1956: My Fair Lady premieres on Broadway. The musical was based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion. Book and lyrics for the production were by Alan Jay Lerner with music by Frederick Lowe. In the 1930s, Gabriel Pascal had acquired rights to make several of Shaw’s plays into movies. Shaw had a bad experience with one of the earlier attempts and refused to give permission to turn Pygmalion into a musical. After Shaw died in 1950, Pascal began work on turning Shaw’s play into the musical he had envisioned decades before. It had previously been attempted by well-known composer/lyricists and even Rogers and Hammerstein had failed in their attempts. It was deemed to be impossible and so Lerner and Lowe abandoned the projects. Pascal died without his musical.
Lerner read the obituary and began to wonder if they could pull it off and he and Lowe began working on the project again. The musical had its pre-Broadway run at New Haven’s Shubert Theatre and Rex Harrison, playing the lead role of Henry Higgins, was unused to having a live orchestra in the pit. He refused to go on. Everyone was sent home but Harrison finally relented. They were all called back and the first performance was a hit. They moved from there to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for four weeks. Finally, on this day, they opened on Broadway with Harrison still as Higgins and Julie Andrews playing Eliza Dolittle.
Opening night was at the Mark Hellinger Theater before it moved to Broadhurst Theatre and then The Broadway Theatre. It ran for 2,717 performances before closing on September 29, 1962. Eventually Edward Mulhare and Sally Ann Howes replaces Harrison and Andrews for the leads. The original cast recording became a best-selling album. The original costumes were created by Cecil Beaton and are part of a museum collection today. The stars left the Broadway production in order to open in London’s West End which opened on April 30, 1958 where it ran for 2,281 performances before closing in 1963.
There have been many more reprisals of the award-winning musical along with movie production of My Fair Lady which again had Rex Harrison playing Higgins, but Audrey Hepburn took over the Eliza role. Shaw wrote the original work based on the Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor. He creates the most perfect statue of his ideal woman and because he loved the work so purely, Aphrodite granted his wish and the statue came to life and the two were married and lived happily ever after. In My Fair Lady, the ending is not so certain. Eliza returns to Henry, but the story is left with an ambiguous ending.
We will write the show without the rights, and when the time comes for them to decide who is to get them, we will be so far ahead of everyone else that they will be forced to give them to us. – Frederick Lowe, when the rights to Shaw’s work were in dispute
[He] announced that under no circumstances would he go on that night…with those thirty-two interlopers in the pit. – Alan Jay Lerner, referring to Harrison’s refusal to work with a live orchestra
The Lerner-Loewe songs are not only delightful, they advance the action as well. They are ever so much more than interpolations, or interruptions. – Robert Coleman
Eliza, where the devil are my slippers? – Henry Higgins (last line of the musical)