For decades, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion looked like a play that could never be turned into a musical. Then, in 1956, it was adapted into the definitive musical. Sixty years ago today, My Fair Lady made its Broadway debut. Adapted from Shaw’s masterpiece, the new show dazzled critics and audiences alike—and, a few years later, was turned into an award winning movie featuring Audrey Hepburn. Here are a few facts about the crowd pleaser in honor of its birthday.
1. IT’S ROOTED IN GREEK MYTHOLOGY.
Pygmalion is named after a mythical artist who supposedly sculpted an ideal woman—only to fall in love with the statue. A product of ancient Greek folklore, this character would later be immortalized by the Roman poet Ovid, who wrote about him in Book 10 of The Metamorphoses. Similarly, the male lead in Shaw’s Pygmalion—phonetics professor Henry Higgins—tries to “sculpt” a lower-class working girl into a well-spoken English lady.
2. GEORGE BERNARD SHAW DIDN’T WANT PYGMALION TO GET THE MUSICAL THEATER TREATMENT.
In 1908, composer Oscar Straus amazed audiences with The Chocolate Soldier, an operetta based on Shaw’s 1894 play Arms and the Man. But the success of this adaptation ultimately hurt the creator of its source material. During The Chocolate Soldier’s run, few theaters were willing to produce Arms and the Man—and Shaw’s wallet took a hit.
During his lifetime, several producers and directors told Shaw that Pygmalion might make for a terrific musical, but financial considerations kept him from letting anybody take a crack at converting it into one. As Shaw told Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehar, “A Pygmalion operetta is quite out of the question … Pygmalion is my most steady source of income: it saved me from ruin during the war, and still brings in a substantial penny every week.” Having been burned before, Shaw swore he’d never “allow a comic opera to supplant it.”
3. RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN TRIED (AND FAILED) TO MAKE A PYGMALION MUSICAL.
When Shaw died in 1950, producer Gabriel Pascal held the rights to Pygmalion. Over the next few years, he asked several writers if they could develop a musical adaptation. Most didn’t get very far. At one point, Pascal handed the assignment off to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. On paper, they looked like the perfect men for the job: The ingenious duo had defined and re-defined the American musical with classic shows like Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and The King and I. But despite their past successes, the challenge of Pygmalion proved too great. Apart from its heavy reliance on dialogue, the play—unlike most Rodgers and Hammerstein shows—didn’t come with an overt love story. Before long, they abandoned the project.
Undeterred, Pascal turned to the creative minds behind Paint Your Wagon: librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe. In 1952, he asked if these two would be interested. Both said “yes,” but just half a year later, they also gave up. Then, in 1954, Pascal passed away at the age of 60. His untimely death returned Lerner and Loewe’s thoughts to Pygmalion. Deciding that the project was worth one more try, they painstakingly began writing what was to become My Fair Lady.
4. MALE LEAD REX HARRISON GOT THROUGH HIS SONGS WITH A FLEXIBLE “TALK-SINGING” STYLE.
When Harrison landed the role of Henry Higgins, it certainly wasn’t because of his singing voice. Indeed, the veteran actor told Lerner and Loewe that he’d never sung on stage before. Fortunately, Higgins’ songs weren’t too vocally demanding and, throughout much of the show, Harrison simply talked to a musical beat. “I was using the melody, but not singing it,” he explained to the BBC. “I mean, I could use [musical] notes, and sometimes when I was doing the play I used to use quite a lot of the notes. Sometimes I would use hardly any of the notes. But I was able to sort of jiggle it about.” (In the show's movie adaptation, the intricacy of the patter songs led to Harrison singing them live on set—an anomaly at the time.)
5. DIRECTOR MOSS HART TOOK TWO DAYS OFF TO WORK WITH JULIE ANDREWS ONE-ON-ONE.
When Julie Andrews, then just 19, was cast as Eliza Doolittle, the young actress found herself intimidated by the part. “[It] became obvious … that I was hopelessly out of my depth as Eliza Doolittle,” she said. To help his star find her footing, Hart canceled a weekend of full-cast rehearsals and gave Andrews step-by-step assistance. “For those two days,” she recalls, “… [we] hammered through each scene—everything from Eliza’s entrance, her screaming and yelling, to her transformation into a lady at the end of the play.” All that hard work really paid off: Once normal rehearsals resumed, just about everyone noticed a dramatic boost in Andrews’ confidence.
6. THE SHOW HAD A NUMBER OF WORKING TITLES.
At first, the show went by Liza, which eventually evolved into Lady Liza. However, Harrison didn’t care for either name because he felt that they both relegated his character to second fiddle status. A number of alternatives were then tossed around—including Fanfaroon, a British slang term meaning “one who brags about himself.” Finally, Loewe and Lerner lifted the words my fair lady from the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down.” This three-word title satisfied Harrison, and the rest is history.
7. A DEAD PENGUIN WAS THE ORIGINAL RUN’S BACKSTAGE MASCOT.
A dedicated Shaw fan, Harrison wanted My Fair Lady to resemble its source material as closely as possible. At rehearsals, he habitually brought along a Penguin edition copy of the Pygmalion script. Whenever a line of My Fair Lady’s dialogue didn’t seem right to Harrison, he’d look up and shout “Where’s my Penguin?”
One day, Lerner decided to have a little fun with this. “I went to a taxidermist,” he told the Glasgow Herald, “and purchased a stuffed penguin. The next time Rex cried out ‘Where’s my Penguin?’ the stuffed bird was rolled on to the stage … and everyone howled with laughter.” Apparently, Harrison took it with good humor. After the incident, he stopped asking for his Penguin script—and kept the deceased avian in his dressing room as a mascot.
8. THE RAIN IN SPAIN STAYS MAINLY IN THE … HILLS AND MOUNTAINS.
Get your facts straight, Henry Higgins! In one of Act I’s most popular songs, Higgins, Eliza, and Colonel Pickering declare that “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” But catchy as it may be, the little number is not meteorologically accurate. Every year, Spain’s northern hills and mountains receive far more rainfall than the plains to the south.
9. THE VERY FIRST PREVIEW WAS ALMOST CANCELED.
Before it came to Broadway, My Fair Lady had its opening preview in New Haven, Connecticut on February 4, 1956. Unfortunately, Rex Harrison nearly derailed the production. Earlier that day, there was a last-minute rehearsal with the orchestra—which Harrison had never heard before. As soon as they started playing, the actor’s self-doubts about his singing voice immediately resurfaced. “Mossy,” he said to Hart, “I’m not opening tonight and, as a matter of fact, I may never open.”
Hart decided to dismiss his cast and pull the performance. But Mother Nature had other ideas: A powerful snowstorm kept word of the show’s cancellation from getting out. Unaware of the backstage chaos, many ticket buyers showed up early. With a crowd gathering and the theater threatening legal action, Hart called everyone back. By then, though, the players had dispersed pretty widely. As assistant stage manager Jerry Adler recollects, messengers were dispatched “to restaurants, gyms, and even announced at a movie theater mid-screening that actors from My Fair Lady should report back to the theater.”
After everyone was tracked down, the curtain finally went up. To put it mildly, the audience got its money’s worth. Each number was met with uproarious applause—especially “The Rain in Spain.” There was so much clapping after the song that the actors felt compelled to take an unscripted bow before moving on.
10. FIFTEEN MINUTES OF MATERIAL WAS CUT.
The Connecticut crowd may have loved what they saw at the preview, but My Fair Lady’s creators thought there was room for improvement. To shorten the show's runtime, seven songs were deleted. Among them was a tender ballad called “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight.” Conceived as a solo for Eliza, this song later appeared in the movie musical Gigi (1958)—which Lerner and Loewe scored.
11. THE ORIGINAL CAST RECORDING TOPPED THE BILLBOARD CHARTS.
For 15 weeks, the show's album held down the number one slot. Within its first year alone, the My Fair Lady cast recording became the best-selling album that Columbia Records had ever seen, netting $5 million that year. Over the next 10 years, it would sell a then-impressive 5 million copies.
12. FOR THE 1964 FILM VERSION, AUDREY HEPBURN’S SINGING VOICE WAS DUBBED OVER.
When Warner Bros. decided to make an adaptation of My Fair Lady for the silver screen, the studio asked Rex Harrison to reprise his role. Julie Andrews, in contrast, received no such invitation: The actress was not yet a household name, so producer Jack Warner passed her over for the better-known Audrey Hepburn.
Hepburn’s inexperienced pipes caused some concern. Upon landing the role of Eliza, she began working tirelessly on her songs with a vocal coach. Still, director George Cukor decided that Hepburn would have to be dubbed over. Ultimately, 95 percent of Eliza’s singing in My Fair Lady was performed by Marni Nixon, who’d done similar dub work for The King and I (1956) and West Side Story (1961).
Meanwhile, being replaced by Hepburn was arguably the best thing that could have happened to Julie Andrews: It freed her up to star in a little movie called Mary Poppins. At the 1965 Golden Globes, Andrews was nominated for Mary Poppins, and Hepburn was nominated for My Fair Lady. Andrews was victorious, and after claiming her award, Andrews wrapped up her speech by saying, “Finally, my thanks to a man who made a wonderful movie and who made all this possible in the first place: Mister Jack Warner.” To his credit, he laughed right along with everyone else. Andrews would go on to win an Oscar for her performance in Mary Poppins, too.
13. AT ITS TIME, THE MY FAIR LADY MOVIE WAS THE HIGHEST-GROSSING PICTURE IN WARNER BROTHERS HISTORY.
Following its release on Christmas Day 1964, the film version of My Fair Lady brought in a studio-best $72 million. At the following Academy Awards, it won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor (for Harrison), and Best Director (for Cukor). By comparison, the musical’s original Broadway production brought home six Tonys—one of which provided Harrison with yet another Best Actor title.
14. HARRISON’S PROFESSOR HIGGINS HELPED INSPIRE A POPULAR FAMILY GUY VOICE.
A hardcore musical theater buff, Seth MacFarlane has long revered Harrison—and particularly his performance in My Fair Lady. “In college, I had sort of worked up an impression of Rex Harrison in order to get girls,” show creator MacFarlane once said. While developing a voice for Stewie Griffin—Family Guy’s maniacal baby—he decided to go with a snobby British dialect that sounds distinctly Higgins-esque.
15. JULIE ANDREWS IS CURRENTLY DIRECTING A 60TH ANNIVERSARY REVIVAL IN AUSTRALIA.
To celebrate 60 years of Ascot races and dancing all night, Sydney’s world-famous Joan Sutherland Theatre asked Andrews if she’d consider directing a new production of the show that helped make her a star. Andrews said she was thrilled to accept. My Fair Lady is, as she puts it, “a beautifully-constructed musical, which is its strength, really.”
Andrews won’t be the revival’s only link to the 1956 version. The show, which opens this August, will also base its sets and costumes upon designs used by the original creative team.
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.