A Fair Musical

         I would like to preface this paper with the statement that I am not a big fan of musicals. Oh, there are the few exceptions: Dancer in the Dark (2000, directed by Lars von Trier and staring the pixyish Bjork), live performances of Les Miserables and Phantom, and my children have forced me to appreciate The Sound of Music (1965, directed by Robert Wise). But for the most part I find them tedious, with more fluff than substance. Needless to say, when I saw that My Fair Lady (1964, directed by George Cukor and staring Audrey Hepburn) was on the syllabus weighing in at a lengthy 170 minutes, I had a bit of a flashback to high school theatre class and falling to sleep in the back of the classroom to Eliza Doolittle annunciating something about the weather in Spain. Then I watched it again, in my thirties. To paraphrase Mark Twain, it is amazing how much better it got after a little more than a decade.

         I began my journey with Eliza and company with the 1913 play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. I found it nearly impossible to read Shaw's script when he was emulating Eliza's speech. Luckily her transformation into a lady occurred early in the play, and she did not revert to her street speech much after that. The 1938 film, Pygmalion (directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard), required less effort from me to understand what it was that Eliza (Wendy Hiller) was trying to say. This allowed me to appreciate the story more. And Higgins' (Leslie Howard) character was made to be a little manlier than the original play led its readers to infer. This is ironic due to the fact that Higgins was played by one of the directors who would be emasculated the next year in Gone With the Wind. The only problem with the film version was the ending. Shaw made it perfectly clear that this was not a love story. But love stories sold tickets. So in the movie Eliza stayed with Higgins, and poor Freddy (David Tree) was not even an afterthought.

         The 1964 musical My Fair Lady followed the same conventional love story pattern as the film version of Pygmalion. The only real difference was the thousands (it seemed like) of musical numbers and the grander costumes and settings than its 1938 predecessor. The saving grace for this musical was Eliza, herself. Audrey Hepburn made it impossible to watch her on the screen without being mesmerized by her. Whether playing Miss Doolittle, Holly Golightly, or Sabrina, she always had the audience cheering for her. She made a great underdog. So I can now add My Fair Lady to my above list of acceptable musicals. And I owe it all to a few years and Audrey Hepburn.

Bo Fowler

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