My Fair Lady
based on Pygmalion
by George Bernard Shaw
book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
music by Frederick Loewe
directed by Molly Smith
choreographed by Daniel Pelzig
Duo: The Musical Evolution of Lerner and Loewe
By Ken Savage
Alan Jay Lerner was an American lyricist and librettist born to an affluent Jewish family in New York City. Frederick “Fritz” Loewe was an Austrian pianist and composer from Germany who had yet to reach success in music. The unlikely duo met in 1942 at the New York Lambs Club, where Loewe piqued Lerner’s interest in working together. Loewe was already commissioned to rewrite the show Patricia, the pair’s first project and a primal micro-success. Following the first show of their partnership, Lerner and Loewe experienced continued mediocre success with their next three musicals: Life of the Party (1942), What’s Up? (1943), and The Day Before Spring (1945). Their collaborative work style was evident right off the bat as the duo preferred to write and compose together rather than having one write the music or lyrics first.
Brigadoon was their first major Broadway hit. Lerner and Loewe incorporated traditional Scottish folk music and dance into the musical about two tourists who discover the village of Brigadoon, which magically appears in the Scottish Highlands once every one hundred years. Brigadoon premiered in New Haven and Boston where it was ill-received by critics but popular to audiences. It played in Philadelphia to rave reviews then opened on Broadway in 1947 where it won the New York Drama Critics Circle award for most outstanding musical. In 1951, following the success of Brigadoon, Lerner and Loewe were inspired by the other great American-themed musicals like Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun to write a musical about a mining town in California during the Gold Rush era: Paint Your Wagon.
In 1952 film producer Gabriel Pascal obtained the musical rights to George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and approached Lerner with the proposition of turning it into a musical, convincing him to do it by saying no other artist was capable of such a feat. Ironically, in an encounter with Oscar Hammerstein II, Lerner discovered that Pascal had also approached Rodgers and Hammerstein with the same project using the same buttery words. However, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and a list of other composers had given up on the musical endeavor. However, in 1953 Lerner and Loewe’s interest in transforming Pygmalion was reignited. They immediately sought Rex Harrison and even before having contracted him, Lerner and Loewe began writing the songs for the non-singing actor. From their non-singing muse, Lerner and Loewe developed a series of talk-singing pieces for the character of Henry Higgins. They discovered Julie Andrews in 1954 when she made her American debut in The Boy Friend and secured the British actress to play their Eliza Doolittle. Soon after, they recruited movie actor Stanley Holloway to play Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father. The duo underwent a huge ordeal in order to confirm Rex Harrison’s casting, but once he was secured, Lerner and Loewe spent hours constantly writing to finish their musical. The musical development of My Fair Lady was very much based around the voices and talents of their selected actors. At the start of rehearsals, the book and score were nowhere near complete. In fact, they stumbled upon the title “My Fair Lady” during second week of rehearsals.
My Fair Lady received stellar reviews in New Haven, Philadelphia, and New York. In fact, at the time it was crowned the best Broadway musical ever written. It was the longest running musical of the time, playing for six and a half years with 2,717 performances on Broadway and 2,281 performances on the West End in London. My Fair Lady won six Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical. Though Oklahoma! was America’s frontier musical, My Fair Lady was Broadway’s first major blockbuster hit.
Lerner and Loewe’s success continued to skyrocket. Immediately following the triumph of My Fair Lady, the team was commissioned to write the movie Gigi, which was based on the French novella by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette about a rich Parisian playboy and his relationship with a courtesan-in-training. Lerner wrote the screenplay and together they collaborated on music and lyrics. Gigi won nine Oscars at the Academy Awards. Its transformation into a musical fell short and had only moderate success, but it still earned Lerner and Loewe a Tony Award for best score.
Their last major Broadway hit was Camelot (1960), based on the legend of King Arthur. It was originally directed by Moss Hart, who also directed My Fair Lady, and starred Richard Burton and Julie Andrews. Camelot won four Tony Awards, toured London and the world, and was adapted for the screen in 1967.
Lerner and Loewe’s musical journey kicked off with a series of musical flops and underwhelming musicals but eventually gained momentum, producing multiple major hits for the stage and screen. Their music lives on in their popular songs– “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Almost Like Being in Love,” “They Call the Wind Maria,” “If Ever I Would Leave You”– their iconic actors, and in the audiences who have fallen in love with their work.