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The Archive: My Fair Lady, the musical made against its author’s wishes

Liz Robertson and Tony Britton in a 1979 revival of My Fair Lady Liz Robertson and Tony Britton in a 1979 revival of My Fair Lady
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Covent Garden’s most celebrated flower seller returns to her roots on Sunday in an all-star performance of My Fair Lady to mark the musical’s 60th anniversary, as well as raising funds for the restoration of St Paul’s Church, otherwise known as the Actors’ Church.

It is under the mighty portico of St Paul’s that George Bernard Shaw’s Henry Higgins first sets eyes – and ears – upon the scruffy “gutter-snipe” Eliza Doolittle, whom he later vows to transform into a posh-sounding society hostess.

Shaw himself wasn’t crazy about the idea of Pygmalion being made into a musical, fearing it would trivialise it, but the man to whom he sold the film rights of his plays, Hungarian director Gabriel Pascal, disagreed. After Shaw died in 1950, Pascal invited writer and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner to work on an adaptation.

Rodgers and Hammerstein had already tried, and failed, to adapt Pygmalion as a musical, and at first it defeated Lerner and his musical collaborator, Frederick Loewe, not helped by Hammerstein’s insistence that it could not be done.

So Lerner and Loewe went off and did other things, including Paint Your Wagon, before returning to Pygmalion two years later, determined to make it work. Feeling it was too interior-bound, they opened it out and created the scenes outside St Paul’s, in the smart London street where Higgins lives, at the Ascot races, the Embassy ball (a scene Shaw had inserted for the 1938 film of Pygmalion) and outside Alfred Doolittle’s favourite London pub.

Lerner’s choice of title, My Fair Lady, was partly a nod to Shaw, whose working title for the original play was Fair Eliza, and partly borrowed from the Gershwins’ 1925 musical Tell Me More, which had originally been called My Fair Lady on its pre-Broadway run.

The role of Higgins was made famous by Rex Harrison, but Lerner originally offered it to Noel Coward, who in turn suggested Harrison. The suave actor had never been in a musical before, lacked confidence in his singing voice – “I have five good notes” – and was terrified of singing in front of a live orchestra. Legend has it that he locked himself in his dressing room on opening night at the Shubert Theater, New Haven, refusing to come out until the orchestra had been dismissed.

In rehearsal, Harrison would suddenly stop singing mid-song. When the director asked him why he kept stopping, he replied: “I’m sure I could get a laugh there.” He was so accustomed to working an audience, he thought you could do the same in song that he’d been doing in dialogue for years.

Liz Robertson with husband and My Fair Lady lyricist Alan Jay Lerner
Liz Robertson with husband and My Fair Lady lyricist Alan Jay Lerner

One of the stories narrator Liz Robertson, a former Eliza herself as well as the widow of Lerner, will be telling on Sunday concerns Harrison’s loyalty to the original play. During rehearsals for My Fair Lady, he would call out “Penguin” meaning he wished to refer to his Penguin edition of Pygmalion. Lerner got so fed up with this, he managed to get hold of a stuffed penguin that he threw on to the stage when Harrison issued his command. Luckily Harrison, not a man to suffer fools or anyone else gladly, saw the funny side of it.

The original pre-Broadway version clocked up nearly four hours and needed to be brutally trimmed. Several songs were lost, as well as quite a bit of text. One of the songs, Say a Prayer for Me Tonight, finished up in the 1958 film version of Gigi.

An instant hit, My Fair Lady ran from March 15, 1956, to September 29, 1962, on Broadway, playing 2,717 performances, a record at the time. The cast recording was the US’ best-selling album in 1956.

It opened at London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1958, with Harrison, Julie Andrews and Stanley Holloway reprising their Broadway roles of Higgins, Eliza and Doolittle. It ran for five and a half years in London, with many cast changes.

Since then, it has been revived countless times on both sides of the Atlantic, and is a show particularly dear to the heart of Cameron Mackintosh, who first produced it in the late 1970s when he was still establishing his reputation.

Liz Robertson in a 1979 revival of My Fair Lady
Liz Robertson in a 1979 revival of My Fair Lady

“Cameron came up to Liverpool to see me in a revival at the Playhouse,” recalls Robertson. “He said he was hoping to get an Arts Council grant to tour the production and eventually bring it in to London. Eliza was such a challenging role I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it for so long, but my agent persuaded me to go for it and I’m so pleased I did, because I had the wonderful Tony Britton as my Higgins, and Peter Bayliss as my Doolittle.

“When we were appearing in Nottingham, Rex Harrison and Alan Jay Lerner came to see us prior to the show opening in London. They came round afterwards and made the right noises, but it transpired that neither of them liked the production at all, so Cameron invited Alan to redirect the London transfer. This upset Rex, because he’d been hoping to bring his Broadway revival to London, and that never happened because ours was such a big hit. Rex never forgave Alan, but they did remain friends to the end.”

My Fair Lady 60th Anniversary Celebration is at St Paul’s Church, Bedford Street, WC2, on June 19

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of entertainment, The Stage Archive offers access to all back issues of the paper from 1880 to 2007 and is available from £15. Visit thestage.co.uk/archive

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