Dueling Doolittles: A Defense of the Musical

     As we sat in class recently and watched My Fair Lady, the 1964 film adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw 1913 play, Pygmalion (directed by George Cukor), I could scarce believe my ears; for, as each of the wonderful songs began, it was met with audible groans from the audience and derisive comments like, "Oh, no, not another song." I heard no such grumbling during the screening of the dramatic version, Pygmalion (directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard in 1938), which we had seen just a week before. Could it be that the grand old Hollywood musical, so very much loved in its day, is truly dead?

     As I look back through the years, I cannot imagine such a thing. How could there be a life without Oklahoma!, where the corn is as high as an elephant's eye? Or imagine having never seen Julie Andrews twirl atop that mountain, breaking into, "The hills are alive with the sound of music." What if Deborah Kerr and Yule Brynner had not whirled madly about the dance floor to "Shall We Dance?" What if there had been no Sally Bowles, aka Liza Minelli, belting out "Mein Herr" in a smoky Berlin cabaret? Oh, the list of cherished musical moments stretches back through the years and is a delight to those of us who like to reminisce.

     I love a good drama as well as the next person; and, having never before seen the 1938 Pygmalion, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed it. Leslie Howard (as Professor Higgins) was rightfully cast, and Wendy Hiller (as Eliza Doolittle) was appropriate for her part as well, lending just the right air of pathos to the poor flower girl. Even the grainy, dirty, black and white aspect of the film seemed appropriate. This was, after all, a mostly industrial England shortly after the turn of the twentieth century

     And yet, what a difference a little color and song made on the 1964 musical, even enhancing the story. The lavish costume design, grand interior ballroom shots, and even the details of Professor Higgins' (Rex Harrison) study all lent a majestic air to the musical. The songs, far from detracting from the action, seemed in every instance to punctuate what was going on in that particular scene. The lyrics were clever, funny and always appropriate. The music was lovely and catchy, and made me want to whistle a little after the show. It was rather like sitting through a musical play, which is basically how the filmed musical got its start, and to which it owed its early popularity. I caught myself humming, "On the Street Where You Live," sung by a tenor who was singing for Jeremy Brett as Freddy Enysford-Hill, as I left class that night.

     I guess MTV and VH-1 are supplying all the music the younger generation needs today. The musical as a filmed entertainment has gradually dwindled until even pop-star Madonna, one of the most successful artists of the MTV era, could not seem to ignite the box office after appearing in the filmed musical version of Evita. Add to this the cuts in funding to the arts in our nation's schools, and one gets an overall lack of appreciation for most things musical. Many students these days do not know a libretto from a library.

     But do not get me wrong. I was raised in the era of rock and roll. I have nothing against hip-hop, bee-bop, rap, pop, or bee bop-a-lupa. I just think there is room for a greater appreciation of the wonderful diversity of music in all its forms, and certainly that of the filmed musical. And just like today's pop music, which revolves around romance and romantic situations, all the great songs from the musical's heyday were based on love. After all, what girl has not wanted a guy to fall hopelessly, madly in love with her? "Wouldn't" she love it if she knew he were thinking, as did Freddy of Eliza (Audrey Hepburn), "Does enchantment pour out of every door? No, it's just on the street where you live." I think she would.

Wade Kingston

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