“Loverly: The Life and Times
of My Fair Lady,” by Dominic McHugh
The first makeover reality show; an underdog winning in the end; a love story at heart… There is so much to adore from “My Fair Lady,” aside from the famous one-liners indelibly imprinted in our memory.
Most folks know the basic storyline of the romantic comedy: a Cockney girl takes speech lessons from a professor who has wagered that he can make her presentable in high society. Having first opened on Broadway in 1956, “My Fair Lady”—starring a then-unknown Julie Andrews, who earned her first Tony nomination from the performance—ran until 1962. Of course, it garnered even more applause once it became a musical film in 1964, starring the one and only Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. The movie won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director. Now, true fans of the story have the opportunity to continue reveling in its feel-good aftermath in the recent release of “Loverly: The Life and Times of My Fair Lady,” a new book by Dominic McHugh.
A lecturer in musicology at the University of Sheffield, located in England, and a scholar of American musical theatre and Hollywood musicals, McHugh has additional interests in the history of opera and opera theory, performance practice and historiography. Having endured massive research on “My Fair Lady”’s genesis, McHugh managed to find over 500 letters, thousands of manuscripts, notations among draft scripts and early 1950s lyrics after trekking from D.C. to NY, Harvard to Yale. “Loverly” is the recount of his comprehensive collectings.
Using all previously unpublished documents, McHugh looks into the Broadway sensation that took five years to make a reality. What he found is “My Fair Lady” certainly had its fair share of hiccups along the way.
The story is based off of George Bernard Shaw’s play, “Pygmalion,” but Shaw refused to allow any adaptations of his work, as he had a bad experience prior. In 1908 Shaw gave Leopold Jacobson the rights to turn his play “Arms and the Man” into an operetta entitled “The Chocolate Soldier.” Disgusted with Jacobson’s rendition, Shaw called it “a putrid opera bouffe in the worst taste of 1860.” Thus, from that point forward, he refused to give up rights to any of his works.
After his death in 1950, all of the rights to his works fell under the power of film producer Gabriel Pascal, who wanted “Pygmalion” to be transformed into a musical. However, Lerner and Loewe ran into many snags in its midst and began to think that reconstructing the play was impossible. Halfway through writing the show, the duo parted ways as a result of all of the issues. There didn’t seem to be an appropriate way to fit in musical numbers and—what they considered to be the biggest problem of all—there was no love story involved, not even a secondary story involving a romantic endeavor. Again, it seemed to be falling to the wayside, much like the one Rodgers and Hammerstein attempted to adapt prior.
However, after two years of separation, “Pygmalion” entered into the Lerner and Loewe sphere yet again. Persevering through a final attempt, they made changes to the story and everthing began aligning.
“Lerner’s script involved a shift of focus from Shaw’s determinedly unromantic view of the Higgins-Eliza relationship to something more ambiguous for the musical, [and] a change of gesture also had to be carried through in the score,” McHugh writes.
McHugh doesn’t stop with the production history in “Loverly”; he details its first showing, as well as the film version. He examines basically every aspect of the show and its differing versions in history. Seemingly, there could not be a more extensive look at one musical.
However, readers should be warned: The book is not for the casual “My Fair Lady” observer. It can be hard to get through, one that often reads like instructions. McHugh’s massive research and those documents take up a large portion of the pages—tables, charts and sheets of music. While there’s some good stuff in it, there’s as much tedium. McHugh never assumes the reader has too much previous knowledge. The trials and tribulations of Lerner and Loewe’s difficulties, and how “My Fair Lady” became the incredible sensation it is today certainly mark the highlights, while the endless amount of information manages to be the book’s downfall, too. At points, it almost reads like a textbook, which one would expect to be foisted upon as homework in a class but would never pick up of her own volition.
I like “My Fair Lady.” In fact, I have a deep (and possibly unhealthy) love for Audrey Hepburn, which is enough reason alone for this fan to watch the movie, but, here’s the thing: Watching the film takes approximately two hours and 50 minutes. Reading this book takes much longer—and pushing through 200-plus pages of information about a play is not an easy task—in fact, it can actually feel like a chore at times for those without the “healthy zeal” of this classic show.
If you can quote the movie in everyday life, sing every lyric to “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” and eat, drink, and breathe all things “My Fair Lady,” “Loverly” is for you. At the very least, you’ll learn many more random facts to share at dinner parties. Casual observers may fare well in passing over this one.