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Guest Blog: 1956: IT WAS A VERY GOOD YEAR

WHAT LERNER & LOEWE DID THAT RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN COULDN’T By Peter Filichia

Did Rodgers and Hammerstein trouble themselves to watch the 1938 film of Pygmalion?

Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe obviously did – and that’s one reason why they succeeded in adapting George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play into My Fair Lady.

That only happened, however, some years after Dick and Oscar had tried to musicalize the property and couldn’t conquer it.

Both My Fair Lady and Pygmalion have recently been on my mind. Uptown, Lincoln Center Theater is about to open the musical’s fourth Broadway revival; downtown, there’s a terrific semi-environmental reimaging of the play at The Sheen Center on Bleecker Street, courtesy of Bedlam. The troupe’s name may suggest it’s mentally unbalanced, but it’s as crazy as a fox that has a 190 I.Q.

(That it only has a cast of six shouldn’t be a deterrent; My Fair Lady has been done with as few as nine performers. Both productions have emerged as triumphant as Eliza Doolittle did at The Embassy Ball after her months-long tutorial with that male chauvinist Pygmalion Professor Henry Higgins.)

Seeing the original play reminds us that the unsung heroes of My Fair Lady may well be screenwriters Cecil Lewis and W. P. Lipscomb. Were they the ones who decided to create scenes that weren’t Shaw’s play – ones that became vital to the musical? Or was it Shaw himself or even the uncredited Ian Dalrymple, Anatole de Grunwald or Kay Walsh? All of them worked on the Pygmalion film, too.

Whoever was responsible made significant changes, many of which certainly helped Lerner to fashion his musical.

In the play, Act Two ends with Higgins saying to Pickering “We have taken on a stiff job” (in educating Eliza) to which the Colonel answers “Higgins, we have.” The next thing you know, Act Three takes us to Henry’s mother’s house, where he brags about Eliza: “I started on her some months ago and she’s getting on like a house on fire.”

The cardinal rule of playwriting is “Show, don’t tell.” Shaw apparently didn’t think it important but the screenwriters did. They showed Eliza struggling mightily with her lessons – practicing “How kind of you to let me come” in tandem with Higgins’ xylophone-playing; swallowing the Demosthenes-inspired marbles; dropping “h’s” everywhere when in front of the flame.

Lerner did rearrange the order of Higgins’ “Hampshire, Hereford and Hartford” drill to “Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire.” Most fascinating, though, is that he did not actually invent the phrase “The Rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”; the screenwriter(s) did.

So when Eliza has her first taste of high society – meeting Mrs. Higgins, Mrs. Eynsford Hill and her son Freddy – we get a substantially stronger response after Mrs. Higgins says “Will it rain, do you think?” Instead of Shaw’s deadly “The shallow depression in the west of these islands is likely to move slowly in an easterly direction. There are no indications of any great change in the barometrical situation,” we get the smile-inducing “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”

Otherwise, Lerner’s scene is pretty much intact from both the Pygmalion play and film; the only difference is that he moved it to the opening day for the Ascot races – setting up Eliza’s faint-inducing “Come on, Dover – move yer bloomin’ arse!”

There’s no “arse” in either version of Pygmalion, but another word often used in the film may surprise even the most devoted cineastes: Higgins often says “Damn!” Pygmalion had opened in the U.S. nine months before the same word would scandalize America when Rhett said to Scarlett “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Pygmalion probably didn’t spur the same fuss because it had far less of a profile than Gone with the Wind.

While we’re at it, let’s mention that when Shaw’s play made its 1913 London debut, Britain was in an uproar over his use of the word “bloody.” That word was then considered terribly profane in England. One man’s “damn” is another man’s “bloody.”

Let’s give credit to Lerner, though, for carefully scrutinizing both the play and screenplay. He noticed that in both properties Higgins tells Eliza that if she accepts his offer, she’ll have “money to buy chocolates.” Thus Lerner had Eliza yearn for “lots of chocolates for me to eat” in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”

Lerner’s adding an early Act One scene in which Eliza meets her father not only allows us to become acquainted with Alfred P. Doolittle earlier, but also better answers Higgins’ perfectly understandable question when he arrives at his digs: “How else could you possibly know she was here?”

Shaw wrote “The girl took a boy in the taxi to give him a jaunt. Son of her landlady, he is. He hung about on the chance of her giving him another ride home. Well, she sent him back for her luggage when she heard you was willing for her to stop here. I met the boy at the corner of Long Acre and Endell Street.”

A little convoluted, no? Lerner simplified the explanation: “She sent back for her luggage, and I got to hear about it. She said she didn’t want no clothes. What was I to think …”

However, what about the song possibilities Lerner missed? Seeing the play shows that Alfred has a speech where he says “I want a bit of amusement, cause I’m a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low.”

Now that’s a song cue! However, this would come shortly after Higgins proclaimed “I’m an Ordinary Man” (“with great inaccuracy,” as Walter Kerr pointed out in his opening night review). Perhaps Lerner felt that two consecutive songs in which men make solo observations while other cast members had to stand there and listen would be overkill.

The film, unlike the play, makes more of Freddy Eynsford-Hill’s devotion, putting him outside on the street where she lives – setting up, of course, “On the Street Where You Live.”

But to be fair to Shaw, his play already had Higgins tell Eliza “I have grown accustomed to your voice and appearance” which of course became the musical “Soliloquy” that might only be second in the annals of male soliloquies in musical theater. (If you can’t guess what soliloquy I mean, it’s currently being heard at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre.)

Lerner also made more satisfying Alfred P. Doolittle’s suddenly coming into unexpected money. In Act V of Pygmalion, the dustman arrives all dandied up and chastises Higgins for writing “a letter to an old blighter in America” – one Ezra D. Wannafeller, in fact – “that was giving five millions to found Moral Reform Societies all over the world, and that wanted you to invent a universal language for him … that the most original moralist at present in England, to the best of your knowledge, was Alfred Doolittle, a common dustman … he leaves me,” he says, “three thousand a year.”

How could Shaw miss what Lerner didn’t? For in My Fair Lady, our librettist had Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’ housekeeper, mention that “There’s another letter from that American millionaire Ezra D. Wallingford.” (Note the better choice of surname.) “He still wants you to lecture for his Moral Reform League.” Says Higgins, “Throw it away.”

But once Doolittle takes his leave after his first meeting with a most bemused Higgins, our professor says “Mrs. Pearce, write to Mr. Ezra D. Wallingford and tell him if he wants a lecturer to get in touch with Mr. Alfred P. Doolittle, a common dustman – but one of the most original moralists in England.”

Yes, all exemplary work from Alan Jay Lerner, who’s also been on my mind these last weeks because I’ve been reading The Complete Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner, collected by and commented on by Dominic McHugh and Amy Asch. It’s terrific; I’ll detail why next week.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.

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