My Fair Lady: Why the Musical Enhances the Story

         My Fair Lady, George Cukor’s 1964 musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 Pygmalion, elevates the story in a way the straightforward romance/drama of the original cannot. By using music and song, My Fair Lady enunciates the emotions of the story far more clearly and effectively than Pygmalion. Also, the musical nature creates a fanfare and whimsy that help carry interest throughout the three-hour film.

        To wit, music provides an emotional code to layer a film with. My Fair Lady goes the extra step and has the characters themselves sing the narrative along. This greatly enhances the film by intermingling an ordinarily background element with the driving current of characters and their own emotions. Instead of burying the musical layer, the film exalts it to clarify and intensify the events of the story. In a way, the musical numbers perform the function of an old stage tool, the monologue, by allowing characters to communicate their inner thoughts directly to the audience without having to worry about other characters’ reactions or perceptions. This enhances the storytelling ability of the musical form in general, and in the case of My Fair Lady, provides intimate insights to the characters’ thoughts, such as Eliza Doolittle’s (Audrey Hepburn) fantasy number in which she fumes to an apostrophic Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), “Just you wait!”

        The musical numbers also greatly help the film by infusing the romance story with a sense of whimsy and wonder absent in Pygmalion. As the film is nearly three hours long, some air of magic is required to retain audience interest. Without the spectacle of the music and dance numbers, the film would be a flat, clunky affair, and would locate the fulcrum of its love story on something as antithetically romantic as the science of linguistics! As such, the musical form helps the theme of romance overwhelm all of the ordinary minutiae to make the film an enchanting spectacle.

Clay Wyatt

Table of Contents