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The Evolution of a Classic: The Unknown History of My Fair Lady

Updated on May 23, 2012

Many love the classic musical My Fair Lady, and it has also stood the test of time well in the critical realm, frequently making lists of the top ten musicals. But most don't know anything about it's background, an impressive literary and intellectual beginning for any movie, but especially for a musical.

From a Greek myth to a play by one of England's most respected playrights to one of the best musicals ever created, My Fair Lady has one of the most colorful and interesting backstories in the musical theatre repertoire.

The Greek Myth

The work Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid is the most common source for the myth of Pygmalion. In the narrative poem spanning fifteen books Ovid details the history of the world in a loose, mythical style from the beginning of the earth to the establishment of Julius Caesar as a deity.

Taken from the tenth book of Metamorphoses, Pygmalion is a sculptor who has become disillusioned with women after witnessing prostitution in the city of Rome. He models the ideal woman made of ivory, pure, unspotted, and perfect. But lo and behold, he finds himself falling in love with this stoney paragon and with no recourse. On the day Venus' festival Pygmalion makes his offering to the goddess of love along with a secret wish that his statue would become a real woman. Upon his return home he kisses his statue and finds that she has come to life in his absence. With the blessing of Venus he marries her and they live together happily.

Mrs. Patrick Campbell
Mrs. Patrick Campbell
Sir Herbert Tree
Sir Herbert Tree
George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw

The Play

In 1912 George Bernard Shaw completed a play that he said "Caesar and Cleopatra has been driven clean out of my head by a play I want to write for them in which he shall be a west end gentleman and she an east end dona in an apron and three orange and red ostrich feathers." The work, called Pygmalion, was based loosely on the Greek myth with plenty of Victorian English culture and modernization thrown in. Instead of a sculpture, Shaw created Professor Henry Higgins, an expert in phonetics, and instead of lifting a piece of rock to the status of humanity Higgins' role was to raise a cockney flower girl to the class of a duchess through her speech. Shaw's most famous characters were born through this unlikely twosome and brought him both popular and critical acclaim.

The play premiered in London at His Majesty's Theatre in 1914 though it had already been translated for the German theatre the year before, and also was produced in America a few weeks before. The English version starred the famous Mrs. Patrick Campbell, for whom the role of Eliza Doolittle had been created by Shaw, partly as a flirtatious device. The Professor was played by the theatre's owner and manager, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Shaw directed his masterpiece in London, and with the fiery tempermants of the two lead actors and director, it wasn't uncommon for one of the three to leave rehearsal in a rage. But they collaborated successfully, and on April 11, 1914, the British public first saw Pygmalion.

It was an immediate success, as both critics and audiences adored it. The integrity of the ending was occasionally compromised with Eliza and the Professor ending up as a romantic couple, but Shaw loathed all such adulterations of his manuscript, and the original finale has remained the standard.

In 1938 Pygmalion was adapted into a movie starring Leslie Howard and introducing Wendy Hiller, whom Shaw himself chose for the role of Eliza. He won an Academy Award for writing the script, and enjoyed his work on the film.

My Fair Lady

This is definitely the most famous and celebrated of all renditions of the Pygmalion story. When George Pascal, the producer of the film, first gained the rights to create the movie Shaw refused to allow it to be adapted as a musical. However, as soon as the writer died, Pascal approached Alan Jay Lerner with the idea of creating a musical from the script, and Lerner agreed to take the project with his partner Fredrick Loewe in spite of the fact that they were advised against it by many. Even Oscar Hammerstein II had tried to create a musical from the script but had given up the seemingly hopeless project, and Lerner and Loewe even gave the project up for two years.

Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews
Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews

But then Lerner came across an obituary for Pascal and the idea came back. He and Loewe had stopped working together, but reunited for the project with a few changes in the script helped iron out the difficulties in the plot. Though the legal rights to the musical hadn't been given Lerner and Loewe pushed forward determinedly with casting and staging and practically had the play produced by the time they were given the legal rights.

To play the lead roles Lerner and Loewe hired seasoned veteran Rex Harrison and a very young newcomer named Julie Andrews. Preparations for a pre-New York tryout in New Haven, Connecticut continued, and all seemed to be going well until opening night when Rex Harrison, who was unaccustomed to singing with a full orchestra announced that he wouldn't agree to go on with the musicians playing. When he finally came out of his dressing room to tell everyone of his change of heart the rest of the cast had been dismissed. However, they were recalled in time for the beginning of the show.

Opening night on Broadway was March 15, 1956. The show was an immediate hit with both audiences and critics hailing it as a triumph, and it went on to run an impressive 2, 717 shows in New York until September of 1958. It opened in London to run yet another 2, 281 performances with Harrison and Andrews reprising their roles.

The Film

This is how most people today know My Fair Lady. No one could replace Rex Harrison as the Professor and Audrey Hepburn was cast for the part of Eliza. The film rights were bought by Warner Brothers for an unprecedented $5.5 million, and the final budget for the movie was around $17 million with lavish sets, costumes, and stellar casting.

Filming commenced in August of 1963 and finished in December, but the film was not released until Christmas day the next year. It garnered eight Oscars including Best Picture, Actor, and Director, as well as another four nominations. Most notable, however, was the omission of Audrey Hepburn on the list of award recipients. Many thought that Julie Andrews should have been given the role that she originated on Broadway, and that combined with the knowledge that most of Hepburn's vocals had been dubbed by Marni Nixon robbed her of an award for what many consider one of her best roles. Harrison, though at first skeptical of Hepburn's suitability because of her noble background, was quickly won over, and when later asked who his favorite leading lady was, he quickly acknowledged that it was Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.

However, these contentions don't detract from the classic that it is still considered. It's uniqueness as a musical, with an implied rather than definite romantic ending, and the intellectual qualities it possesses, make it stand out in the musical repertoire. From it's ancient beginnings as a Greek myth to it's creation as a stage play to it's transformation as one of the best musicals of all time, My Fair Lady is an forgettable classic of wit and timelessness.


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    • collegatariat profile image

      collegatariat 5 years ago

      Thank you for reading it whowas! I always enjoy your comments, and this one even made me laugh. I have a friend who can't stand the movie because of it's supposed inherent feminism, while you find it exactly the other way around. I find myself in the middle, with a great deal of annoyance with Higgins, but a supreme sense of satisfaction when Eliza ends up giving him his come-uppance.

      And of course, Audrey Hepburn makes almost anything bearable, so I must confess that this is one of my top three musicals of all time. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment!

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      whowas 5 years ago

      That is a really very interesting article. I was already familiar with the origins and development of the story but enjoyed reading your fascinating account, bringing it all together.

      There was a storm of controversy when Audrey Hepburn was given the movie role - especially as she couldn't sing her parts and had to be over-dubbed by Marnie Dixon.

      Personally, while 'On The Street Where You Live' remains one of my all time favorite songs, I find the movie very hard to watch as I can't quite overcome the hurdle of its inherent sexism.

      Thanks for an interesting read.