- Kerry Auer Fergus
A Hymn to Her: Exploring the Relationships of My Fair Lady
A note before we begin:
Below you'll find my full score analysis of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady. I hope you'll find this analysis useful in your studies! However, if you're interested in something a little lighter, I encourage you to head over to this article, in which I provide a much more basic coverage of the show.
How does one begin to approach the subject of My Fair Lady? It's no understatement to suggest that this is one of the most iconic musical plays of all time. Even outside of the world of musical theatre, My Fair Lady is generally well-known. In fact, over the years, the show has perhaps even eclipsed its source material - George Bernard Shaw's magnificent play Pygmalion - in terms of name recognition. It launched Julie Andrews to stardom and ultimately became the crowning achievement in the careers of composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner. With all that and more to unpack in a truly groundbreaking work, where does the actor even start? How does one approach a role so encumbered by the audience's preconceived opinions? In short, how do you solve a problem like Eliza?
Okay, so maybe that's the wrong show. But the issue remains: How do you, the actor, bring a fresh perspective to a role as iconic as Eliza Doolittle? Well, let's start by asking ourselves this: Is My Fair Lady a romance?
Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison in the original Broadway cast of My Fair Lady
It should be a simple question. Is this the tale of a burgeoning romance or a heartfelt friendship? Strong feelings certainly exist between Eliza and Higgins, but does her return at the end of Act II indicate the beginning of a new, romantic phase of their relationship? Strangely enough, audiences have never agreed on this point. Even among the original reviewers there is no clear consensus. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times described Higgins as "a bright young man in love with fair lady." 1 Rival critic, John Chapman of the New York Daily News, referred only to the teacher/student dynamic between Higgins and Eliza and the transformation of flower girl into "hightoned lady" in his opening night review. 2 How is it possible that two critics reviewing the same production with the same actors on the same evening could have come away with two such different interpretations of the show's central relationship? The answer, perhaps, can be found in Lerner and Loewe's treatment of the material, but first let's return to the source. What does Shaw have to say about Eliza and the men who loom large in her life?
Shaw is unequivocal on the subject. Although the original play provides no overt reconciliation or reunion for our central characters (the famous "where the devil are my slippers" scene being notably absent) one is left to assume that Eliza will eventually reunite with her former mentor and friend. Indeed, audiences began to assume a little too much for Shaw's taste. Appalled to learn that the public envisioned a romantic union between Eliza and Higgins, Shaw penned a scathing response - an epilogue to accompany the play that would clarify in no uncertain terms the fate of Miss Eliza Doolittle. Following the closing lines of the play he writes, "The rest of the story need not be shown in action, and indeed, would hardly need telling if our imaginations were not so enfeebled by their lazy dependence on the ready-mades and reach-me-downs of the ragshop in which Romance keeps it stock of ‘happy endings’ to misfit all stories.” 3 Shaw goes on to explain that Eliza does indeed marry Freddy, although he admits that Higgins remains "one of the strongest personal interests in her life." 4
So there you have it. Shaw has spoken. No romance here, folks. Everyone can go home now. Mystery solved.
Just kidding. Although the intentions of the original author should not be dismissed, Shaw's Pygmalion is not the only source we must consult when investigating the central relationship of My Fair Lady. We've heard from Shaw, now let's see what the original production team has to say about it.
In the case of My Fair Lady, it is the absent material that may perhaps reveal more about the thought process of its creators. Like most musicals, My Fair Lady underwent a considerable revision process before hitting the Great White Way. A substantial portion of material at the end of Act I including the "Dress Ballet," "Come to the Ball," and "Say a Prayer for Me Tonight" were all cut between the preview performances in New Haven and opening night on Broadway. 5 As musical numbers were adapted and adjusted (or cut altogether), the script was likewise subjected to a number of revisions. Taken together these cuts seem to indicate a definite shift from what was once a clear romantic narrative to a more ambiguous relationship. Compare for instance, the difference in text from "Shy" to "Say a Prayer for Me Tonight" to "I Could Have Danced All Night." The first of these numbers once occupied the same position in the show as "Could Have Danced" - this is the moment after the lessons montage in which Eliza reveals her feelings. In "Shy," Eliza sings of an unrequited love: "Where are the words I long to hear? And where are the words I long to say? Why can't I open my heart?" 6 Similarly, in "Say a Prayer for Me Tonight," lyricist Alan Jay Lerner dialed up the romance. "Say a prayer that he'll discover I'm his lover," sings Eliza, "For now and evermore. Pray that he's lonely, a ship lost at sea; searching for someone exactly like me." 7 With lyrics such as these, it becomes clear that Lerner and Loewe originally intended for there to be a definite romantic arc to the show. And yet, let's not forget that "Say a Prayer for Me Tonight" and "Shy" with their patently romantic texts did not make it into to the final draft. Instead, we have only "I Could Have Danced All Night" to indicate Eliza's feelings at this crucial juncture of the show.
Consider the lyrics to "I Could Have Danced." In an outpouring of emotion Eliza sings, "I could have spread my wings and done a thousand things I've never done before." This is an effusive lyric. Eliza is euphoric, animated, jubilant - but is she in love? Later Eliza attributes her happiness to a nameless him (we can safely assume she means Higgins although I suppose Colonel Pickering is in the mix here as well). She sings, "I only know when he began to dance with me I could have danced, danced, danced all night!" This right here is the closest we get to an admission of romantic feeling between Eliza and Higgins in the entire score. It's slightly more tender than Higgins's later confession, "I've grown accustomed to her face" but is it really truly romantic? There are many who would answer yes, and I must admit that, taken on its own, "I Could Have Danced All Night" does seem to indicate some sort of romantic attachment. However, when compared to its previous iterations, "Could Have Danced" is downright tame. The word "love" is notably absent in this version.
If the cuts to the score indicate a general softening of the sentiment between the two leads, the cuts in the script might paint a different picture. In Loverly: The Life and Times of My Fair Lady, author Dominic McHugh analyzes the effect of some of these cut lines. For instance, in an earlier draft, Higgins describes his relations with the opposite sex: "I've taught scores of American millionairesses how to speak English: the best looking women in the world. I'm seasoned. They might as well be blocks of wood. I might as well be a block of wood." 8 McHugh suggests that this omission was made to leave open the possibility of romance. Lerner and Loewe may have been hesitant to use the language of love in their songs, but it appears that they were similarly cautious when it came to dismissing the concept in the text. Higgins never openly declares an infatuation for Eliza, but the authors were also careful not to include too much material that might indicate he is incapable of affection. It would seem that the Higgins of My Fair Lady is not quite a "block of wood."
So the cuts to the show seem to suggest that Lerner and Loewe were trying to scale down the romance while still leaving open the possibility of a future relationship. (Shaw, meanwhile, is spinning in his grave at the mere suggestion of an Eliza-Higgins union.) The ultimate effect of all this seems to be an intentionally ambiguous book. Lerner and Loewe are not going to commit to one version or the other in the libretto.
Ah, but what about the score? Here is where things start to get interesting. The score functions as the barometer through which we can gauge the feeling between Eliza and Higgins. And let's not forget Freddy Enysford-Hill. Freddy's presence is barely felt in the script, so powerful is the dynamic between Eliza and Higgins, but he cannot be ignored in the score. His solo number, "On the Street Where You Live" is one of the most beloved songs in the history of musical theatre.
As we delve into the score, there are a few things I want us to keep in mind. In particular, try to watch out for key areas, form, and articulation, all of which are used to great effect in the My Fair Lady score.
Let's start with Higgins. To be honest, though, no conversation about the music of Henry Higgins can begin without first acknowledging Rex Harrison. Harrison played the role in the original Broadway cast, the original West End cast, and in the 1964 movie adaptation. As such, it's sometimes difficult to separate the actor from the character. Ask yourself this: how much of your perception of Henry Higgins is shaped by the music/book and how much is influenced by Harrison's now-iconic performance? Harrison, as I'm sure we're all aware, was no singer. Unable to carry a prolonged musical scene on his singing skills alone, the actor ultimately spoke through many of his songs. (On a side note, have you ever sat down with the score and tried to sing some of his music as it's written on the page? The tunes are laughably unfamiliar.) Harrison was cast fairly early in the process, and as such much of the Higgins material was written specifically for him. To accommodate the actor's limitations, Higgins's music is written in a confined range with mostly stepwise motion in the melodies.
As far as introductions go, it doesn't get much better than "Why Can't the English?" Lerner and Loewe perfectly capture Higgins's arrogance, his quick wit, his bluster and swagger. The phrases are written with a metrical precision that reflect his mental acuity and British pomposity, and although the piece is generally conversational, the first note of each measure is often lengthened to give a slightly heavier emphasis to the downbeat. Consider for instance the clear emphases on the lyrics, "Why can't the English teach their children how to speak. This verbal class distinction by now should be antique." These precisely articulated downbeats give the impression of a man with utmost confidence in himself. He knows that he is right, so he sings (or rather speaks) with authority and precision.
The form of Higgins's solo numbers can also help us to understand his character. Most of the characters in My Fair Lady, including Eliza, Freddy, and Alfred Doolittle, stick to basic AABA or verse and refrain forms. Not so with Higgins. His music is a little bit harder to define. Take for instance, "Why Can't the English?" The first bit of music ("Look at her, a prisoner of the gutters") is mostly formless. Various accidentals make it difficult to pinpoint a key area, and there is no discernible melody or metrical pattern to guide the ear. It doesn't help that Harrison speaks through most of this portion. With so little musical definition, it's almost a relief when Higgins launches into the "Hear them down in Soho Square" section. At this point he commits to a clear key (B♭ Major) and we get our first recognizable melody. But this is essentially a false start since it quickly devolves into a spoken conversation between Higgins and the spectators. Furthermore, any semblance of rhythmic order disappears at Eliza's interjection of "Garn" since at this point a fermata over the rest in the accompaniment allows the actors to break the metrical pattern entirely. With so little melodic, rhythmic, and tonal definition, I would argue that everything up to this point has all been part of a formless introduction, similar to the operatic tradition of a declamatory recitative.
Thus the true A section of the piece begins at measure 64 with Higgins's "Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?" This portion of the piece begins in F Major. There is a brief modulation into D Major for the B section (beginning with "Set a good example for people whose English is painful to your ears"). We then return to the key of F Major for Higgins reprise of the A section.
That's all well and good, but what can form teach us about character? Higgins's tendency to go for more complexity in form is perhaps indicative of an active mind. He has none of the simplicity of lowborn Eliza or Alfred or the vacuous superficiality of Freddy and the aristocrats. He moves from one thought to another largely without confining himself to strict forms while his breezy transitions from B♭ to F to D to F demonstrate a sophistication far above anything Eliza has to offer in Act I.
Eliza's musical debut is certainly less complex than Higgins's. After an introduction from the costermongers, "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" follows a simple AABA form. The simplicity of Eliza's music is perhaps a reflection of her lowborn status, and yet, a certain kinship is established between Eliza and Higgins through both the melody and the key areas.
The entire piece is written in F Major (though the dance break that follows does modulate over to A♭). F Major, if you recall, was the key Higgins chose for the A section of his number, a detail that was no doubt intended to link the two characters. And let's not forget the melody. The lilting introduction to "Loverly" with its playful triplets gives the impression that Eliza's melody will be light and whimsical, but when she begins to sing, this illusion is immediately dispelled. "All I want is a room somewhere," sings Eliza with firm emphases on beats one and three. These accented beats are very similar to Higgins's crisp emphasis on the downbeats. Eliza's accents are a little heavier, a little less refined, but that sense of authority is the same. So this is another quality Eliza and Higgins share. Moreover the melody of "Loverly," is similar to Higgins's "Why Can't the English?" in that it is generally contained to a limited range and makes use of smaller intervals. Eliza's music may lack the refinement of Higgins's, but there is a certain compatibility that cannot be ignored.
Rex Harrison in the Original Broadway Cast of My Fair Lady
Higgins's wit, arrogance, and sophistication are again displayed in his second solo number. The dual nature of "An Ordinary Man" allows us not only to glimpse the favorable lens through which Higgins views himself, but also neatly establishes his contempt for the opposite sex. The A section is elegant and refined, characterized by dotted rhythms and graceful triplets. This is how Higgins sees himself. (He may be overplaying the elegance here, but it just goes to prove that not everyone can see themselves as they truly are.) The B section of "An Ordinary Man" is harsh by contrast. The change in tempo, the sudden interjection of brass, and the relentless accents on phrases such as "let a woman in your life," all contribute to a general sense of discord. As the music clearly demonstrates, the mere suggestion of a relationship with a woman, romantic or otherwise, is repellent to him.
Eliza's second number, "Just You Wait," likewise reaffirms much of what we've already learned about her musical language. Heavy accents (as in the phrase, "Just you wait, Henry Higgins. Just you wait") underline her strength of will. Predictable phrases and simplicity in form indicate a lack of culture and refinement. And here too we see a tendency to mimic Higgins. Just as "An Ordinary Man" alternated between two extremes, "Just You Wait" seems to reveal two very different sides of Eliza. The A section with its lower range and more guttural vocal style showcases a hardened Eliza while the B section, similar to the A section of Higgins's piece, is written in a much softer tone. As Eliza envisions a life of greater refinement, she adopts a higher tessitura (see TheoryWorks sidebar below) and elegant dotted rhythms.
At this point in Act I, with two solo numbers apiece, it becomes clear that a certain musical kinship exists between Eliza and Higgins. They even tend to pick the same key areas. Higgins's "An Ordinary Man" begins in B♭ Major and modulates over to E♭ Major for the B section. Eliza then picks up in the key of C minor (the relative minor to E♭ Major) for the beginning of her next solo piece. From there she moves into E♭ itself for the conclusion of the A section. So it appears that Eliza is intentionally mimicking the key areas used by the professor. Furthermore, up to this point in the show, Eliza and Higgins have stuck primarily to flat keys - cycling through B♭, F, E♭, A♭, and D♭ Major keys (Higgins's brief sojourn into D Major in "Why Can't the English?" and Eliza's final modulation into C Major in "Just You Wait" being the only exceptions.)
Defenders of the Higgins/Eliza romantic coupling no doubt interpret this musical compatibility as an indication of a close bond between the two characters. And they could be right. The evidence until this point certainly supports a romantic reading of the show, but let me ask you this: where is the duet?
You would be hard pressed to find a musical from this era with a romantic plot or subplot that doesn't feature a love duet. There's "I've Never Been in Love Before," "Till There Was You," and "If I Loved You" to name a few. Hell, in The King and I Tuptim and Lun Tha have two love duets and they're not even the main characters. At this point in the show, we might reasonably expect a love duet between our two leads, but in this we are sadly disappointed. Instead, we get "The Rain in Spain."
"The Rain in Spain" is delightful for a number of reasons. In a clever nod to the title, the piece is written with the Spanish flavor of a fandango. The dance rhythms contribute to the infectious, celebratory mood of the number. Moreover, the interjection of Eliza's various vocal exercises ("How kind of you to let me come" and "Hertford, Hereford, and Hampshire") allow us to fully understand the breadth of her transformation. In "The Rain in Spain," Eliza and Higgins sing together for the first time. This should be a significant moment for them, and yet by no stretch of the imagination could this be interpreted as a love duet. For one thing, Colonel Pickering is with them so it's not even a duet; it's a trio. But more importantly, "The Rain in Spain" lacks the soaring melodies and romantic imagery that characterize the love duets of the era. This is not an admission of romantic feeling. It's merely a celebration among friends.
But does Eliza see it that way? "The Rain in Spain" is followed by the iconic "I Could Have Danced All Night" which, as we've discussed, is often interpreted as a love song. The ambiguity of the lyrics has left room for both schools of thought. Can the music help us to better understand Eliza's viewpoint?
Julie Andrews sings "I Could Have Danced All Night" in the Original Broadway Cast Recording of My Fair Lady
In regards to form, "I Could Have Danced," is actually the simplest number we've heard so far. A countermelody from the servants gives the second refrain a little variety, but otherwise the piece is shockingly uncomplicated. Eliza cycles through the same material three times. The lyrics don't change. The key doesn't change. A few adjustments to the dynamics and the skill of the actress are basically all that give the piece interest, and yet, perhaps because of its guileless simplicity, the song is one of the most compelling in the entire show.
The simplicity of "I Could Have Danced" may harken back to the simpler forms of Eliza's previous numbers, but in all other respects Eliza has been made anew. The heavy downbeats have disappeared. Instead, Eliza sings with a light touch unlike anything we've heard from her so far. The melody is broader, more lyrical, and less confined. Meanwhile, the orchestrations of the number likewise set it apart - nothing we have seen in the score so far can compare to the lush strings of "I Could Have Danced All Night." Meanwhile, the pulsating woodwinds and the occasional playful emphasis on the offbeats give the piece a bubbling energy. The choice of key is also striking. Up until this point, Eliza and Higgins have shown an overwhelming preference for flat keys, but "I Could Have Danced" is set entirely in C Major. The new key along with the sweeping melody, the difference in orchestration, the light tone, and higher tessitura all contribute to the sense that Eliza has undergone a significant transformation, but what is the cause of this metamorphosis? Well, two things have happened here: 1. Eliza has finally achieved a measure of success in her elocution lessons and made the first steps towards becoming a lady and 2. She has discovered a new range of feelings for Higgins. We must ask ourselves, which of these has triggered the changes in her musical language? More importantly, has this musical transformation actually distanced her from Higgins? As she discovers her own voice, has she forfeited those qualities which drew them together?
There is a fairly significant leap in time between "I Could Have Danced All Night," and the following scene at the Ascot races. During this period, Higgins and Pickering have been grooming Eliza for her societal debut, but it remains to be seen whether she can conform to the strict standards of the higher social classes. To those with a keen ear, it should be immediately apparent that Eliza does not belong here. The aristocrats of the "Ascot Gavotte" exert an enormous degree of control over their musical language. The rigid principles of the upper crust are reflected in the staccato articulation, strict rhythms, and carefully modulated dynamics. Elegant appogiaturas and trills in the woodwinds contribute to the general sense of refinement. Even in moments of relative tension, moments in which one might expect a considerable outpouring of emotion, the chorus actually exerts an even greater amount of control over the dynamic. At the lyric, "Look it has begun" - a lyric which marks the start of the horse racing, the highlight of the day - the score is marked pianissimo. This rigid control stands in stark contrast to Eliza's frequent outpouring of emotion. And to cinch the matter, the "Ascot Gavotte" is written in the key of D Major, a key with two sharps. Neither Eliza, nor Higgins for that matter, belongs in this environment.
"The Ascot Gavotte" from the 2001 London Cast Recording
At the Ascot races, Eliza is officially introduced to Freddy Enysford-Hill, and although Eliza's societal debut is something of a disaster, Freddy is enamored of her. What follows is the now iconic ballad, "On the Street Where You Live."
Freddy only gets the one solo song, but he makes the most of it. This number is everything a romantic ballad should be. It has the sweeping melody, the passionate swells in the strings, the romantic imagery of "lilac trees" and "larks." Part of what makes the piece so expressive is the ever-expanding melody. Consider the opening lyrics:
I have often walked down this street before;
But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before.
All at once am I sev'ral stories high,
Knowing I'm on the street where you live.
As Freddy progresses from one phrase to the next, the intervals widen. At "often" the interval is an ascending fourth, but then "pavement" spans the distance of a fifth. Then, at "once am I" the interval becomes a major 7th. That's almost a full octave! The entire melody of "Loverly" barely spans the range of an octave, but here Freddy makes the giant leap of a seventh in a single go. The rhythms may also reveal a great deal about Freddy's character. Although a member of the upper class, Freddy is not constrained by the same rigid musical sensibility as the "Ascot Gavotte" crowd. Consider for instance the expressivity of the triplets on "towering feeling" or "somehow you are near." Can you imagine the Ascot chorus singing with such rhythmic abandon?
In one number, Freddy has revealed a great deal about himself, but how does "On the Street Where You Live" compare to the music of Higgins and Eliza? Well, for starters, it clearly establishes Freddy as a foil to Higgins. Could anything be further from Freddy's expressive lyricism and romantic sensibility than Higgins's highly rhythmic, mostly spoken numbers? In this regard, Freddy's musical language is also fairly distinct from the style Eliza established in "Loverly" and "Just You Wait," but the altered musical tone of "I Could Have Danced All Night" brings her closer to Freddy even as it distances her from Higgins.
And what about text? The lyrics of Henry Higgins are written to reflect his quick wit. "There even are places where English completely disappears. In America they haven't used it for years," he sing-speaks in "Why Can't the English?" Higgins is full of these witticisms and yet you will not find any flowery imagery, moments of passion, or admissions of sentiment in his lyrics. Contrast this with Freddy who sees "enchantment pour out of every door." Eliza herself falls somewhere in the middle. Her songs are full of longing and passion, but the images she evokes are far more grounded in reality. Freddy may be floating "sev'ral stories high" but Eliza has modest dreams of "lots of chocolate for me to eat" and "someone's head resting on my knee."
"On the Street Where You Live" is the last sung musical number of Act I. (The scene at the Embassy with the enchanting "Embassy Waltz" is entirely instrumental.) So here we are, more than halfway through the show, and our central question remains unanswered. There is evidence to support either a Freddy-Eliza pairing or a Higgins-Eliza union. Will Act II provide a definitive answer?
Lerner and Loewe wrote several musical scenes for Higgins in Act II of My Fair Lady. I call them scenes, not songs, because they mostly seem to disregard conventional forms, a precedent first established in "Why Can't the English?" Higgins's three main musical numbers in Act II - "You Did It," "A Hymn to Him," and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" - all appear to confirm what we already know about this character. Has Higgins changed at all in Act II?
"You Did It," though ostensibly a vehicle for Pickering, features quite a lot of Higgins and here we see him up to his old tricks. "You Did It" functions in the score as an expositional number. Under the guise of bringing the servants up to speed, Higgins and Pickering are actually filling in the audience since we have no other way to find out what happened after the curtain fell on Act I. A simple verse and refrain would not suit the storytelling aspect of the number - for this, the musical form must adapt. In this sense, "You Did It" is similar to the conversation Higgins had with the crowd outside Covent Garden in "Why Can't the English?" In both cases, Higgins, ever the intellectual, allows the flow of conversation to dictate the form of his music. We first hear an A section in F Major ("Tonight, old man, you did it") followed by a B section in G Major ("I must have aged a year tonight") and then a return to the A (also in F Major). Higgins takes over from Pickering at this point and of course muddles the form. Loewe even acknowledges that Higgins's interjection is not really a full melodic statement since this section, beginning with "That blackguard who uses the science of speech" is marked quasi recitativo in the score.
As he relives his night of triumph, Higgins, of course, can't help but show off a bit. Listen for the little Hungarian flavor as he descibes Zolton Kaparthy's interaction with Eliza. (The string figures in particular give it away). This section of the piece is written in D minor, and although we eventually migrate over to the relative major key of F for the big finale ("Congratulations, Professor Higgins"), Higgins himself continues to obscure both form and key areas, allowing the music to suit the needs of the storytelling. For a great example, consider the phrase "Oozing charm from every pore" in which Higgins invokes the image of the oily Hungarian with a chromatic melody and very free sense of rhythm. The score is marked misterioso - rubato here with good reason!
As with his Act I music, Higgins sticks mainly to flat keys in "You Did It." Although the piece occasionally branches out to G Major and A Major, it returns again and again to comfortable and familiar F Major.
Who else likes to sing in flat keys? Why, Eliza of course! Her reprise of "Just You Wait" is sung in D minor (the relative minor of F Major), and although the text of the piece reveals a great deal of bitterness and resentment towards Higgins, her choice of key may indicate that she is not yet willing to cut ties with him completely.
In the meantime, good ol' Freddy is as devoted as ever. At this point in the show he reprises "On the Street Where You Live" but unlike other characters who reprise material in a way that subverts the context or provides a new perspective (think about how different the reprise of "Just You Wait" feels thematically), Freddy's reprise cannot tell us anything we didn't already know. Perhaps the static nature of the reprise is revealing in and of itself. In contrast to the formless, intellectual music of Higgins, Freddy's music is a testament to his steadiness, his devotion...or perhaps his superficiality.
There are a few different ways this role can be played, and surprisingly the music can support several contrasting interpretations. For instance, you might interpret the lack of variety in Freddy's musical choices as a sign that he is a simpleton, a vacuous dummy, a shallow man unworthy of Eliza's affection. Or perhaps you see his consistency as a marker of his devotion. In this he might be the ultimate foil to Higgins - a man of great passion who is unafraid to admit his depth of feeling and who remains steadfast in the face of little encouragement from his love. It all depends on how the role is played. Compare for instance, the two performances below. In the first, Freddy is a fool. This man is no match for Julie Andrews's fierce Eliza. But in the 1964 movie version, Freddy is a much more plausible romantic option. You could envision Eliza possibly falling for this Freddy.
A rare televised performance of Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle, performing "Show Me"
Audrey Hepburn as Eliza (with singing voice Marni Nixon) in the 1964 movie adaptation of My Fair Lady
Whether we chalk his behavior up to devotion or foolishness, we can be in no doubt that Freddy is a one trick pony. Eliza, on the other hand, still seems to be expanding her musical repertoire. The heavy downbeats in "Loverly" and the nimble grace of "I Could Have Danced" have now been replaced by aggressive accents and fiery syncopated rhythms. "Show Me" is written in 3/4 time, but consider the accents on the phrase "Here we are together in the middle of the night." It's written as a string of eighth notes, but in the first measure the accents fall on beats one and three whereas in the second measure the accent falls on beat two. Eliza is using these aggressive, syncopated rhythms to vent her frustration.
The melody, too, is inconsistent with Eliza's earlier material. Here it is choppy, characterized by large intervallic leaps. In the phrase, "Don't talk of stars, burning above," she leaps up a fourth, down a minor third, and up another fourth. With "make me no undying vow" she descends in leaps down the octave from D to D and then all the way back up to E♭. This is a far cry from the stepwise motion of "Loverly" and the rest of her Act I material.
The "Loverly" reprise likewise hints at a significant shift in the musical language of our heroine. In a surprisingly poignant turn of events, Eliza is excluded from the costermongers' reprise of her own song. Her life has been irretrievably altered. She no longer belongs here.
Yet even as Eliza's music evolves, Higgins retreads the same musical ground again and again. "A Hymn to Him" is peak Higgins. As with his earlier numbers, he allows the direction of his thoughts to dictate the progression of the music. Metrical precision, a tendency to oscillate between spoken and sung text, a confined musical range - we've seen all of this before. But notice the key areas. "A Hymn to Him" progresses through C, D, and G Major keys. D and G are both sharp keys. Perhaps the loss of Eliza has shaken him more than he is willing to let on.
On the surface, "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" is much like Higgins's other musical numbers. This number is perhaps the most fractured of all, constantly shifting as Higgins works through his complicated feelings for Eliza. Higgins hems and haws, alternating between speech and song as easily as ever, and yet, a few subtle differences allow us to understand how he has changed. The piece begins in C Major (again outside of Higgins's comfort zone), but he makes a monumental effort to drag the piece back to flat keys in the portions of the piece where he is trying hardest to deny his dependence on Eliza. He shifts to F Major at "in a year or so when she's prematurely grey," B♭ for "I'm a most forgiving man," and E♭ at "But I shall never take her back!" Notice, though, how he cannot sustain this shift. He returns to C Major for the reprise of the "Accustomed" melody.
Consider, too, the disruption to the meter. In "Accustomed" a well-placed caesura helps to convey the extent to which Eliza has disturbed his well-ordered life. "I was serenely independent and content before we met," he sings. "Surely I could always be that way again, and yet... I've grown accustomed to her looks, accustomed to her voice, accustomed to her face." Not only is there a breath marked in the score after "again" but there is also a caesura, a total metrical break, after "yet." On the page it seems so small, but that metrical break is, in fact, a monumental moment for Higgins. It is a musical acknowledgment of Eliza's impact, an indication of the degree to which she has changed his life. Higgins will never be the same.
"I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" is a masterwork, perhaps Lerner and Loewe's finest piece, but we must ask ourselves this, does it answer the questions surrounding the romantic relationships of My Fair Lady? Well, maybe. Musical analysis has always been subjective and there are many who believe Lerner and Loewe intended this to be a love song. It may lack the romantic sensibility of "On the Street Where You Live," but perhaps this is Higgins's own peculiar version of romantic love. And let's not forget that "Accustomed" transitions directly into an instrumental reprise of "I Could Have Danced All Night." In the end, it is Eliza's "love song" to Higgins that brings down the curtain.
At this point, we've seen enough evidence within the score to support a romantic conclusion for Eliza and Higgins. On the other hand, we've also seen a fair amount of evidence to support a reading of the show in which Eliza ends up in the arms of Freddy Enysford-Hill. So which is it?
In the end, I keep coming back to this idea of the love duet. Neither Freddy nor Higgins ever sings a true love duet with Eliza. In fact, in the second act these pairs of supposed "lovers" actually end up interrupting each other left and right. Eliza silences Freddy's declaration of love with her fuming exclamation of "Words! Words! Words! I'm so sick of words!" Freddy can't get a word in edgewise following this outburst. Higgins likewise undercuts the triumph of Eliza's final "Without You" by inserting a reprise of "You Did It." This is perhaps the more grievous interruption for despite all they've been through together, Higgins refuses to find common ground with Eliza, rejecting both her establish key and melody in favor of his own musical material. Is this the behavior of a lover? Even an unconventional one like Higgins? Do we want Eliza to end up with someone who has so little regard for her own musical voice?
Maybe that's the answer then. In the final analysis, the score cannot support a romantic relationship between Eliza and Higgins. Does this mean she ends up with Freddy by default? After all, this is the outcome Shaw envisioned.
What if there's a third option? Who says Eliza must marry either of these men? The evolution of Eliza's musical language in Act II suggests that Eliza has come into her own. "Loverly" and "Just You Wait" may reveal a kinship with Higgins, "I Could Have Danced All Night" may indicate a romantic sensibility similar to Freddy's, but "Without You" and especially "Show Me" establish Eliza as a woman with her own voice.
I certainly favor this reading of the material. I find the idea of a self-sufficient Eliza appealing and consistent with her musical progression within the score. And yet, the frustrating thing about musical analysis, or perhaps the beauty of it, is that there is enough musical evidence to support any of the three interpretations I've put forward. Perhaps that's as it should be. If the opening night reviews are to be believed, not even the original production provided a straightforward answer to the question of romantic relationships in My Fair Lady. Lerner and Loewe created an intentionally ambiguous show, a blank canvas upon which the audience can project their own thoughts and opinions.
With a show so malleable, the actor is called upon to be an interpreter. In this the score can be an invaluable tool. Do you feel strongly that Higgins and Eliza are meant to be together? Use your knowledge of the score to bring to the forefront those aspects of their musical language that draw them together. Do you want to portray Eliza as a strong, independent woman? Make the most of her musical evolution in Act II. My Fair Lady is a monumental thing to tackle. But at least now we have a place to start.
1 Brooks Atkinson, “Theatre: My Fair Lady,” New York Times, Mar. 16, 1956.
2 John Chapman, “My Fair Lady is a Superb, Stylish Musical,” New York Daily News, Mar. 16, 1956.
3 George Bernard Shaw, afterward to Pygmalion and Three Other Plays, ed. George Stade (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004), 459.
4 Ibid., 460.
5 Dominic McHugh, Loverly: The Life and times of My Fair Lady (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 105.
6 Ibid., 104.
7 Ibid., 119.
8 Ibid., 81.