Book by Alan Jay Lerner; Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; Music by Frederick Loewe.
My Fair Lady is a musical based upon George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe. The story concerns Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl who takes speech lessons from professor Henry Higgins, a phoneticist, so she can pass as a proper lady.
The musical’s 1956 Broadway production was a hit, setting what was then the record for the longest run of any major musical theater production in history. It was followed by a hit London production, a popular film version, and numerous revivals. It has been called “the perfect musical”.
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- Act One
On a rainy night in Edwardian London, while the opera patrons are waiting under the arches of Covent Garden for cabs we meet our heroine, Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl. As she sells flowers to the crowd she sees Henry Higgins copying down her speech in order to study it. He explains that he studies phonetics and laments Eliza’s dreadful accent, asking “Why Can’t the English” learn to speak? He declares that in six months, he could turn Eliza into a lady by teaching her to speak properly. Colonel Pickering, a linguist himself, joins the conversation, and, as they both have always wanted to meet each other, Higgins invites Pickering to stay at his home in London.
The next day Pickering and Higgins are discussing vowels at Higgins’s home when Mrs. Pearce, the housekeeper, informs Higgins that a young woman with a ghastly accent has come to see him. It is Eliza, come to take lessons to speak properly so she can become a lady. Pickering wagers that Higgins cannot make good on his claim and volunteers to pay for Eliza’s lessons. An intensive makeover of Eliza’s speech, manners and dress begins in preparation for her appearance at the Embassy Ball.
Eliza’s father arrives at Higgins’ house the next morning, claiming that Higgins is compromising Eliza’s virtue. Higgins is impressed by the man’s natural gift for language and his brazen lack of morals and flippantly recommends Doolittle to an American millionaire who is seeking a lecturer on moral values. Meanwhile, Eliza endures speech tutoring and dreams of different ways to kill Higgins for this torture – “Just You Wait”! Just as it seems impossible, Eliza’s accent suddenly transforms and “The Rain in Spain” becomes a song of triumph, as Higgins and Eliza dance around Higgins’s study.
For her first public tryout, Higgins takes Eliza to his mother’s box at Ascot Racecourse. Eliza makes a good impression with her polite manners but shocks everyone by her vulgar Cockney attitudes and slang—it seems that good elocution is only skin deep. However she captures the heart of Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who calls on Eliza that evening, happy just to be “On the Street Where You Live”.
After weeks of preparation, Eliza is ready for her final test – the Embassy Ball! She is greatly admired by all at the ball until a rival of Higgins, a Hungarian phonetician named Zoltan Karpathy, is employed by the hostess to discover Eliza’s origins. Will she be discovered?
- Act Two
Eliza even fools Zoltan Karpathy and Higgins and Pickering express their delight and relief that it is all over. Carried away they completely ignore Eliza, who decides to leave Higgins, and finds Freddy still waiting outside. He begins to tell her how much he loves her, but she cuts him off, telling him that she has heard enough “Words”.
Meanwhile Eliza’s father is dressed up and ready to get married. He has received a surprise bequest of four thousand pounds a year from the American millionaire, which has raised him to middle-class respectability, and now he must marry Eliza’s “stepmother”, the woman he has been living with for many years. Doolittle and his friends have one last spree before the wedding (“Get Me to the Church on Time”).
Higgins wakes to find Eliza gone, and seeking his mother’s advice as to her whereabouts, finds Eliza having tea with her. Higgins demands that she return, but Eliza accuses him of wanting her only to fetch and carry for him, saying that she will marry Freddy because he loves her. She declares that she does not need Higgins anymore, saying that she was foolish to think that she needed him (“Without You”). Higgins is struck by Eliza’s spirit and independence and wants her to stay with him, but she tells him that he will not see her again.
As Higgins walks home, he realizes his feelings for Eliza: he has “grown accustomed to her face” and finds it difficult to imagine being alone again. He reviews the recording he made of the morning Eliza first came to him for lessons. He hears his own harsh words: “She’s so deliciously low! So horribly dirty!” Then the phonograph turns off, and a real voice speaks in a Cockney accent: “I washed me face an’ ‘ands before I come, I did”. Henry hears Eliza, who is standing in the doorway, tentatively returning to him. The musical ends on an ambiguous moment, as Higgins slouches and asks, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?”.