A Most Joyous Musical

†††††††† In My Fair Lady, which is one of the best stage musicals of all time and one of the most loved romances, no one ever gets kissed. The most the leading man can concede about the heroine is that he has grown accustomed to her face. His rival is invited into her house, but would rather just stand outside on the street where she lives. And both her father and the man she loves consider marriage to be an abomination, which they have been fortunate to escape.

†††††††† The story is well known. Eliza (Audrey Hepburn) is first insulted for her accent by the famous linguist, Higgins (Rex Harrison), and then offers him a shilling a lesson to teach her to speak like a lady.

†††††††† There is, furthermore, no false sentimentality about the rags to riches rise of Eliza Doolittle, an unwashed Cockney who is plucked from Covent Garden and transformed into a "lady" by Professor Henry Higgins. "I may have sold flowers but I never sold myself," she tells him. "Now that I'm a lady, that's all I have to sell." Eliza returns to Higgins in the end not because he has reformed his attitudes, but because he has defended them. ("The question is not whether I have treated you rudely, but whether I have treated anyone else any better.") The play's famous last line ("Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers?") is a demonstration of his perversity.

†††††††† And yet My Fair Lady is one of the most joyous musicals ever written. Most of the songs are simply about being happy. What the story celebrates is not romance but intelligence--about being liberated from ignorance and set free to realize your potential. This story is so powerful that every age has embraced it; it began as a Greek legend and was retold in Elizabethan and Victorian times and reached its present form as George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1913), with its clear-eyed dissection of the British class system.

†††††††† When Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe chose Shaw's play as the story for My Fair Lady (1956), it must have seemed unlikely material.

†††††††† Certainly today no one would invest a dime in it. But by wisely keeping much of Shaw's barbed and articulate dialog and marrying it with wonderful songs, they created a masterpiece. George Cukor filmed it in 1964, with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison in the leads, and for the film's thirtieth anniversary it has been restored by Bob Harris, the same man who rescued David Leanís 1962 Lawrence of Arabia. I saw the restoration of My Fair Lady as it was meant to be seen, in wide screen and stereo sound, and although it is being re-released primarily for the home video market, if you can get anywhere near a theatrical presentation, try to see it. Not only do not they make movies like this anymore--they cannot. The movie industry is no longer interested in musicals about adults, let alone adults with ideas.

Derek Owen

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