Musical

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Overrated My Fair Lady . Nearly 50 years after its 1956 premiere, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion remains the summoning term for the great American musical. One reason is its book, witty and provocative, whereas the typical musical’s script is an emptily functional dirt road connecting green zones of song and dance. And no wonder. This musical isn’t a version of Shaw’s Pygmalion ; it is Shaw’s Pygmalion , with musical truffling.

And what about that score? Isn’t it a crazy jumble of styles, from Middle European operetta ("You Did It") to English music hall ("With a Little Bit of Luck,” “Get Me to the Church on Time"), from a kind of updated Gilbert and Sullivan ("Why Can’t the English?") to contemporary Broadway (“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”), and taking in stopovers in inappropriate Latin rhythm, the habanera (“The Rain in Spain”) and enraged jota (“Show Me”)?

Worse, how could Lerner and Loewe have planned nearly the entire score around a soprano and a talker? True, a baritone gets “On the Street Where You Live.” But while the 20-year-old Julie Andrews was a former infant phenomenon who sang coloratura showpieces and could fill London’s vast Palladium with her amazing grace, she was playing opposite Rex Harrison. An expert in light comedy of the boulevardier kind, Harrison couldn’t sing. And he had six numbers, including the show’s climactic ballad, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

Harrison not only couldn’t sing. He wouldn’t sing, especially at the first public performance. From the moment he left the security of the rehearsal piano for the netless trapeze act of performing with a pit orchestra, he was rattled. It was not just that he was physically separated from the source of the music; the tumult of the instrumental polyphony bewildered him. Why was there so much music going on all the time?

Having made it through a dress rehearsal, Harrison suddenly refused to play the New Haven opening and locked himself in his dressing room. No one could dislodge him; he would not go on. Then the house manager offered to go before the curtain and tell the most expectant audience since rumor had filled ancient Athens that Aeschylus was going to introduce the Second Actor exactly why they weren’t going to see My Fair Lady that night. Harrison went on.

Ironically, that performance as Henry Higgins, on Broadway, in London, and then on film, made Harrison famous in a way a boulevardier could not have foreseen. It adjusted Harrison’s reputation to that of the classical giants, the Oliviers and the Gielguds. Note, too, that while the movie replaced Andrews with Audrey Hepburn, no one could have substituted for Harrison. It isn’t just the musical that is overrated but its star.

Underrated My Fair Lady . We take it for granted because we all know it so well, if only from that quite faithful movie. So when Lerner and Loewe pull off one or another of the show’s innovative stunts, we shrug it off as something we’ve seen before. Of course we have—in My Fair Lady . For instance, that “Rain in Spain” number, which celebrates the heroine’s breakthrough in her diction lessons. (That is, in her class promotion from Cockney to Princess Di.) The song stopped the show on that first night in New Haven so decisively that Harrison, Andrews, and Robert Coote, as Colonel Pickering, had to step out of character to take a joint bow. It has been a highlight ever since. But we of today do not appreciate how ingeniously the authors abandoned Shaw to explore something that Pygmalion ’s creator knew nothing of. In this scene, Lerner and Loewe used music’s power to express the friendship and fondness—the love—that can spring up among three people who have thought themselves business partners. “The Rain in Spain” goes almost Dada in its games with elocution paradigms and the punning Spanish accompaniment, a Wimpole Street Carmen . But the dramatic transaction that lies under this is very telling. Even as the number speeds past us, we get it before we’ve got it.

At that, My Fair Lady ’s score is one of the great ones. Yes, it is stylistically inconsistent in a work whose setting and narrative are, on the contrary, very tightly organized. But the numbers are so melodic and full of character content that they captivate in their own anarchic way. And give Lerner credit for matching the “voices” in his lyrics to the “voices” in the script- not an easy task, which explains why relatively few of Shaw’s many plays have been made into musicals.

It also explains why Lerner and Loewe built half a score around Rex Harrison. Higgins shouldn’t sing. He’s a leading man of a kind no musical had yet featured, cantankerous, loveless, and uninterested in anyone. He’s Shaw himself. Fifties musicals tended to feature wonderful people falling in love while being interested in the entire world. That’s why they’re always singing. Higgins doesn’t truly sing in My Fair Lady till that last number, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” because by then he has turned into a musical-comedy leading man. Unlike George Bernard Shaw, but like the rest of us, he has finally figured out how to let himself fall in love.