The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Beauty & the Beast

Monday, October 8, 2012

My Fair Lady

October 21, 1964   Warners  172 minutes
Time has been less kind to My Fair Lady than other landmark musicals. But where else can a reputation go but down after starting out a champion? And not just a champion, but The Champion; the "Hit of the Century," the Rolls Royce, the Hope Diamond, the Fabrege egg of musicals. Not Oklahoma!, not Guys and Dolls, not South Pacific had been this big, this far reaching, this royal. But My Fair Lady was less an innovation than a culmination, and tho it remains a milestone it cannot ever recapture the rapture it ignited in the mid-fifties, when, partially because of it, Bway was King in American culture. Confidently opening on the Ides of March, MFL came into New York well into an unusually fallow musical season, after a long spell between openings--the last being the severely disappointing Pipe Dream. The shock of R&H's failure may have contributed an extra layer of excitement to Lerner & Loewe's achievement--dispelling any notion that the integrated musical play had run its course; it was just beginning. Hitting town like a cultural atom bomb--radiating across the country with astonishing speed; unlike some landmark shows (such as West Side Story and Cabaret) which have a time-release impact, MFL wasn't just immediate, it was inescapable. Despite an intricately plotted score, pop songs sprung from the show like springtime daisies. Television--which still had a very Manhattan-centric bent in 1956 was all abuzz over it. The album quickly became ubiquitous in homes across the country. Ticket holders were held in awe and envy, like Sweepstakes winners. It was all summed up in that famous joke about the newly-widowed woman attending the show with an empty seat. Why couldn't she ask a friend? Because they're all at the funeral. That was the power of My Fair Lady.

The show ran on Bway from '56 to '62--an astonishing run at that time, surpassing even Oklahoma!'s record by over a year. It was sold out entirely for more than three and half years. The original cast opened to no less a triumph in London in 1958. Every studio wanted the rights. So it was front page news on February 6, 1962 when Jack Warner--determined above all others--won the bidding at $5.5 million. The last of the Brothers Warner to remain at the studio, now 70 years old and coming to the end of his long career, Jack wanted this to be his Gone With the Wind, his Ben-Hur, his final, undeniable triumph. Alan Jay Lerner wanted his Gigi team at MGM, Arthur Freed and Vincente Minnelli to make the film--to star Julie Andrews and Richard Burton (who by then had been thru Camelot). Warner gave the reigns to master veteran director, George Cukor, which at least had a sense of logic, appropriateness. After a decade of declining projects (Bhowani Junction, Heller in Pink Tights, Let's Make Love) here was a class property--something Cukor had once excelled at; elevating Bway plays into classic films: The Women, The Philadelphia Story, Gaslight. Moss Hart had written the script for Cukor's A Star is Born--so who better than Cukor to take over Hart's stage directed masterwork for the film? Hlwd conceded him the Oscar, but also crowned the film; the second Bway musical ever to win Best Picture (and only the 4th nominated.) It was given a run for its money by another musical, the first serious contender from Walt Disney, another period-set British classic, Mary Poppins (which the New Yorker quickly dubbed "a My Fair Lady for children."), and starring Bway's original Eliza, in a role that would cement her international popularity.

Julie Andrews claims she never expected to be cast in the MFL film, so she wasn't as devastated as many were in her stead. Of course history exacted its revenge, and she would win the Oscar (along with Harrison) the same year for a very different, if equally British role--while Audrey Hepburn wouldn't make the list of nominees. Perhaps it might have been better if the ladies had switched parts, with Hepburn as Mary Poppins and Andrews in her star-making turn. She wasn't exactly an unknown. MFL was national news, the album quickly assimiliated into American homes, and her role as Cinderella in R&H's television musical in February '57, was seen by 107 million people: at that time the largest single audience in human history. Take that last sentence in--it's mind blowing. Nor did losing MFL restrain Andrews from becoming, in very short order, the #1 box office star in America (joining the short list of Shirley Temple, Betty Grable and Doris Day as the only women ever to do so.) Audrey, whose life itself was a Cinderella story, was a celluloid enchantress whose transformations audiences adored in fairy-tales like Roman Holiday, Sabrina, and Funny Face, so Warner's commercial sense wasn't far off. If it wasn't ideal casting, what mattered was that Hlwd's classiest actress was paired with Bway's classiest musical. It didn't hurt that Audrey turned the film into a fashion spread, what with Cecil Beaton's knockout couture, which he took great pains to photograph for endless magazine and fashion spreads--a situation that caused a major rift with Cukor. Already as much an unwitting model as Suzy Parker was pro, Audrey gave Beaton's Edwardian designs enuf publicity to rival Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra chic. (Something that Julie wouldn't have brought to the table.) And of course Hepburn looks spectacular going to Ascot, to the Embassy Ball, to slum in Covent Garden. No one doubts her credentials as a Lady. The challenge is her Cockney flower girl--as it is with most women playing the role, whether in Shaw or Lerner & Loewe. So, how is she? Pleasant, if implausible. We already know she looks like a million bucks, so there's an element of artifice; play-acting, if you will; a game try. It's not ruining the illusion, but neither is it sealing the deal. Once again Marni Nixon is dubbing a starring role--but less successfully here than with Deborah Kerr or Natalie Wood. Audrey, who sang her own songs in Funny Face, had expectations of singing at least part of score. She filmed "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" to her own vocal track, which is included now on DVD extras. Ironically, her less-polished vocal lends gravitas to her performance. But other tracks show her inadequacy to the score's requirements. Yet she's too lovely a film presence to be truly a detriment; it's always a joy to watch her beatific face. She gives the movie class, and prestige is a value that shouldn't be underestimated. Perhaps Andrews (or another) would have made the film better, but it's doubtful the film would've had its cachet without her.

I don't know how the thought had previously escaped me that Higgins is homosexual, but the concept suddenly seems so obvious. The signs are all there; the way he reveres men for their "qualities"; his choice to remain--in his own words--a "confirmed bachelor" (that longtime euphemism); his pronounced lack of interest in women--he even has a song called "A Hymn to Him," extolling: "Men are so pleasant/So easy to please/Whenever you're with them/You're always at ease..." Watch the way he hooks up with Pickering outside Covent Garden; the sheer exuberance of the pickup foreshadows a bromance with more passion than he'll ever show Eliza. As for sex, Higgins seems entirely asexual, and Harrison does nothing to dispel that idea despite his reputation as "Sexy Rexy." I don't get it. Nothing about Rex conveys sex to me, neither in his younger years, or here at age 55--looking pleasant enuf, I'll concede (a sort of odd cross between Bob Hope and Brad Pitt), but not someone that gets my juices flowing. (The man had five wives, including actresses Kay Kendall, Lili Palmer and Rachel Roberts.)  For all his softness, Leslie Howard in the '38 film Pygmalion seems manlier than Harrison. And tho he injects some romance into Shaw's Anglophiliac, Lerner's Higgins still feels neutered, virginal--that highly educated British intellectual, the sort that fiddles with his schoolmates in adolescence then retreats into celibacy (or impotence) for the duration. The idea that he and Eliza come together is as far fetched as Anna joining the King of Siam's harem. Shaw was right in insisting that Eliza not return to Higgins (and marry Freddy instead), for there is nothing in their union to suggest anything other than a widening incompatibility. But this being a musical, Lerner's fairy-tale ending--despite its improbability, is surely emotionally correct--which makes all the difference in giving an audience what it needs. Still, it's a bit much to have Eliza suddenly back at 27 Wimpole Street, ready to endure more of Higgins' chauvinistic abuse, having dumped him so convincingly just that very afternoon. What on earth changed her mind? Certainly not Henry's mother, who, if anything, would encourage any woman to run from her son. If it's security she wants (Freddy is apparently penniless, if highly bred) why not go with Pickering, who not only showed her nothing but kindness, but also picked up the tab for her trousseau as well. Ethan Mordden believes "Eliza can like Higgins, precisely because his tantrums and childish need to control render him mortal. Understanding him, she can love him." But could he ever love her? Or merely love her service to him?

A bigger shock is seeing how much like Higgins I have become. Substitute cultural history for phonetics, and it's alarming what we have in common--tho I hardly think of myself as "An Ordinary Man," (meaning one of typical tastes, talents or temperements), the sentiments he expresses couldn't be more descriptive of my current state: "I'm a quiet living man/Who prefers to spend his evenings in the silence of his room /Who likes an atmostphere as restful as an undiscovered tomb/A pensive man am I . . ." Equally self-entertained; obsessed with my own studies; intolerant of fools; impatient with the thoughtless and entitled and (currently, if not permanently) oblivious to any streetcars named desire. None of this means, however, that I much like Higgins--who really comes across as a misogynist pig, whose redemption thru reflection in song: "I've Grown Accoustomed to Her Face" (never really a favorite of mine), doesn't make him any more appealing. And yet, of course, he's rational, liberal, extraordinarily erudite and above all, unintentionally funny. Harrison embodies the part to such perfection it's hard to imagine he was considered only after Noel Coward and Michael Redgrave had passed. Legend has it that Cary Grant was at first approached by Warner (much as he was for Music Man) and I can't say the concept hasn't some appeal. Surely there'd be more romantic chemistry between Grant & Hepburn (as Charade had just proved) and it might have balanced her with another actor new to the role. Harrison's advantage was having played hundreds of performances on stage. The biggest legacy of the role, however, is the radical proposition that the lead in a musical doesn't need a legitimate singing voice. Once proved, the concept was used ad infinitum, the floodgates open to all manner of actors; some surprisingly good: Robert Preston, Richard Burton, Zero Mostel, Tony Randall; others not: Melvyn Douglas, Maurice Evans, Walter Pidgeon, Jose Ferrer. But it was Harrison who turned the speaking-on-pitch number into an acceptable Bway staple.

Stanley Holloway's Alfred P. Doolittle is every bit as iconic as Harrison's Higgins, and his presence in the film caps a long career in British cinema--easily a national treasure to the English, here stealing the show as Eliza's layabout father, an unrepentant drunkard without a shred of scruples. It's one of the great supporting parts. A few scenes of high comedy, and two musical numbers, one in each act, and both showstoppers--what a gig. Holloway was 66 when he first played Doolittle on Bway, and 73 in the film. Warner initially wanted James Cagney for the role, and it could--especially with a Cary Grant Higgins--have been interesting. But it's hard to imagine anyone better than Holloway as Doolittle. The lifelong symbiotic relationship between Gladys Cooper & Cathleen Nesbitt was cemented by their connection to MFL. Nesbitt originated the role of Mrs. Higgins on Bway, Cooper got the film. They were born mere days apart in 1888 England; both had long stage careers, later made films (tho Cooper began much earlier in Hlwd, earning two Oscar nods in the early '40s.) Their joint appearance as straitlaced dowagers in the film of Terence Rattign's Separate Tables is as rare as it is a perfect pairing. Cooper is a delightful Mrs. Higgins, with a convincing maturity beyond her son's. Wilfred Hyde-White lends a warm avuncular sheen to Col. Pickering--rendering him as harmless as his puppyish winks; and endearing as a gentleman. (I still say, he's the best bet for Eliza's future.) Mona Washbourne, who later played Henry's mother in a BBC production starring Twiggy, makes a properly formidable Mrs. Pearce. But does Higgins truly require a staff of seven--none of whom leave an impression--to serve his measly needs? Jeremy Brett (whose greatest fame would come later as Sherlock Holmes) had played Audrey Hepburn's brother in King Vidor's '56 War & Peace; now he was her smitten suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill. He's easy on the eyes, but why not cast a real singer (he's dubbed by Bill Shirley) if his primary contribution to the show is Lerner & Loewe's breakout ballad, "On the Street Where You Live," or, as I think of it, The Stalker's Anthem. Isn't it rather creepy of Freddy to spend his nights crouching in shadows watching her house? Shooting the song thru a telephoto lens only emphasizes the voyeuristic element. But why isn't he at the Embassy Ball? Among those who are is a real Baroness Rotchschild, (a casual friend of Cukor's) playing the Queen of Transylvania--with a face that looks every bit the part; and Theodore Bikel, as the Hungarian linguistic expert, Zoltan Karpathy. Hirsute and soulful, he makes the most of what amounts to a cameo--following a long run as the first Captain Von Trapp in Bway's Sound of Music. Many minor players fill out ensemble scenes (including a seriously obese woman with the fattest face I've ever seen) but with far less impact or continuity than in Warner's Music Man. But mention must be made of the brief appearance of oldtime character actress, Barbara Pepper, who here, unlike her thru-line in River City, pops up merely to dance on a tabletop with Holloway in "Get Me to the Church on Time." You can't help but notice her just the same.
The stage musical opens with some incidental entertainment: buskers; a bit of local color unrelated to anything that follows. Cukor begins with a fashion show: the opera (Faust) letting out; a sudden shower; the collision of the upper classes with the lower. An elegant opening; regal, expensive, and comforting--telling us that MFL has been given to careful, loving hands. But if Cukor was good with actors, he was less brilliant in composing the picture. By today's standards the editing is clumsy and inartful. The opening is sloppy--cutting from inside the opera, to outside, back and forth, all random angels, with no visual choreography, no camera flow from the inner sanctum to the streets. Later, a pointless bit of theatrical staging depicts dawn at Covent Garden, with extras taking places and waiting in frozen action till the scene is fully set and released. It's a gimmick, calling attention to artifice for no good reason. Edges of the screen are needlessly smeared with vaseline during "Just You Wait," least audiences mistake Eliza's fantasy revenge for real. (For the record, Cukor hated this but was overruled.) The "Ascot Gavotte" is the worst casualty on screen; adhering too closely to what was appropriate on stage, and missing tremendous opportunity for some creative camera movement (Imagine one of Fellini's long tracking shots in 8 and a Half, and you might get the idea.) It's poorly edited as well, strewn with random shots of Beaton's mannequins posing as if for Vogue--and cut with jarring continuity. And why does the crowd watch a horse race staright on with faces frozen? Shouldn't their eyes be following the movement around the track? (They do so, inconsistently, for the second race). Cukor's touch is best felt in the dramatic action, where he seems to bring out the most in his actors. Whatever Hepburn's inadequacies in the musical sequences, her acting in Shaw's play is gripping to watch. (I especially like the Ascot box scene where Eliza is still only half realized.) But Cukor's--or is it Warner's--My Fair Lady wasn't the cinematic preservation of the great musical everyone was hoping for. It was more of an embalming.

Alan Lerner's libretto was universally hailed, not just for proving a classic play could be musicalized and still retain its integrity, but for having non-musical scenes every bit as scintillating and welcome as the songs. Sure they were chiefly from the pen of Bernard Shaw, but Lerner made Pygmalion sing, where even R&H (who took a stab at it earlier) couldn't. There are numerous tweaks in his screenplay, most of them subtle enuf to seem as it they were always there. One smart change was to move the first act break up to before the ball. It's a long act anyway, but the real benefit is the emotional payoff as they start off to the event. It may be the most affecting moment in the picture: Eliza descending the staircase looking like Audrey Hepburn, her hair, dress and carriage now immaculate; the gasp of reactions from the household; the strains of "I Could Have Danced All Night" building to the exit, with Higgins first sneaking a shot of port, then after a false start, taking her arm. (Tho, once seen, it's hard not to recall SCTV's parody with Andrea Martin as the language-mangling immigrant, Pirini Schleroso, coming down that staircase in her glasses and babushka.) It's a better place for the interval also for creating anticipation (if not suspense, given the story's familiarity) of the actual Test at the Embassy Ball--which then makes a better second act opening than "You Did It." But the script was one of the few elements that went home empty-handed at Oscar time. (Not so Bernard Shaw, who got one for the screenplay of the celebrated '38 Pygmalion film--for which he had nothing whatsover to do other than supply the source.) Perhaps that snub played into Lerner's dissatisfaction with the movie. Writers are so picky. But he was one of the luckiest players ever to stumble into Hlwd from Bway. He already had several Oscars from An American in Paris and Gigi. My Fair Lady would make it three Best Pictures Lerner was heavily responsible for--a feat even R&H equaled only in nomination.

Of course the jewel in this crown is Lerner & Loewe's majestic score, which incorporates Shavian bromides set to rhythm, with lyric soprano arias, and rousing music hall turns; a hit parade ballad, a tango, and a couple of art songs to boot. I can live without the songs, "Without You," "Just You Wait" and  the wildly overrated, "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face"--a lazy plucked tune of the Noel Coward variety; a saloon song for marginal singers. (Is anyone else bothered by "the tune she whistles night & noon?" When does she, or for that matter, women in general, ever go around whistling tunes?) But as for the rest: perfection. The OCR was the 4th best selling album of the '50s, and charted on Billboard's Top LPs for 480 weeks, or well into 1965--to date, the third longest sales run ever, following Pink Floyd and [!] Johnny Mathis. Tho hardly essential, the film's soundtrack charted for 111 weeks. As usual of late, Andre Previn was in charge of the scoring, resulting in his 10th Oscar nomination in 13 years, and fourth and final statue, to stand on his mantle alongside those for Gigi, Porgy & Bess and Irma La Douce. After the lushly plumped-up overture (which Cukor leisurely runs over endless floral displays before getting to the credits), the show introduces the two leading characters in "wanting" songs that couldn't be more different: He wants a radically educated society, she wants a warm room. Hermes Pan, Astaire's longtime choreographer, paints a lovely picture with "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" soaking up midnight moods on the enormous Covent Garden set--a London dark enuf to evoke Dickens. But Harrison's patter songs work on content alone, not their cinematic value. "The Rain in Spain," by all accounts one of the greatest moments in musical theater history, doesn't quite achieve the same electric affect on film. (Does anyone else question why Higgins is ready to "try her out," immediately after this breakthru? It seems to me she's later taught a good deal more than speech, and by whom? Higgins shows such utter disregard for social graces, could he possibly teach her the particulars?) If "Rain" feels flat, "I Could Have Danced All Night," is enhanced by its movement up thru the house as the staff put Eliza to bed. And yet Marni Nixon can't really convince us Hepburn is singing. In the audio commentary track, Nixon recalls that when she first heard the song (prior to Bway) it was titled "I Want to Dance All Night" and played in waltztime; pleasant but operetta-ish. Re-set in 4/4, the tune was transformed into an instant standard. It's not hard to see why, for the song captures the essence of thrill and bliss, with a dash of great expectations--one of the best of its rarefied kind. And a real swinging tune, too, when it wants to be. The show's monster hit, tho was "On the Street Where You Live," which being a ballad, was a song I didn't much like in my youth. It's still a bit too Viennese in the musical, but many pop cover versions converted me to the melody. Frederick Loewe writes amazing bridges that really elevate a tune. Would "Street" be any good without the release.... "Oh, the towering feeling/just to know somehow you are near" and then doubling down on "The Over-powering feeling..." It's breathtaking. He does it again in "Danced," "I'll never know what made it so exciting/while all at once my heart took flight..." launching into the final climb--a theme so evocative it provides the coda to the show. But as far as cinematic moments go, the best numbers are Doolittle's. "With a Little Bit of Luck" parades down a street under seige of construction--the film's one outdoor set, which accounts for the striking panes of sunlight in the distance. "Get Me to the Church on Time" is a pub-hop with jumpy cuts, that arrives deep into the second half, a welcome relief from all the intimate dramatic scenes. You can scarcely believe that this late in the show, great songs are still arriving. It's fun, too to see Holloway get his own Cinderella makeover; now the stylish top-hatted gentlemen where once was a scruffy dustman.
Cecil Beaton was credited with all the design elements for the film, but in truth he gave his full attention to fashion and hair, leaving the actual art direction to Gene Allen, and set decorator George James Hopkins (who were forced to share credit--and Oscars--with Sir Cecil, who won another for costumes on his own). Beaton wasn't above allowing the impression he had designed the show's Bway sets as well, tho they were proudly and entirely the creation of the Tony-winning, Oliver Smith. The movie looks muted, as if set in perpetual midnight; Higgins' townhouse is architecturally fascinating, very masculine, drowning in wood and shades of brown, chestnut, copper, green, black, grey. Cukor instructed cinematographer Harry Stradling to use only natural color--perhaps still reeling from Leon Shamroy's fatal use of filters in South Pacific. Yet, daylight scenes have an artificial feel. And Ascot reads much cheaper than it did on stage; all latticed pergolas with opaque panels thru which white light filters in; no sense of outdoors. The Embassy Ball takes place in a cavernous beige room, with glaringly bald walls. Whose embassy is this, anyway, and why nary a painting, a tapestry, a mural? A ridiculously white conservatory and lounge for Mrs. Higgins' manor feels overdone and somehow detrimental to the rushing climax. But the street where Henry lives is rendered quite charmingly, with its narrow side alley--beautifully accessorized by some puddles during Eliza's number, "Show Me." 1912 was a very popular era for the Bway musical at this time--and those tranferred to film were lavishly appointed.
My Fair Lady ushered in the great second wind of the Golden Age, which crested in the aftermath of the Kennedy legacy (quickly dubbed "Camelot" for Jack's affection for the show--and its coda of optimism.) 1964 was a year to remember in New York. Aside from the World's Fair and the Beatles' invasion, Bway was saying Hello to Dolly!, Funny Girl, Fiddler on the Roof.  The night before Lady's premiere at the Criterion, Sammy Davis opened in Golden Boy. We've already gushed over the bounty of talent appearing on Bway in lesser vehicles. On screens, movie musicals were fewer each year, but conversely more lucrative than ever. Bway adaptations played across generational lines, but each crowd had its lure: the aging Rat Pack (with Bing Crosby bringing up the elder class) in Robin & the 7 Hoods; Ann-Margret with Elvis inViva Las Vegas (one of four Elvis releases that year); for the hippest crowd, A Hard Day's Night--giving evidence The Beatles weren't merely boy band moppets. And for the youngest moppets a trinket from Disney, which opened only one month before MFL. Meanwhile, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, was still cleaning up after its record run at Radio City (the first to gross $2 million in a 10 week engagement). Even Mary Poppins which followed it into the Music Hall, was held for only six weeks with but average earnings. But opening Mary Poppins just as school resumed had to account for much of that--for ultimately it would make more than MFL, Goldfinger  and every other film in 1965 as families flocked to it over time; in those prehistoric days when big films opened small and spread slowly. Warner, whose ambition and budget were much bigger than Disney's, surprised no one by going the hard-ticket route with MFL. Surprisingly, it was the first Bway musical to get Roadshow treatment since West Side Story--and look how well that turned out. The film premiered on October 21, 1964 and played a two-a-day schedule, selling to capacity for over six months. It lasted an astounding 87 weeks as a reserved seat attraction--besting West Side by 19. By the end of the film's initial release in 1967, it racked up a total of $30,000,000 in rentals--surpassing every other musical film (Bway or otherwise) up to then, much as it broke every record on Bway. And yet, after all that, it remained in the shadow of Mary Poppins which amassed $31,000,000 and was for a short while the 4th highest grossing movie of all time. Call it the Revenge of Julie Andrews. And she was just getting started.
In Hlwd, the film played the palatial Eyptian Theater, but our family nights at the movies were nearly extinct by then (tho I was taken to Grauman's Chinese to see Mary Poppins--which I found quite strange, and apparently having just watched it again, still do.), A year earlier, a month before MFL began principal photography, I had my first encounter with the show. Hard to believe now, it was only the eleventh season of the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park, but as I was only ten it seemed immemorial. My Fair Lady was the opening attraction that July of 1963; a three week stop of the 2nd or 3rd national tour (starring the long-forgotten Ronald Drake & Gaylea Bryne), in the first-ever outdoor presentation of the musical. Songs from the show had saturated the adult-music airwaves for years, one after another impressive melody was slowly revealed to me from this phenomenon of a musical. And following my baptism by Harold Hill, I knew I had to see this event. And so I did, convincing my parents to trek to Griffith Park to sit among the swaying eucalyptus trees on a summer Friday night for my first live Bway musical on stage. (It was the first, too--tho in NY not LA--for writer Peter Filichia, who writes hilariously of his shock to discover live performance in what he assumed would be a movie.) Bway's Mark Hellinger Theater (which has now regrettably been leased as a church for a quarter century) is one of the nicer houses on the Main Stem, with a stately lobby that reveals its origins as a movie palace--built by the Bros. Warner in 1930. It perfectly suited the feel of a show like MFL. (which ended a longstanding jinx the theater seemed to have on it tenants.) It was 40 years old when I first set foot in it--for another, much lesser, Lerner show, Coco. Even then the patina of MFL hung like perfume in the lobby. But outdoors on a summer's eve, beneath a slipper moon has a special magic of its own, and that night at LA's Greek Theater is doubtless a memory I'll retain thru senility. I was enchanted beyond reason.

If Oklahoma! serves as Genesis in my Bible, and Music Man the last temptation of Christ: then My Fair Lady was Moses parting the seas of my Soviet-shadowed existence, leading me to the Promised Land: Broadway! On the surface it might seem what transpired on stage had no relation to anything in my life. But an unexpected relevance revealed itself, for under the trappings, what is MFL but an object lesson in the handicap of poorly spoken English. What could I do but pity my heavily-accented parents, prisoners of their suburban gutter. Surely I was not doomed to suffer their fate, having every ten-year-old's expectation of future attendance at Ascot or modern day embassy balls. A still greater epiphany was the realization that there were such vocational options for adults as to play in colored lights and fairytale settings before adoring crowds. On the long road home, I lay across the back seat of our olive green '53 Oldsmobile as we rode in silence, intoxicated with my newfound passion. Up front my Russian parents were sober, thinking ahead: what to make for lunch tomorrow, when to change the car's oil, what's on sale at Fedco. Neither of them aware they had just lost their only child to the vampire's kiss of Dionysus. I could have danced all night. 

Having seen the show on stage, no doubt precluded the necessity of venturing into Hlwd to see it again as a movie. My parents never gave hint of cherishing any artistic experience, let alone taking a second look. And so it would be March 1971 before I finally caught up with the film for the first time, on my own, in a theatrical re-release in San Jose. And tho I loved it, over the years I watched it only four more times, the last in 1994, in another re-release promoting the film's restoration. Walking out with that sparse audience in San Francisco's Kabuki Theater, I was infected by the malaise of this younger crowd who were clearly puzzled by the film's lauded reputation. I could feel their boredom, their rebuff; the movie seemed tired, irrelevant, lost. I still felt some of that residue watching it now, but after 3 more viewings, I'm starting to enjoy it again. The show itself hasn't been revived on Bway since 1994, when a reconceived production incorporating elements of surrealism failed to click, starring a severely miscast Richard Chamberlain, and Melissa Errico. Previously, Rex Harrison and a 92 year-old Cathleen Nesbitt came around for a One-foot-in-the-grave Tour in 1981. Easily the best was a 20th Anniversary revival in 1976, a painstaking replication of the original production with fresh performances from Ian Richardson, Christine Andreas and George Rose (making Doolittle a career highlight for himself as much as it was for Holloway; winning a Tony over Ian Richardson and Jerry Orbach in Chicago, absurdly as Lead Actor--in a category once open only to those billed above the title.) I was fortunate enuf to see this production, which revived my memories of that '63 road company--and seared the show's wizardry into permanent fondness. Still, Pygmalion may yet survive the passage of time better than the musical; Shaw's relevance outlasting Lerner & Loewe's. In recent years there's been talk of a film remake, with a new screenplay by Emma Thompson--who hasn't hesitated to express her disdain for Cukor's picture. My first reaction was to think her presumptuous, but I've come to see where much could be improved, tho I'm less sure there's enuf of an audience to justify a wholesale remake--especially when names like Colin Firth, Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan (good actors as they are) are mentioned. Perhaps there's a future re-discovery of the musical in store. Timing is a funny thing. But for now it's hard to imagine the show will ever achieve the level of affection and mass-appeal that was lavished on its first flush. Even Stephen Sondheim confesses in his delightfully opinionated memoir, "Finishing the Hat," that aside from his own shows, My Fair Lady (was) "the most entertaining musical I've ever seen." More than fifty years on, it remains unforgettable.

Next Up: The Sound of Music

Report Card:    My Fair Lady
Overall Film:    B+
Bway Fidelity:  A
Musical Numbers from Bway: 16  
Musical Numbers Cut from Bway:  0
New Songs:  None
Standout Numbers:  "With a Little Bit of
       Luck" “Get Me to the Church on Time"
Casting:   Solid, if questionable
Standout Cast:  Harrison, Holloway
Cast from Bway:  Harrison, Holloway
Direction: Stately, handsome, often dull
Choreography: Lively, if limited
Ballet:  None
Scenic Design:  Dark, detailed, elaborate
Costumes:  Edwardian couture by Beaton
Standout Sets: Covent Garden;
     Higgins' manor, Wimpole Street
Titles:  The overture set to floral displays
Oscar Noms: 12--8 wins: Best Picture;
     Actor: Harrison, Director; Cinematography,     
     Art Direction, Costumes, Sound, Scoring.
     Noms only: Supporting Actor/Actress:
     (Holloway/Cooper); Screenplay (Lerner),
     Film Editing

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I just discovered your blog yesterday. Love it! Can't wait to go through the whole thing. I read your articles on 'Hello, Dolly", "Mame", and "My Fair Lady". Lady is my favorite. I've seen it countless times. I first discovered it in 1995 on television. I was 15. I was prepared to hate it in spite of the fact that I've always loved musicals. Even though it has lots of problems, many of which you pointed out, I'm still a huge fan.

Here's a bit of trivia I've never noticed anyone point out: When Higgins starts singing "Accustomed to her face", he's standing in the Covent Garden set. They cleaned it up, added trees and a bench, lit it differently and shot if from an opposite angle. Check it out.

thanks for the blog.