The Way of the Dinosaur

         George Cukor unveiled My Fair Lady in 1964 as a musical version of George Bernard Shaw's 1913 Pygmalion. It starred Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle, the common flower girl turned proper lady via the help of Dr. Higgins (Rex Harrison) in a bet with Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White). This movie was a smash hit less than forty years, which begs the question: Whatever happened to the Hollywood musical? The answer, quite shortly, is that society simply has changed.

         The musical incorporated practically every line from the original play, while adding in a plethora of songs. Eliza still gets training from phonetics teacher Professor Higgins, who is betting with Colonel Pickering that he could pass her off as a duchess within six months. She does well, in spite of Higgins treating her terribly through the whole play. A few scenery changes could be noticed (for example, the race track rather than Higgins' mother's house in the scene where she meets Eliza), but the essence of the story is nevertheless maintained. In addition, several added scenes found their way into the movie (mostly for the sake of the songs), including more of Higgins' and Eliza's speech training exercises, a fantasy scene where Eliza dances with the king, and Mr. Doolittle (Eliza's father, played by Stanley Holloway) singing about the joys of bumming off of others. So much was added in, in fact, that the musical is nearly double the length of the 1938 Anthony Asquith-Leslie Howard non-musical adaptation of Pygmalion, which had the same title as the play.

         My Fair Lady was a smash hit in its day. Other than that one, other popular musicals such as The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Sound of Music (1965), and Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) are just a few that come to mind. Yet, these days, the musical seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur. Excluding animated children films, Moulin Rouge (2001) and Chicago (2002) are the only two recent exceptions. The latter is a Broadway adaptation, and the former is a mock-Broadway film. A simple musical with characters played by real actors donning normal clothing has been pretty much unheard of within the past twenty-five years.

         Undoubtedly, this correlates with a change in movies altogether. My Fair Lady is a G-rated movie, also pretty unheard of these days in films not meant solely for children. Curse words, nudity, and violence have become considerably more prevalent. Undoubtedly, Eliza shouting "Move your bloomin' arse!" at the horse at the racetrack would have sent shockwaves through the audience in 1964. Today, that same line would probably be changed to include a few true swear words in order to maintain the same degree of shock value.

         Another reason is likely the change in musical styles. The Broadway-style music of Moulin Rouge and Chicago are an exception, of course; but a non-Broadway type musical would have to appeal to listeners of music today. That would mean writing pop songs that have actual depth to them, or actors trying to sing a rap song to display their feelings. Just imagine the audacity of Eliza Doolittle singing, "Wouldn't It Be Lovely?" with a couple rap verses, set to a deep bass beat rather than ear-pleasing violins. A musical with country songs in it may fare well production-wise, but likely would not appeal to as wide an audience as film producers would like. Although, one must admit that the idea of Eliza Doolittle singing country-type songs with a United States Deep South accent which she want to shed, instead of the English Lisson Grove accent. That could be a rather interesting take on the original musical. Nevertheless, it seems that Hollywood considers it to be much easier--and more profitable--just to incorporate the latest hit bands' songs as background music instead.

         It appears that actors singing songs in a movie has become a relic of the past, unless they want to dress up in outlandish Broadway costumes or be animated into the next Disney film. This is in spite of the smash hits of the past, including My Fair Lady. Perhaps this is due to the film industry changing, or perhaps it is due to changes in the music industry. Either way, it is unlikely to ever see musical films similar to those of Hollywood's younger years again. Or perhaps Moulin Rouge and Chicago spark interest in the old hits and lead to a revival.

Brandon Hale

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