My Fair Lady

After their success with On the Town, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green were asked to take a look at musicalising Pygmalion. A screening of the 1938 film version was arranged, and Lenny, Betty and Adolph trooped in. Two hours later, they trooped out, determined to leave it alone. "It's perfect," said Adolph Green. "Don't touch it."

They were right ? and wrong. Right, because hit plays rarely make hit musicals, and those few that do usually require some novelty tweak ? Romeo and Juliet transposed to New York's West Side, The Taming of the Shrew as the play-within-the-play for a backstage yarn. Even after My Fair Lady was the toast of New York, some Broadway professionals retained an ambivalence about it, nicely caught in a Sondheim lyric from Merrily We Roll Along: I saw My Fair Lady I sort of enjoyed it. Many composers, lyricists and librettists sort of enjoyed My Fair Lady, but couldn't quite see the need for it. Pygmalion was perfect; why touch it? But that's where they and Bernstein, Comden and Green were wrong. There's no such thing as a great idea or a lousy idea for a musical: it all depends in whose head the light bulb lights up. The Phantom of the Opera is a lousy idea for a Rodgers and Hart musical, but just dandy for an Andrew Lloyd Webber one. And that's the way it went with Pygmalion. If a writer's lucky, just once in his lifetime he collides with the perfect subject. For Lloyd Webber, it was Phantom. For Lerner and Loewe, it was My Fair Lady. They had hits before (Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon) and after (Gigi, Camelot), but this is the show that defines the team at their best ? Loewe worldly and a little detached, the kind of composer who's sceptical of a big musical-comedy-Wow!-I'm-In-Love! number but is prepared to allow that I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face; Lerner urbane, literate and such an anglophile that, having stumbled on a lyrical style for Henry Higgins, he found that, ever after, his first draft of every song sounded as if it were written for Rex Harrison. Frederick Loewe was born in Vienna exactly a century ago and at the age of 15 wrote a Mittel European million-seller called 'Katrina'. It was his last hit song for over 30 years. His parents brought him to America, where he became a cowboy, a gold prospector and then a prizefighter. With hindsight, it would be easy to read this eclectic resum? as a determined attempt at cultural assimilation, lacking as it does only a spell as comic-book illustrator and G-man. But such an interpretation would be mistaken. Richard Rodgers once described Jerome Kern as a composer with one foot in the Old World, one in the New. But that still puts him one foot ahead of Loewe. Panning for gold, branding his longhorns, tying his four-legged friend to the hitching post outside the Dead Man's Gulch saloon, Loewe's feet nevertheless remained, musically speaking, firmly in Old Vienna. Jazz, swing, musical comedy passed him by, and it wasn't until the mid-1940s that the Rodgers and Hammerstein school of musical play ? Oklahoma!, Carousel ? created a more hospitable climate for Loewe's talents. In 1942, looking for the men's room at the Lambs Club in New York, he bumped into Alan Jay Lerner, a moneyed young man struggling to break into showbusiness despite the crippling burdens of having been educated at Bedales in England and then, back in America, at Choate, where his classmates included John F Kennedy. Lerner and Loewe had very little in common except that (as I can testify from experience) both had a tendency to address one as Dear boy. Whether Lerner acquired the affectation from Loewe or vice-versa, it somehow encapsulates what set them apart from other, more indigenous Broadway teams. Otherwise, they were opposites: Loewe wrote fast, musical ideas dashed off almost insouciantly. When Lerner suggested a musical elocution lesson built around the phrase The rain in Spain, Loewe said, Good. I'll write a tango ? and played the main theme there and then. Lerner, on the other hand, sweated over every phrase. He wore white gloves when he wrote, otherwise he'd gnaw his fingers to the bone. He had a special desk so that he could write standing up: if he sat down, he focused so hard on the lyric that he'd go into a trance. To the end of his life, he was a great disdainer of that songwriter's standby, the anthropomorphized heart, citing the famous song from The Sound of Music in which Sister Maria's heart wants to leap, sigh, laugh, sing, etc. "One chorus and I need an oxygen tent," he said. Yet, agonizing over the lyric to 'I Could Have Danced All Night', he found himself forced to fall back on "When all at once my heart took flight." He never liked it, swore he'd come up with something better, yet never could. Lerner and Loewe were opposites off-stage, too. Having been a struggling youngster till late middle-age, Loewe suddenly discovered he was rich enough to enjoy the good life, and in 1960, after Camelot, quit Broadway for Palm Springs and the Riviera. He spent the next three decades at the gaming tables, and died a wealthy man. Lerner, by contrast, worked till his death in 1986 and died a wholly owned subsidiary of the Internal Revenue Service and his platoon of ex-wives. Loewe was an inveterate womaniser, Lerner a serial monogamist, married eight times. To discuss Alan without reference to his relationship with the opposite sex would be absurd, for it runs right through his work, up to one of his very last and most autobiographical lyrics: I've tossed and turned and couldn't sleep From counting minks instead of sheep I've Been Married. I've practiced writing epitaphs And read the Book of Job for laughs I've Been Married. If it has the slightly dated whiff of Vegas alimony gags, well, no one was more entitled to do them than Alan. After one rehearsal for Fair Lady, he and Rex Harrison were strolling down Fifth Avenue reflecting on their mutual much-marriedness when Harrison suddenly stopped and said in a loud voice which turned more than a few heads: "Alan! Wouldn't it be marvellous if we were both homosexual?" Alan didn't think so, but he walked home and en route reworded the question: "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" Professor Higgins' charming misogyny struck a chord in both Lerner and Loewe, and indeed Lerner appreciated the premise of Pygmalion ? young unformed woman moulded by older sophisticated man ? so much that he couldn't stop writing it. Two years after Fair Lady, he wrote Gigi: young unformed woman, older sophisticated man. In 1971, with Bond composer John Barry, he musicalised Lolita: older sophisticated man, young unformed ...ah, but that proved one reprise too many of 'Thank Heaven For Little Girls'. No musical is truly autobiographical ? there are too many hands involved ? but with Pygmalion Lerner and Loewe, the characters, the pretext and the Edwardian milieu were made for each other. What Rodgers and Hammerstein and others who turned down the property saw as its main defect ? the lack of romance ? turned out to be a virtue: Loewe was sceptical of passion, and for Lerner what Higgins does to Eliza is romantic. That aside, both men understood that the principals didn't need big, bold love duets: the romance would be supplied by the audience, silently urging them on regardless of what anybody said or sang. That's a good example of how successful musicals manage to have their cake and eat it. The trick, said Lerner, was to be specific ? to the plot and character ? yet also universal. The score of My Fair Lady rides those twin horses brilliantly. 'I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face' comes direct from Shaw ? "I have grown accustomed to your voice and appearance." Put like that, it sounds rather clinical. But nudged just a little and set to Loewe's beguilingly conversational melody it both stays true to the play yet also expresses something more general about the kind of love that steals up on you. There's a wonderfully bleary recording by Dean Martin whose mood couldn't be more different from the original context: it sounds like a guy waking up in his pad and discovering that last night's one-night stand has decided to stay for breakfast. Lerner and Loewe didn't write the song for Dino, but they knew enough not to rule him out. As to what Shaw would have made of it, we can only guess. Asked whom he wanted to compose the music for Pygmalion, he replied Mozart. You can't blame him. The last Shavian musical, The Chocolate Soldier (1908) was such a crass reduction of Arms and the Man that Shaw insisted all programmes and posters carry a public disclaimer by him. In that sense at least, My Fair Lady redeems musical theatre for the sins of its fathers. From the opening number, 'Why Can't The English Teach Their Children How To Speak?', Fair Lady declares that this is, paradoxically or not, a musical about words. Lerner was punctilious on the subject of language, at one point rebuking Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley for writing 'Who Can I Turn To?'. He felt it should have been 'Whom Can I Turn To?' (Surely you mean 'To Whom Can I Turn?', I suggested.) Bricusse replied with a note pointing out a rare Lerner solecism from My Fair Lady: By rights you should be taken out and hanged For the cold blooded murder of the English tanged. But, as Lerner always said of lyric-writing, the clever word-play is the easy stuff. One of my favourite songs in the score is 'Show Me', the moment when Eliza, mightily sick of words, demands something more: it's a lovely jest, in a work so articulate, to produce a song recognizing the limits of that articulacy, and it's one reason why My Fair Lady ? from source material to adaptation ? sums up better than any other the ambitions of the post-war musical play. It was the perfect musical play, Andr? Previn, a sometime Lerner composing partner, told me. "But it was so perfect that afterwards, what else could you do?" My Fair Lady was the last word as far as that kind of musical was concerned. So Broadway turned to dance musicals, and rock musicals, and concept musicals, and through-composed musicals, and none of them ever really stuck around long enough to become a viable living tradition. Fritz Loewe understood he could never top Fair Lady, and flew off to Palm Springs. Alan Lerner kept trying, an unenviable task. Today we can enjoy the work for what it is ? a superb example of how, in the right hands, no material is beyond the range of musical theatre. ? Mark Steyn, February 2001 Mark Steyn is a columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph, Canada's National Post, The Chicago Sun-Times, and appears in many other papers around the world. He is film critic for The Spectator in London and writes on theatre for The New Criterion in New York. His book, Broadway Babies Say Goodnight, is published by Faber and Faber.