The Broadway musical My Fair Lady starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews opened sixty years ago today: March 15, 1956. It was an adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion, which most of us are familiar with from the 1964 Audrey Hepburn film. Shaw’s original play was first performed in 1913, so it was a long journey to adapt the material and get it on stage in musical form.
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.
As you can probably tell, the 15 facts about My Fair Lady together tell the story of how it became the classic we know so well, both on Broadway and on film. Read the rest of it at mental_floss. Included is a video about a Sydney 60th anniversary revival directed by Julie Andrews, who does not look 79 years old.