My Fair Lady

Cameron Mackintosh and My Fair Lady
I first fell in love with My Fair Lady at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in 1959. Even as a 13-year old I realised that it was a masterpiece and I saw the original production several times, including gate crashing the last night party. Little did I think that 42 years later I would be producing this classic musical at the same theatre. But the show and the theatre seem to be twin threads in my life.

In my early twenties I was fortunate enough to get to know My Fair Lady's brilliant author and lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner, and in the late 1970s I produced My Fair Lady. He proved incredibly supportive and when we were offered a West End run, he took over as director.

In 1989 I presented Miss Saigon on the Theatre Royal stage and to my astonishment it took the record from My Fair Lady to become the longest running musical. To celebrate the occasion, I put on highlights from My Fair Lady using the Miss Saigon cast, led by my original Engineer, Jonathan Pryce. The whole audience relived the magic of My Fair Lady. Not long after that, whilst I was preparing a retrospective of the first 30 years of my career called Hey, Mr. Producer!, I asked Jonathan once more to play Higgins. At the end of the show he rather dryly said to me, "That's the last audition I am ever going to do for you".

I got to thinking about My Fair Lady again, and while I was working with Trevor Nunn I brought up the subject of Fair Lady and he was much enthused by the idea of combining his twin passions of directing Shaw and the musical theatre. The rest of the production team are brilliant veterans of the re-inventions of Oliver! and Oklahoma! and we have been exceptionally fortunate in putting together a dream cast for this dream musical.

On the basis that I seem to do a new production of My Fair Lady every 20 years, I have asked the trustees to let me have another go when I am 75.

Pygmalion into My Fair Lady by Trevor Nunn
Occasionally we are asked to admit that an adaptation, into a new form, can actually improve on the original. There is certainly a case for My Fair Lady to be numbered in this tradition, since it not only supersedes Pygmalion dramatically, but provides the work with an ending implied by but missing from the original play.

Shaw was getting on for two thirds through his writing lifetime when he hit the jackpot with Pygmalion. As a piece of drama, however, there were difficulties, to the extent that the actors simply refused to comply with Shaw's first unresolved attempt at a conclusion in the original London production.

The play is given a yet more unsatisfactory ending in the published version of 1916, as Higgins tells his mother that Eliza will marry Freddy Eynsford-Hill and then laughs in repeated mockery at the stupidity of this arrangement - serving only to underline the problem that this outcome has not been prepared for by the play.

Shaw again addressed the problem of how to resolve his play when he agreed with Gabriel Pascal to write the film script, which ends with a brilliant invention uniting Higgins and Eliza. Shaw accepted the Oscar for writing the screenplay, and when asked about his view of the variant ending, he replied, "It's of no consequence", which was as much of his blessing as anybody could reasonably expect.

The ending of the 1938 film was adopted in its entirety by Alan Jay Lerner, in his magnificent adaptation of Pygmalion for the musical stage. But this was not his only improvement. It is actually quite a shock to discover that Shaw's play contains no elocution lessons, no moment of celebration when Eliza has "got it", no visit to Ascot, no triumph at the Ball, no return by Eliza to Covent Garden to discover that she moves unrecognised through the scenes of her past life, and no moment when we see her appalling father in his home territory, as a member of the "undeserving poor". Lerner searches out the possibilities and thematic content of musical utterance with unerring analytic accuracy. Pygmalion is a collection of very brilliant theatrical and comic ideas, but My Fair Lady quite simply is a masterpiece.