightly considered one of the classics of American theater.

Of course, like any good production, My Fair Lady didn’t go off without a view hitches. For one thing, many people, including Rodgers and Hammerstein, had attempted to adapt Pygmalion into a musical but every attempt had been denied by Shaw. You see, he was displeased with the Viennese operetta The Chocolate Soldier,  which was based on his play Arms and the Man and as such refused to allow any of his plays to be adapted. However, when Shaw died in 1950, film producer Gabriel Pascal quickly acquired the rights to Pygmalion from the Shaw estate and asked Lerner to create a musical adaptation.

Lerner and Loewe tried to turn Pygmalion into a musical, but found quite a few problems with adapting it. The play did not lend itself to the musical theater style of the day. The main plot was not a love story, there was no subplot and no parts for a large ensemble. So, the two decided to abandon the project. Two years later, Pascal died and as Lerner read the obituary he remembered the ill fated attempt to adapt Pygmalion, and so he called Loewe and they decided to revisit the project. They came upon a rather ingenious solution to the problems they encountered two years earlier. Namely, they simply added new scenes that took place between the acts of Shaw’s play. For example, the scene where Higgins introduces society to Eliza Doolittle at Ascot Racecourse was invented for My Fair Lady.

There was still another complication that Lerner and Loewe had to face. Chase Manhattan Bank was now overseeing Pascal’s estate and MGM was very interested in acquiring the rights to Pygmalion. A studio executive contacted Lerner to tell him that it would be pointless to try to fight for the rights, but Loewe had another idea entirely: “We will write the show without the rights, and when the time comes for them to decide who is to get them, we will be so far ahead of everyone else that they will be forced to give them to us”. So, the duo got to work on the script and over the course of five months they not only finished the script but began contacting technicians and designers. Seeing how far along Lerner and Loewe were, the bank was practically forced to give them the rights.

Now that they had the rights and a finished book, they needed to cast the leads. They approached Broadway star Mary Martin and  English theatrical multi-hyphenate Noel Coward to star as Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins, respectively. Both turned them down, but Coward suggested that they ask Rex Harrison to play Higgins. Harrison eventually took the part, after much deliberation. While looking for their Eliza, the creative team took in a production of a musical called The Boy Friend staring a young English actress named Julie Andrews who was making her Broadway debut. Andrews was offered the role of Eliza and she happily took it.

My Fair Lady had its pre-Broadway tryout in February 1956 at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut where it encountered one last little hitch. On opening night of the tryout, Harrison locked himself in his dressing room, refusing to go on as he was unaccustomed to singing in front of a live orchestra. In one of the actor’s legendary feats of pompous jackassery, he declared that he would not go out on stage “…with those thirty-two interlopers in the pit”. The cast was told to go, but thankfully Harrison was coaxed out of his room an hour before showtime and the company was swiftly brought back to the theater and the rest of opening night ran smoothly.

The show opened on Broadway on March 15, 1956 and was an instant success. The first reviews were universal raves, except for amongst die hard Shaw loyalists. The show received ten Tony nominations, and won six including Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical and Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical. The show closed on September 29, 1962 after 2,717 performances, setting the record at the time for the longest running show in Broadway history. A film version of My Fair Lady, starring Harrison and Audrey Hepburn was made in 1964 and won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director, and productions of the musical continue to this day.

When the musical opened in London in April of 1958, most of the original Broadway cast, including Harrison and Andrews, reprised their roles. To celebrate the opening of the West End production of My Fair Lady Joe Gilmore, head barman at The Savoy Hotel’s American Bar, created a cocktail called My Fair Lady to toast Julie Andrews. It’s a refined gin drink with the sweet sirop de fraise (strawberry syrup) and an egg white fizz.

My Fair Lady

  • 1 ounce Gin
  • 1 ounce lemon juice
  • 1 ounce orange juice
  • 1 ounce sirop de fraise
  • 1 egg white

Shake ingredients together thoroughly with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Tomorrow: “Vegas, baby. VEGAS!”

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