My Fair Lady: Covering the Basics
A lot can be said on the subject of My Fair Lady. In fact, a lot has been said by ME. I recently posted a full score analysis of the show, and may have gotten a little carried away... but hey! If you enjoy 21 page treatises on musical analysis, boy do I have the article for you! If you're looking for something simpler, you've come to the right place.
My Fair Lady is one of those shows that everyone seems to know and love. And that's a great thing! It's a show that will always be able to draw an audience. But the flip side of that coin is that the actor must carry the weight of audience expectation. How does one approach a role so encumbered by an audience's preconceived opinions? Well, a fantastic place to start is with the score. The My Fair Lady score is a rich one, full of memorable tunes and iconic moments. But where the score is really helpful is in gauging the relationships between characters. Composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner gave each character a distinctive musical vocabulary and the ways in which these musical voices interact can teach us a lot about how the characters themselves think and feel. Let's dive right in.
What do we know about Henry Higgins? A few things are obvious from the very beginning: he is confident to the point of arrogance, well-educated but certainly not refined. He is the ultimate intellectual, ever-seeking an audience to witness and appreciate his genius. Later, through Eliza's influence, we begin to understand the vulnerability within, the latent desire for human affection, and the stubbornness that prevents him from ever admitting it. The fabulous thing about My Fair Lady is that all of this is written into the score.
As far as introductions go, it doesn't get much better than "Why Can't the English?" 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. Consider, for instance, the way in which he ambles through "Why Can't the English?" and "You Did It." In both cases, Higgins, ever the intellectual, allows the flow of conversation to dictate the form of his music.
The Higgins/Eliza Relationship
From the very start, a certain kinship is established between Eliza and Higgins. Both characters sing with firm emphases on the downbeats. "Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?" complains Higgins. Meanwhile, "All I want is a room somewhere," sings Eliza. Moreover, both favor stepwise motion in their Act I melodies.
Also noteworthy is the subtle way in which Eliza's second solo number mimics the form of Higgins's previous number. Just as "An Ordinary Man" alternated between two extremes, "Just You Wait" seems to reveal two very different sides of Eliza. The A section of "An Ordinary Man" is elegant and refined, characterized by dotted rhythms and graceful triplets. The B section 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. Eliza's "Just You Wait" sets up a similar dichotomy between the self Eliza wishes to be ("One day I'll be famous") and who she truly is (represented by the less refined A section.)
It's also important to note that Eliza and Higgins tend to pick many of the same key areas. The A section of "Why Can't the English?" is written in F Major, a key that Eliza later adopts for "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" And then, after Higgins finishes "Ordinary Man" in E♭ Major, Eliza's "Just You Wait" picks up in the relative minor before eventually transitioning to E♭ herself. Throughout most of Act I, both Eliza and Higgins both demonstrate an overwhelming preference for 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.)
Thus, throughout Act I, the musical compatibility between Eliza and Higgins seems to suggest a close relationship, perhaps even a romantic one. But a sudden shift in tone at "I Could Have Danced All Night" and the presence of Freddy Enysford-Hill could perhaps change all that.
Freddy only gets the one solo song, but he makes the most of it. "On the Street Where You Live" 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. Could anything be further from Freddy's expressive lyricism and romantic sensibility than Higgins's highly rhythmic, mostly spoken numbers?
Jeremy Brett as Freddy (with singing voice Bill Shirley) in the 1964 movie adaptation of My Fair Lady
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?
The Freddy/Eliza Relationship
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 and thus as a rival for Eliza's affections. 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." Do Eliza and Freddy have anything in common?
Here's where "I Could Have Danced All Night" comes into play. The number marks a stark shift in our heroine's musical language. In "I Could Have Danced" 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 woodwind accompaniment 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, both 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. We must ask ourselves this: has Eliza's musical transformation signaled a symbolic break with Higgins? As she discovers her own voice, has she forfeited those qualities which drew them together? It would seem that the altered musical tone of "I Could Have Danced All Night" has brought her closer to Freddy even as it distances her from Higgins.
Resolving the Relationships
Act I is interesting in that it paves the way for either an Eliza-Freddy or an Eliza-Higgins pairing. How does Act II resolve the question of romantic relationships?
In Act II, 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 in the sense that its form is determined by the character's line of thought. In fact, 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.
Meanwhile, good ol' Freddy is as devoted as ever. In the second act, 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.
And what about Eliza? Towards the end of Act I, we witnessed a fairly significant shift in her musical language that, coincidentally, coincided with her transformation into a "lady." Does her musical voice continue to evolve in Act II?
The answer is a resounding YES. As we can clearly see in the passionate "Show Me," Eliza still seems to be expanding her musical repertoire throughout Act II. 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. The number 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.
So it appear that Act II reveals Higgins and especially Freddy retreading the same musical ground again and again while Eliza is out there exploring new territory. Has she outgrown them?
And what of the love 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 of some kind. And yet, throughout My Fair Lady, neither Freddy nor Higgins ever sings a true duet with Eliza. In fact, throughout 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?
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.
The Final Analysis
In the end, there's enough musical evidence to support three very different interpretations of the material. Maybe Eliza ends up in the arms of Freddy Ensyford-Hill. Maybe the friendship between Eliza and Higgins will blossom into a beautiful romance. Or maybe Eliza is a woman who doesn't need a romantic relationship to define her. That's the beautiful thing about musical analysis! The answer is anything and everything!
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.