My Fair Lady: Why the Musical Betrays the Story

          My Fair Lady, George Cukor’s 1964 musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 Pygmalion, makes several changes to the form of the play and film, but none more drastic than adding songs sung by the characters to move the narrative forward. However, this approach devolves a story that carefully transforms reality into a festival of whimsy.

         Primarily, it betrays the nature of the story itself. Eliza Doolittle comes to Henry Higgins for help regarding her guttersnipe-level pronunciation. Higgins (Rex Harrison) is a professor of linguistics; a very careful and meticulous science. He understands why Doolittle speaks the way she does and how to approach reforming her. This forms the credibility of his intellect, and the plausibility that he is in position and possession of the faculties required to help her. However, this carefully chosen aspect of the story is thrown awry by the musical format because people pronounce words differently when singing, and also use different intonations in vowel sounds to help cushion clumsy rhymes. Moreover, it breaks this crux of the story when a voice other than Audrey Hepburn’s comes out of Doolittle’s mouth!

         The musical format also undercuts the realist tone of the story in a more global way. Reality is occasionally suspended in order for characters to launch into song, complete with choreographed hallucinations, such as during Doolittle’s chastisement to Higgins, “Just you wait!” While other musicals like The Wizard of Oz make no claim to a foundation in the real world (indeed, it was all a dream!) in order to fully allow a sense of whimsy and wonder, My Fair Lady cuts its own throat by having characters croon about the proper pronunciation of “The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plains” and “The life of the wife is ended by the knife.” These songs inserted in this story are about as sensible as having characters dance and sing about punctuated equilibrium.

Clay Wyatt

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