My Fair Lady review:perfect combination of Shaw and Broadway – archive, 1 May 1958

If My Fair Lady has a dying fall that is the work of a master called Bernard Shaw and not of a learner called Alan Jay Lerner. It is indisputable that Lerner wrote the lyrics of My Fair Lady, but to credit him with the “book” is going a bit far in spite of the credit line for Pygmalion.

The most surprising thing about the production which opened in London last night (for those who have been feeding on the long-playing record for the last couple of years) is that all the dialogue is so unmistakably Shavian, including some of the funniest lines. The dying fall, the fact that the second half is so much quieter than the first, is part of the technique of the “well-made play” and if it seems a bit unexpected in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, it does not at all spoil the effect. It might seem that all the eggs have been put in only half of the basket, but it succeeds artistically.

There was once, and may well still be, a dramatic critic who so often described how he wept at certain performances that he was known to his cynical colleagues as “Niobe, all tears.” But there were tears to be perceived at Drury Lane last night even in unexpected places. They were, however, the same sort of tears that well into the eyes of children at Christmas parties when everything is almost too beautiful – the candles, the tinsel, the young hostess’s frock and even the mother’s smile.

Julie Andrews, when she throws off the thin disguise of the flower girl and becomes “Miss” Doolittle, had this quality of affecting the tear ducts in the tougher side of the first-night audience. So, in a perverse way, did Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins, for he made it all too clear from the first moment that no man could be as impervious as he to such obvious charms. Therefore when he slowly fell for Eliza there was something sad about it. This, of course, is exactly what the old master Shaw had in mind when he put Pygmalion so carefully together. It is one of the oldest tricks in show business and not all the guiles and wiles of Broadway conceal the fact that My Fair Lady is a triumph of late-nineteenth-century theatrical technique, even if it was written in 1912 and first produced in 1914.

Cecil Beaton and a model wearing one of his designs for My Fair Lady, April 1958. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

There is a point in the original play at which Shaw might have gone off on a completely opposite tangent. Higgins says to Pickering about Doolittle (oddly described in the programme as Alfred P. Doolittle – where did the “P” slip in?) “If we were to take this man in hand for three months, he could choose between a seat in the Cabinet and a popular pulpit in Wales,” Stanley Holloway, as Doolittle, made it instantly clear that if the dramatist had chosen him to be the chief character instead of his daughter there would have been no danger. His Collins’s Music Hall style went across from the first line, which was hardly surprising. On the other hand Colonel Pickering is not necessarily a dominant character in this play, but Robert Coote makes him seem a strong competitor.

There is one curious point about the whole show. It has been rather Americanised for Broadway and nobody has thought it worth reanglicising it for London. The Ascot gavotte, which is the chief visual feast of the evening, is also the occasion for the killing of that most famous exit line of this century – “Not bloody likely.” For reasons best known to that learner Lerner the whole idea is dropped and Eliza is. forced to make a remark uncharacteristic of any Englishwoman of any class. It contains an Anglo-Saxon four-letter word beginning with “A” (which has been heard on the English stage at least once before in The Guinea Pig) but is an awful anticlimax. Why should we be expected to gasp and laugh at the line “… move your ruddy arse”?

But if pedants find no more than that to argue about, My Fair Lady seems likely to prove the perfect combination of Shaw and Broadway, distinguished by its music, unshaken by its hackneyed choreography, (Hanya Holm), fortified by the Drury Lane orchestra (musical director Cyril Ornandel), and graced by the costumes of Cecil Beaton.

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