My Fair Lady is a musical based upon George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion and with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe. The story concerns Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl who takes speech lessons from professor Henry Higgins so that she can pass as a lady. Higgins takes credit for Eliza's success, but she realizes that she can now be independent and does not need him.
The musical's 1956 Broadway production was a smash hit, setting a new record for the longest run of any major musical theatre production in history. It was followed by a hit London production, a popular film version, and numerous revivals. It has been called "the perfect musical.
However, Chase Manhattan Bank was in charge of Pascal's estate, and the musical rights to Pygmalion were sought both by Lerner and Loewe and by MGM, whose executives called Lerner to discourage him from challenging the studio. Loewe famously said to him, "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. For five months Lerner and Loewe wrote, hired technical designers, and made casting decisions. The bank, in the end, granted them the musical rights.
After much deliberation, British actor Rex Harrison agreed to play Professor Higgins. Mary Martin was an early choice for the role of Eliza Doolittle, but declined the role. Young actress Julie Andrews was "discovered" and cast as Eliza Doolittle after the show's creative team went to see her Broadway debut in The Boy Friend. Moss Hart agreed to direct after hearing only two songs. The show quickly went into rehearsal.
The musical had its pre-Broadway tryout at New Haven's Shubert Theatre. On opening night Rex Harrison, who was unaccustomed to singing in front of a live orchestra, "announced that under no circumstances he would go on that night . . . with those thirty-two interlopers in the pit. He locked himself in his dressing room and came out only a little more than an hour before curtain time. The whole company had been dismissed but were somehow rounded up by assistant stage manager Bernie Hart, Moss's brother. The result: opening night was a triumph.
Beginning on February 15, 1956, the show played for four weeks at the Erlanger Theatre in Philadelphia. It then opened on March 15 1956, at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in New York City (see program pictured at left). It ran for 2,717 performances, a record at the time. Moss Hart directed and Hanya Holm was choreographer. In addition to stars Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, the original cast included Stanley Holloway, Robert Coote, Cathleen Nesbitt, John Michael King, and Reid Shelton. Edward Mulhare and Sally Ann Howes replaced Harrison and Andrews later in the run.
The show's title relates to one of Shaw's provisional titles for Pygmalion — Fair Eliza. Other titles considered included "Come to the Ball" and "Lady Liza," but everyone agreed that a marquee reading "Rex Harrison in 'Lady Liza'" would be imprudent. So they took the title they disliked least — "My Fair Lady." This title also created a pun on "Mayfair lady", which is how the title sounds when pronounced with a Cockney accent. The original Playbill and cast recording sleeve featured artwork by Al Hirschfeld, who depicted Eliza as a marionette being manipulated by Henry Higgins, whose own strings are being pulled by a heavenly puppeteer resembling George Bernard Shaw.
London's West End production, in which Harrison, Andrews, Coote, and Holloway reprised their roles, opened on April 30 1958, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where it ran for 2,281 performances. Veteran stage star Zena Dare made her last appearance in the musical as Mrs. Higgins.
The show had a 1979 West End revival at the Adelphi Theatre with Tony Britton, Liz Robertson, Dame Anna Neagle, Richard Caldicot, and Peter Land. Produced by Cameron Mackintosh, it was first directed by Robin Midgley and then by the Lerner himself; Gillian Lynne was choreographer. Other European productions included an early 1970's staging in Holland starring John van Dreelen as Henry Higgins.
Mackintosh again produced the show in 2001 at the Royal National Theatre and later the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, with Martine McCutcheon as Eliza Doolittle and Jonathan Pryce as Professor Henry Higgins. This revival won three Olivier Awards: Best Actress in a Musical (Martine McCutcheon), Outstanding Musical Production, and Best Theatre Choreographer (Matthew Bourne). Joanna Riding took over the role of Eliza and won the Olivier Award, Best Actress in a Musical, in 2003. A UK tour of this production began on September 28, 2005 at the Palace Theatre in Manchester and ended on August 12, 2006 at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. The production starred Amy Nuttall and Lisa O'Hare as Eliza, Christopher Cazenove as Henry Higgins, Russ Abbot and Gareth Hale as Alfred Doolittle, and Honor Blackman and Hannah Gordon as Mrs. Higgins.
In 2007 the New York Philharmonic held a full-costume concert presentation of the musical. The concert had a four-day engagement lasting from March 7th to 10th at Avery Fisher Hall. It starred Kelli O'Hara as Eliza Doolittle, Kelsey Grammer as Professor Henry Higgins, Charles Kimbrough as Colonel Pickering, and Brian Dennehy as Alfred Doolittle. This presentation is notable for its featuring Marni Nixon as Henry's mother. Nixon had provided the singing voice of Audrey Hepburn in the film version.
A U.S. Tour of Cameron Mackintosh's 2001 West End production began on September 12 2007 in Tampa, Florida, and ended on June 22 2008 in Tempe, Arizona. The production starred Lisa O'Hare as Eliza Doolittle, Christopher Cazenove as Professor Henry Higgins, Walter Charles as Colonel Pickering, Tim Jerome as Alfred Doolittle and Marni Nixon as Mrs. Higgins, replacing Sally Ann Howes.
An Australian tour produced by Opera Australia commenced in May 2008. The production stars Reg Livermore as Professor Henry Higgins, Taryn Fiebig as Eliza Doolittle, Robert Grubb as Alfred Doolittle, Rhys McConnochie as Colonel Pickering, Nancye Hayes as Mrs Higgins and Judi Connelli as Mrs Pearce. It opened at the State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre and will travel to the Sydney Opera House, the Canberra Theatre Centre, the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, and the Theatre Royal, Sydney. John Wood will take over the role of Alfred Doolittle in Queensland, and Richard E. Grant will take over the role of Henry Higgins at the Theatre Royal, Sydney.
Eliza's father, Alfred P. Doolittle, a dustman, stops by the next morning. He is searching for money for a drink, and Eliza shares her profits with him ("With a Little Bit of Luck"). Pickering and Higgins are discussing vowels at Higgins's home when Mrs. Pierce, the housekeeper, informs Higgins that a young woman with a ghastly accent has come to see him. It is Eliza, come to take lessons to speak properly so she can become a lady. Pickering wagers that Higgins cannot make good on his claim and volunteers to pay for Eliza's lessons. An intensive makeover of Eliza's speech, manners and dress begins in preparation for her appearance at the Embassy Ball. Higgins sees himself as a kindhearted, patient man who cannot get along with women ("I'm an Ordinary Man"). In reality, he is self-absorbed and misogynistic.
Eliza's father arrives at Higgins' house the next morning, claiming that Higgins is compromising Eliza's virtue. Higgins is impressed by the man's natural gift for language and his brazen lack of moral values ("Can't afford 'em!"). He and Doolittle agree that Eliza can continue to take lessons and live at Higgins' house if Higgins gives Doolittle five pounds for a spree. Higgins flippantly recommends Doolittle to an American millionaire who is seeking a lecturer on moral values. Meanwhile, Eliza endures speech tutoring, endlessly repeating phrases like "In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen” (to demonstrate that "h"s must be aspirated) and "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain" (to practice the "long a" phoneme). She dreams of different ways to kill Higgins, from sickness to drowning to a firing squad ("Just You Wait"). The servants lament the hard "work" Higgins does ("The Servants' Chorus"). Just as they give up, Eliza suddenly "gets it" after Higgins eloquently speaks of the glory of the English language. "The Rain in Spain" becomes a song of triumph, as Higgins and Eliza dance around Higgins's study. Thereafter her pronunciation is transformed into that of impeccable upper class English. Mrs. Pierce, the housekeeper, insists that Eliza go to bed; she declares she is too excited to sleep ("I Could Have Danced All Night").
For her first public tryout, Higgins takes Eliza to his mother's box at the Ascot Racecourse ("Ascot Gavotte"). Henry's mother reluctantly agrees to help Eliza make conversation, following Henry's advice that Eliza should stick to two subjects: the weather and everybody's health. Eliza makes a good impression with her polite manners but shocks everyone by her vulgar Cockney attitudes and slang – it seems that good elocution is only skin deep. But she captures the heart of Freddy Eynsford-Hill, the young man that she first ran into. Freddie calls on Eliza that evening, but she refuses to see him. He declares that he will wait for her in the street outside Higgins's house ("On the Street where You Live").
The final test requires Eliza to pass as a lady at the Embassy Ball, and after weeks of preparation, she is ready. All the ladies and gentlemen at the ball admire her, and the Queen of Transylvania invites her to dance with her son, the prince ("Embassy Waltz"). Eliza then dances with Higgins. A rival of Higgins, a Hungarian phonetician named Zoltan Karpathy, is employed by the hostess to discover Eliza's origins through her speech. Though Pickering and his mother caution him not to, Higgins allows Karpathy to dance with Eliza. Act Two Eliza even fools Zoltan Karpathy into believing that she was "born Hungarian." After the ball, Higgins's boasting about his triumph and his pleasure that the experiment is now over leave Eliza feeling used and abandoned ("You Did It"). Higgins completely ignores Eliza until he loses his slippers. He asks her where they are, and she lashes out at him, leaving the clueless professor mystified by her ingratitude ("Just You Wait" (reprise)). Eliza decides to leave Higgins, and finds Freddie still waiting outside ("On the Street where You Live" (reprise)). He begins to tell her how much he loves her, but she cuts him off, telling him that she has heard enough words; if he really loves her, he should show it ("Show Me"). She and Freddie return to Covent Garden, where her friends do not recognize her refined bearing. By chance, her father is there as well, dressed in a fine suit. He explains that he received a surprise bequest of four thousand pounds a year from the American millionaire, which has raised him to middle-class respectability, and now he must marry Eliza's "stepmother", the woman he has been living with for many years. Eliza sees that she no longer belongs in Covent Garden, and she and Freddie depart. Doolittle and his friends have one last spree before the wedding ("Get Me to the Church on Time").
Higgins awakens the next morning to find that, without Eliza, he has tea instead of coffee, and he cannot find his own files. He wonders why she left after the triumph at the ball and concludes that men (especially himself) are far superior to women ("A Hymn to Him"). Higgins seeks his mother's advice and finds Eliza having tea with her. She leaves them together, and Eliza explains that he has always treated her as a flower girl, but she learned to be a lady because Colonel Pickering treated her like a lady. Higgins claims he treated her the same way that Pickering did, and demands that she return. Eliza accuses him of wanting her only to fetch and carry for him, saying that she will marry Freddie because he loves her. She declares that she does not need Higgins anymore, saying that she was foolish to think that she needed him ("Without You"). Higgins is struck by Eliza's spirit and independence and wants her to stay with him, but she tells him that he will not see her again.
As Higgins walks home, he realizes his feelings for Eliza: he has "grown accustomed to her face." He cannot bring himself to confess that he loves her and insists that if she marries Freddie and then comes back to him, he will not accept her. However, he finds it difficult to imagine being alone again. He reviews the recording he made of the morning Eliza first came to him for lessons. He hears his own harsh words: "She's so deliciously low! So horribly dirty!" Then the phonograph turns off, and a real voice speaks in a Cockney accent: "I washed me face an' 'ands before I come, I did." Henry turns and sees Eliza standing in the doorway, tentatively returning to him. The musical ends on an ambiguous moment of possible reconciliation between teacher and pupil, as Higgins slouches and asks, "Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?".
Lerner in particular disliked the film version of the musical: he thought it did not live up to the standards of Moss Hart's original direction. He also was unhappy that the film was shot entirely on the Warner Brothers backlot rather than, as he would have preferred, in London.
A second film adaptation has been announced to be in the works, to be produced by Columbia Pictures in association with CBS Films. The film will use the score and lyrics by Lerner and Loewe, but plans to draw more material from Pygmalion, with Emma Thompson to write the screenplay. The film will be shot on the London locations described in the story. Keira Knightley and Daniel Day-Lewis will star as Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins respectively.