Sunday, 30 November 2008

ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST RECORDING: My Fair Lady


(#15: 10 May 1958, 19 weeks)

Track listing: Overture/Why Can’t The English?/Wouldn’t It Be Loverley/With A Little Bit Of Luck/I’m An Ordinary Man/Just You Wait/The Rain In Spain/I Could Have Danced All Night/Ascot Gavotte/On The Street Where You Live/You Did It/Show Me/Get Me To The Church On Time/A Hymn To Him/Without You/I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face/Finale

The cover shows a cartoon George Bernard Shaw pulling the strings of both Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, teacher and taught, hunter and prey, man and woman, Cupid and Psyche, Jane and Rochester…but who is which, and does Lerner and Loewe’s essential simplification and broadening out of Pygmalion bring us any closer to an answer? George B Dale’s admirably and stiffly thorough summary of the show in his sleevenote absolves me of the need to recap its plot in detail – as, I trust, does my presumption that most TPL readers will be thoroughly familiar with the show in any case, even if only via the less than satisfactory 1964 film version – and leaves me free to ponder the many whys scattered around the show and its construct like fleeing atoms of discarded Covent Garden birdseed.

If Pulp’s “Common People” presented a clever reverse portrait of Pygmalion – the glamorous and wealthy art student determined to slum it in tandem with her mildly contemptuous but still bedazzled working class boyfriend (and who, via “Paper Planes” and “Swagga Like Us,” can be argued to have ended up the winner of that undeclared bet) – then Lerner and Loewe’s (and, more pressingly, Rex Harrison’s) Henry Higgins as a slummer tilts just slightly more towards the masochistic than the sadistic; in “Why Can’t The English?” Harrison is revelling in his cheery, snobby demolition of the mores of what certain Times commentators still refer to as “plain people”: “Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter!” Harrison hisses triumphantly as he marches onstage, going on to demand “By rights she should be taken out and hung!” His Higgins revels in kicking against all the pricks (which, by the definition of his world, includes everything and everybody within sight and sound). Eliza growls an “Ow!” as though being kicked or about to kick, Colonel Pickering (about to meet Higgins and become his co-conspirator) splutters in indignation as Harrison hurls himself against the inconvenient limitations of the planet; his “Goooone,” his “chickens cackling in a barn,” hardly redeemed by his subtly balancing “This verbal class distinction should now be antique.” Like many of the show’s songs, “Why Can’t The English?” is more or less a list song, an excuse for Higgins to rage (euphorically) against the deficiencies of everywhere else (“In America they haven’t used it [i.e. the English language] for years!”) before getting, surprisingly early, to the core of his pain: “Use proper English and you’re regarded as a freak.” Higgins’ fury is that of the thwarted righteous man, or at least someone who fervently believes himself righteous.

Then the young Julie Andrews, a voice which will gain in unexpected significance as this tale travels through the sixties, makes her first proper entrance as Eliza on “Loverley” – following a brief Greek/barbershop chorus of ordinary folk daydreaming of “Paree” and “Capree” – and the dilemma becomes immediately apparent with her crisp, Sunbury-on-Thames estuarial delivery of “All I want is a room somewhere” in a story which is supposed to get her to sing like that at the end. She quickly attempts to compensate with overemphasised, underswallowed vocal compounds to resemble the downtrodden flower girl she’s supposed to be but her “ordinary” Eliza is approximately as aurally convincing as Dick van Dyke’s chimney sweep and not helped by the positively regal, immaculately enunciated vowels of “Lots of chocolate for me to eat.” Still, the song steers a blameless course between brisk march (complete with a Seven Dwarfs-resembling unison whistling sequence) and some rather lovely Debussian harmonic pauses where Andrews chews over and considers the word “loverley” from five different perspectives.

“With A Little Bit Of Luck,” thankfully, benefits from some genuine salt of the earth input; for Broadway audiences this was their first major exposure to Stanley Holloway in person – despite being a major stage, screen and recording star in Britain since the early twenties he was mainly known in America for his film performances, notably as an Ealing Studios regular – and he seized the part of Alfred Doolittle with a gusto and cheek remarkable for someone already in his mid-sixties; as Dale puts it in his sleevenote, his “robust low comedy” balances out Harrison’s “crackling high comedy” as he gives “a lusty portrait of an undeserving member of the poor.” “With A Little Bit…” is a cheerful ode of self-glorification where he systematically undermines all of the instructions of “the Lord above” in favour of making up the rules as he goes, chasing after girls, drinking beer with the boys and getting away with doing as little work as he possibly can. His self-possession is a crafty counterpart to that of Higgins, the difference being that he learns better in the course of the story and Higgins appears not to have learned anything. There’s more than a trace of Ian Dury in Holloway’s bearing and delivery.

“I’m An Ordinary Man” returns us to Higgins and his reasons why the world should revolve around him, in a marathon exercise of Olympian self-denial. He alternates between calmly presenting himself as an average man, a patient man, a quiet man, systematically condemning all the characteristics which he ought to know are essential to him and mad rushes of anger against frantic Tom and Jerry races of music wherein he lists the disadvantages of “letting a woman in your life”; the latter eventually rises to a level of hysteria, with Harrison screaming and screeching in terrifying roars against a jumble of speeded up “female” voices – and yet he considers himself and his arguments perfectly reasonable, though when he drops his guard we begin to understand the Rochester within him; his unexpectedly melancholy “Confirmed old bachelor and likely to remain so,” and his not entirely ignorant irony when he speaks of his pleasure at being “free of strife, doing whatever he thinks is best for him” – not to mention the encroaching dread of “the silence of his room” which he compares to “the atmosphere of an undiscovered tomb.” And a room which he knows, unless he yields and lets someone into his life, he is likely to end up buried in, despite his barks to the contrary.

Meanwhile, Eliza has become equally exasperated by his over-exacting methods and in “Just You Wait” she ends up demanding his death by Royal decree, after cackling about the new life that she’ll have (with gasps of “OHHHH!!!!” of varying intensity and “Go to St James’s so often I’ll call it St Jim’s”), the pleasure she’ll have in watching him go broke, or get ill and die, or drown in the sea, or be shot by a firing squad. Despite the still vacillating vowels, Andrews does better in this number, crowning her rant with a most convincing screech, a febrility she would not recapture on screen until Victor/Victoria.

Despite all the conflict, however, the two parties are making mutual progress, and we now arrive at something approaching happiness – and which takes both Higgins and Doolittle by surprise. In “The Rain In Spain,” when she gets it, Harrison reacts as though he’s the one who’s finally “got it” – i.e. the point of life – and for the first time breaks loose of the forcefield he has carefully constructed around himself. “And where’s that BLASTED plain?” he excitedly exclaims as though blasting the shell of his sheltered life to blazes. Andrews, too, sounds liberated – not least because she can now revert to her actual “Julie Andrews” voice, but note also her carefully weighed “How kind of you to let me come.” After that come tangos, tambourines, shouts of liberation, dances, howls of “Olé!” To his great astonishment, Higgins learns that he is happy.

It has of course also released something in Eliza; “Bed, bed, I couldn’t go to bed,” she pants at the start of “I Could Have Danced All Night” (an interesting follow-through from “Bewitched”) and “sleep, sleep, I couldn’t sleep tonight,” and despite the housekeeper’s plaintive pleas for her to lie down and get some sleep she continues to exult – and is clearly turned on – in what she has achieved, and not necessarily just for herself. The arrangement gets progressively quieter, as though methodically, gently drawing her towards pillow and counterpane, but she comes back for a final, victorious crescendo.

But then both Higgins and Doolittle have to put themselves about in the world – not necessarily a real one, as the deliberately wooden, stilted and square proceeds of “Ascot Gavotte” make clear – “Everyone who should be HEARE are HEARE,” pronounce the sniffy chorus, as they extol the virtues of the races in much the same way that George Banks would proclaim the brilliance and infallibility of The British Bank a few years later.

And thence comes Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who sees Eliza at Ascot, is immediately besotted by her, and stalks her homeward. The big hit song from the show, and a number one single for Vic Damone in 1958, “On The Street” is here sung by John Michael King, son of the noted British expatriate stage actor Dennis King, and is possibly the noblest of all pursuant number one hits; he loves her so much that he almost wants to become the fabric of the pavement, of the incongruous lilac trees, the recipient of the enchantment wont to pour out of her door. The sudden lunges of “Oh! The towering feeling!” and “The overpowering feeling” complement the post-“I Only Have Eyes For You” fantasia (“People stop and stare, they don’t bother me,” “Let the time go by, I (and there’s an earth-stalling pause to go with that “I”) won’t care”…he is so happy in his own premature bliss that he hardly realises how disturbing a spectacle he presents to others.

Back home from Ascot, triumphant, Harrison’s Higgins and Robert Coote’s Pickering only have eyes for their own bet; and yet there’s something unnerving about Coote’s admiring, stunned cries of “You did it!” – almost the admiration of a devoted wife. Harrison is already shaking off the experiment (“easily win,” “deadly dull”), happier about getting the better of Hungarian bullshit detector Zoltan Caparthi (“That hairy hound from Budapest…/Never have I ever had a ruder pest!”), rhyming “foreign” with “aren’t” (“English people areign…”). Finally Coote proclaims “Every little credit belongs to you!” just to catch the wind of a devastated and now supposedly irrelevant Eliza.

She goes back to Freddy, and “Show Me” is the show’s undiscovered gem; King begins it with a dagger-sharp parody of the meaningful, wordy crooner as over slushy strings he intones “Speak and the world is full of singing” etc. before Andrews abruptly terminates his reverie with a furious blast: “Words, words, WORDS! I’m so SICK of words!.../ Is that all you blighters can do?” and launches into a furious tango whose procedural may be oddly familiar: “Don’t talk of stars burning above! If you’re in love – SHOW ME!” “Tell me no dreams filled with desire! If you’re on fire – SHOW ME!!” Remember that in “I’m An Ordinary Man” Higgins has already fulminated over women’s preferences for talking about love rather than talking about Keats or Milton and then cut back to Eliza’s “Here we are together in the middle of the night – don’t talk of spring, just hold me TIGHT!,” the necessity of replacing words with action while the moment lasts – and then remember that track one, side one, of The Lexicon Of Love – a record which concludes that showing love is more important than studying its look - is entitled “Show Me.” “Show me NOW!!” demands Andrews as the song storms to its end.

Holloway’s Alfred, meanwhile, has gone through a similar epiphany, decides to make it all legal after all these years of cheery duplicity, and is happy to go straight: “Get Me To The Church On Time” sees him merrily embarking on his second life (or on his stag night on the eve of it), with increasingly aggravated demands to stop and draw him away from all sources of temptation which would indicate the contrary – “Kick up a rumpus, but don’t lose the compass!” – finally calling for himself to be feathered and tarred and for the Army to be called out if necessary. Nothing is more important than the recommencement and renewal of his life, to which clearly that was not all there was.

Alfred Doolittle has learned but Higgins seems not to have gone beyond the first couple of pages of Lesson One. “A Hymn To Him” is the posthumous partner to his previous rant, and finds him equally at sea (“I cannot understand the wretch at all” he says, more baffled than hurt), though carries its own subtext; in the course of the song he addresses Col Pickering directly: “Would you be wounded if I never sent you flowers?” “Never!” and later, and more acidly (and, for 1958, startlingly), “WOULD YOU COMPLAIN IF I TOOK OUT ANOTHER FELLOW?” “NEVER!!” With his signoff to an unheard Mrs Pearce (“Would I run off and not tell me where I’m going?” – is this Sartre? – “Why can’t a woman be more like ME???!!!!??”), the number is tantamount to a gay confessional, though one can safely conclude, both from Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, that Higgins is gay only in the sense that he understands, in that he loves himself.

Meanwhile Andrews offers her own counterpart to “Just You Wait” in “Without You” as she rejects his attempts at reconciliation; following a dreamy intro (“No, my reverberating friend” answered by harp) she launches into a list of everything and everyone that will continue to thrive and function without him, including the Earth, Windsor Castle and tea and crumpets. “You can go to Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire!” she exclaims as the second part of a rhyme which demands another, shorter word beginning with H, as her previous life flashes through in green sparks of fury (“If they can do without you, DUCKY, so can I!” “So get back in your shell, I can do BLOODY WELL without YOU!!”).

It may seem that here is another case of a would-be Jane and Rochester who finally recognise that they finally cannot connect. “I’ve Grown Accustomed” sees Harrison back in his chambers, alone, and after a punchbag of “DAMN DAMN DAMN DAMN!” he settles down, in sudden recognition of what he may have lost, or the life which he could have had but instead destroyed. As a self-reflex, he hoots and curses at the notion of Eliza marrying Freddy, laughing mirthlessly at the prospect of their “wretched little flat” (“HAH!!”) and Poor Eliza, betrayed and humiliated, running back to him (“How simply frightful! How humiliating!”…lip-licking pause…”How delightful!”). “Will I take her back or throw the baggage out?” he muses, before retreating into the deceptive hall of mirrors of “I’m An Ordinary Man” briefly (“I’m a most forgiving man”) and then roaring with renewed intensity “BUT I WILL NEVER TAKE HER BACK! I WILL SLAM THE DOOR AND LET THE HELLCAT FREEZE!!”

Then a global pause. Then the other self takes over: “But I’m so used to hearing her say good morning…second nature now, like breathing out and breathing in.” He makes one last effort at self-rebuttal – “Rather like a habit one can always BREAK!” – but it’s no use, and he knows it; the “trace of something in the air,” the life seemingly lost, the solo violin mournfully playing “I Could Have Danced All Night” to remind him of what he could have had, if only he’d allowed himself to open up, or be opened up.

Perhaps the greatest controversy in the show – though not represented on the record, it formed the ending on stage and also on screen – is the final scene, literally as the curtain is about to fall, where Higgins is sitting, alone and dead to the world, listening to the ghost of Eliza on record, and suddenly, gently, Eliza reappears in the background, just as Harrison’s no longer grumpy sailor returns at the end of The Ghost And Mrs Muir to escort the newly deceased Gene Tierney back to her proper world. She seems as much of a ghost as anything else; whether or not they will end up together is purposely left hanging in the air.

In a sense this was easier to digest in the film version, where producer Jack Warner, nervous about box office, insisted on Audrey Hepburn instead of Andrews for the role of Eliza (and the voice of the ubiquitous Marni Nixon to sing for her), only to find Andrews winning that year’s Best Actress Oscar for Mary Poppins; Hepburn, who once appeared as a bit player in Ealing comedies alongside Stanley Holloway, was by now used to being used as a sugar girl fantasy – Fred Astaire, more than thirty years her senior, reshaping her from shop assistant to glamour model in Funny Face, or George Peppard’s daydream in Tiffany’s – but was crucially less “nice” to a rather smug Harrison in the movie, more involving, more understood as someone with a palpable previous life ready to be forgotten. Whereas with Andrews – herself a recipient of unwanted attention from elders in her younger days - there is never any doubt that she will pass as a lady; the studied grace is already absorbed within her.

But the key point where My Fair Lady falls down in comparison to Pygmalion is the Freddy Eynsford-Hill problem. In both stage show and film he is presented as little more than a bland, well-meaning but dim and finally rather irritating Sloane. In Shaw’s original, though, Freddy is a rather more complex character with a filled-in history, including a lifetime of bullying from his own family for perceived inadequacies; he is Eliza’s precise counterpart. So why does he essentially vanish from My Fair Lady when it’s convenient for him to do so? In Pygmalion Eliza very decisively marries Freddy and Shaw was quite clear about why Eliza and Henry could not end up together.

Yet not entirely clear. Put the Pygmalion Freddy and Henry together and you find one life. Henry Higgins is a man who has withdrawn into himself for what seem justifiable reasons, although these are never explicitly expressed or explained. Let down by the world, he has retaliated by constructing an immaculate and perfect world of his own. So it can be argued that he does not truly lose Eliza at the end; taken in the context in which Shaw set him, Freddy is actually and recognisably the young Henry Higgins, the confused but still hopeful and optimistic boy before life and the world did irrevocable things to him, just as Jane Darnell’s birdwoman in the “Feed The Birds” sequence in Mary Poppins carries unusual emotional weight; not simply because once Darnell was Ma Joad, but also because Andrews’ character recognises her immediately as the person Eliza Doolittle might have ended up being had Higgins not cheerily stumbled on her and “saved” her (just as Mary Poppins, the film, is really to do with her Jane trying to save the life of George Banks’ Rochester – as with Jane Eyre, the looking-after-the-children part of the story becomes almost incidental as it progresses). By marrying the “Freddy” part of him, Eliza is in fact bringing Higgins back to life, and as the curtain falls on My Fair Lady that final scene only makes sense when we realise that she has returned to a reborn Higgins – despite his parting shot of “Where the devil are my slippers?” which she recognises as meaning “I love you.” After all, he’s just a boy, but she sees his potential to be a better man.

2 comments:

stormville said...

The cover drawing is by the legendary Broadway cartoonist, Al Hirschfeld (1903-2003).

David Belbin said...

Great piece, thanks, especially interesting as I've just seen Sheffield Crucible Theatre's fantastic production which, if you're lucky, will transfer to the West End.