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 show's 1956 Broadway production was a smash hit, setting a new record for the longest run of any major 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."
In the mid-1930s, film producer Gabriel Pascal acquired the rights to produce film versions of several of George Bernard Shaw's plays, Pygmalion among them. He asked lyricist Alan Jay Lerner to write the musical adaptation. Lerner agreed. Lerner and writing partner Frederick Loewe began writing, but they quickly realized the play was incapable of obeying the rules for constructing a musical. First, there was no place for an ensemble. Second, there was no subplot or secondary love story. Pygmalion has just one story, and it is a nonlove story. Many people, including Oscar Hammerstein II, told Lerner that converting the play to a musical was impossible, so he and Loewe abandoned the project for two years. During this time, the collaborators separated, Gabriel Pascal died, and the American musical theatre changed. Lerner had been trying to musicalize Lil' Abner when he read Pascal's obituary and found himself thinking about Pygmalion again. When he and Loewe reunited, everything seemed to fall into place. All the insurmountable obstacles that stood in their way two years earlier had disappeared with the transformation of the musical theatre, and they excitedly began writing the show.
However, Chase Manhattan Bank was in charge of Pascal's estate, and the musical rights to Pygmalion were fought for by Lerner and Loewe and 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. By the time the bank had to give away the rights, it chose Lerner and Loewe.
After much deliberation, Rex Harrison agreed to play Professor Higgins. Julie Andrews was "discovered" when the 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 unused 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. It ran for 2,717 performances, a record at the time. Moss Hart directed and Hanya Holm was choreographer. The original cast included Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, 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 comes from one of Shaw's provisional titles for Pygmalion -- Fair Eliza. Other titles considered included "Come to the Ball" and "Liza," but everyone agreed that a marquee reading "Rex Harrison in '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.
Synopsis: Henry Higgins, an arrogant, irascible professor of phonetics, boasts to fellow linguist Colonel Pickering that he can train any woman to speak so properly that he could pass her off as a duchess. (In the terms now used by linguists, and which did not yet exist in the period of the show, Higgins said he could take a speaker of basilect and teach her to speak acrolect.) Pickering is intrigued by Higgins's boast and wagers that Higgins cannot make good on his claim. Higgins takes on the challenge. He chooses Eliza Doolittle for tutoring. She is a poor girl with a strong Cockney accent whom he encounters selling flowers in Covent Garden. An intensive makeover of Eliza's speech, manners, and dress begins in preparation for her appearance at the Embassy Ball.
Complicating matters is Eliza's father, Alfred P. Doolittle (Stanley Holloway), a cheerfully amoral and drink-loving dustman. He shows up to extract money from Higgins, 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!"). So he flippantly recommends Doolittle to an American millionaire who is seeking a lecturer on moral values. In the end, Doolittle gets a surprise bequest of four thousand pounds a year from the millionaire. This raises him uncomfortably into middle-class respectability.
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). Just as things seem hopeless, she suddenly "gets it" after Higgins eloquently speaks of the glory of the English language. Thereafter her pronunciation is transformed into that of impeccable upper class English. For her first public tryout, Higgins takes her to Ascot Racecourse. There she makes a good impression with her polite manners but shocks everyone by her vulgar Cockney attitudes and slang (thus establishing one of the show's themes: good elocution is only "skin deep"). But she captures the heart of an eager young man named Freddy Eynsford-Hill.
The final test requires Eliza to pass as a lady at the Embassy Ball. She does this admirably, even fooling a rival of Higgins, a Hungarian phonetician named Zoltan Karpathy: Karpathy claims Eliza was "born Hungarian." After the ball, Higgins's ungrateful boasting about his triumph and his pleasure that the experiment is now over leave Eliza feeling used and abandoned. She walks out on Higgins, leaving the clueless professor mystified by her ingratitude. But Higgins soon realizes his feelings for her: he has "grown accustomed to her face." When Eliza tentatively returns to him, the musical ends on an ambiguous moment of possible reconciliation between teacher and pupil.