Pygmalion to My Fair Lady
Posted by: wbtpress on Friday, November 4, 2011 at 2:09:00 pm
George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion both delighted and scandalized its first audiences in 1914. A brilliantly witty reworking of the Ovid tale of a sculptor who falls in love with his perfect female statue, it is also a barbed attack on the British class system and a statement of Shaw's feminist views. In Shaw's hands, the phoneticist Henry Higgins is the Pygmalion figure who believes he can transform Eliza Doolittle, a cockney flower girl, into a duchess at ease in polite society. The one thing he overlooks is that his 'creation' has a mind of her own. Pygmalion nevertheless probes important questions about social class, human behavior, and relations between the sexes.
It opened at His Majesty's Theatre on April 11, 1914, it enjoyed success, firmly establishing Shaw's reputation as a popular playwright.
The popularity of the play caused its leap from stage to screen. Shaw was always reluctant to have his plays filmed because he would not tolerate any tampering with his dialogue, but he was persuaded by Gabriel Pascal to allow a film version of Pygmalion. Writing the screenplay for the film version of 1938 helped Shaw to become the first and only man ever to win both the Nobel Prize for literature and an Academy Award.
However, concessions were extracted from Shaw by the film's producers, who changed the ending and watered down some of the supporting characters. Before the film came out, Shaw in fact wrote a 'sequel' to his first publication of the play. This was to solidify his ending and rebut any possible public demand for a more conventionally romantic ending.
In 1952 film producer Gabriel Pascal approached lyricist Alan Jay Lerner with the idea that Shaw's play be converted into a musical. Lerner and composer Fritz Loewe worked on the project and My Fair Lady began to take a promising shape. Lerner and Loewe's adaptation was uncommonly faithful to its source and retained much of Shaw's original dialogue. However, the ending of the play was something that Lerner and Shaw disagreed on. Pygmalion has an ambiguous ending - Higgins' last line is "Nonsense - she's going to marry Freddy. Ha ha ha!....". In publication, Shaw added a prose epilogue in which he explains that Eliza did indeed marry Freddy. As a response to this, Lerner included the following note in the libretto of My Fair Lady:
"I have omitted the sequel because in it Shaw explains how Eliza ends not with Higgins but with Freddy and - Shaw and Heaven forgive me! - I am not certain he is right."
Instead Lerner penned what is possibly the most memorable closing line in the whole of musical theatre:
"Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers?"
On 13th June, 1961, My Fair Lady became the longest-running production in Broadway history, outdistancing the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical play, Oklahoma! By that time it had been seen by over three million patrons, and had earned almost forty million dollars. The national tour began on March 18th, 1957 and ran for several years, and broke box-office records in city after city.