Our Town: My Fair Lady; the flawed masterpiece

Our Town: My Fair Lady; the flawed masterpiece


Who doesn’t love a masterpiece? As Long Islanders we’re lucky to live near Manhattan, a city which is itself a great masterpiece that in turn is filled with other masterpieces. And one such masterpiece is called “My Fair Lady.” If you have not seen this play I recommend you do.

And like all masterpieces this play has a very long, interesting and anguished history. The original story was entitled “Metamorphoses” written by the Roman poet Ovid around the time of Christ. It describes a sculptor who falls in love with a beautiful statue he has created and enlists Aphrodite to make the statue real. His wish is granted, the perfect woman comes alive and they conceive a child together. Ovid’s masterpiece was about human transformation and such well known stories like Cinderella and Pinocchio were both take offs on Ovid’s tale about the possibility of growth based upon love.

In 1913, the Nobel Prize winner George Bernard Shaw reworked Ovid’s story into Pygmalion which became a smash hit in London. However the ending of his play differed markedly from the Ovid’s because Shaw insisted that the woman who was transformed finally left her creator behind. This doesn’t make for a very happy ending and this ending has plagued the play ever since. After Shaw died the film director Pascal decided to turn the play into a musical but talents like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hammerstein all were unable to write compelling music to match Shaw’s dialogue. Finally Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe undertook the task and after 1 ½ years of struggle they completed the musical version and the play was renamed My Fair Lady which opened on Broadway in 1955 with Rex Harrison playing Henry Higgins and launching the career of Julie Andrews in the role of Eliza Doolittle. It became an instant classic.

In 1964, the play was made into a film starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison and won 8 Oscars. This film version had a happier ending with the appearance that Eliza would stay with Higgins.

The current revival at the Vivien Beaumont holds fast to Shaw’s original unhappy ending with Eliza walking off into the sunset leaving Henry Higgins to deal with his solitude and loneliness once again. This makes for an interesting and unsettling theater experience for the audience.

Nancy Olson Livingston, who was married to Alan Jay Lerner, was the supportive presence and first audience for each song as Lerner and Loewe worked on the music back in 1954 and she made an interesting comment when she first heard the song The Rain in Spain sung to her by her husband. This song was one of a series of incredible show stopping tunes in the first act of the play and she said with great prescience “This number will stop the show. The actors will be unable to continue. There will be such a reaction from the audience that they may actually have to take a bow in the middle of the first act. Not just one bow but many.”

And this is exactly what the audience feels. The musical numbers in the first act of this play are so astounding and so much fun that the audience is consistently overjoyed and offers up ovations after each piece. I was watching some of the people sitting near me during the first act and I couldn’t believe the look of joy and wonder on their faces. This was an audience fully captivated by a brilliant play which contained perfect sets, perfect music, amazing voices and great acting. This was Broadway at its very best.

And then came the second act. The ending of Shaw’s play has always been controversial and has produced endless conflict over the years. He wanted Eliza to walk off alone and after the play was first shown in 1911 the uproar was so loud that he was forced to change the ending. Over the years different versions have been tried with the most satisfying being when Hepburn’s Doolittle appears to be in love with Higgins and ready to stay.
In the current revival at Lincoln Center we see Doolittle walk off alone without a suitor and without Higgins. The hope that love can be one’s salvation is not something you will see. This was evident in the audience reaction in the end. It was a rather lukewarm applause which was in no way commensurate with the quality or the magic of the play’s first act. I left the theater wondering exactly how much money this ending would be costing the producers in the long run. Such an odd thing to think of as one walks out. Two thousand years ago Ovid ended his poem with the statue coming to life, with the artist finding love and with a child being born. Somehow in the Broadway version we now love is not an actor in this play. Maybe the modern playwrights feel guilt over all the marvelous beauty they’ve created and by way of atonement for that sin they remove the one thing that matters most of all, the love between a man and a woman.

Gertrude Stein once famously asked why masterpieces are so rare. Here we have a masterpiece which lost its love and replaced it with sadness and emptiness.

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