The ball scene from My Fair Lady, showing (left to right) Christopher Hewitt (Zoltan Karpathy), Julie Andrews (Eliza), and Rex Harrison (Higgins). (Photofest)

Broadway folklore has it that on the night “My Fair Lady” opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre (March 15, 1956), patrons eating cheesecake next door at Lindy’s heard the roar that came up from the audience after Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews and Robert Coote triumphed in “The Rain in Spain.”

True story? You won’t find out in “Loverly.” This is not a history built on anecdotes, apocryphal or otherwise. Dominic McHugh, who lectures in music at the University of Sheffield, eschews gossip in his account and takes a scholarly tack in a book that originated as his doctoral dissertation at King’s College, London. He pores over hundreds of primary sources: letters, contracts, script outlines, score annotations and songs used, revised or discarded. And from these myriad documents he constructs a record of the show’s history that’s illuminating, perceptive and valuable, yet also inert and colorless.

To show what sort of musical “My Fair Lady” is, McHugh devotes much space to discussing what it almost became. In 1952, when lyricist and composer Alan Jay Lerner and librettist Frederick Loewe first considered adapting George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion,” they envisioned the sort of romantic musical then popular on Broadway — something like their own “Brigadoon.” McHugh points to song drafts that have Henry Higgins rhapsodizing that “One day my lady will Liza be!” and Eliza Doolittle praying that Higgins will “discover// I’m his lover// For now and evermore.”

Lerner also envisioned “My Fair Lady” as “a showcase for a great star,” namely Mary Martin. Martin began Cockney lessons, and a contract to play Eliza awaited her signature. Then, after hearing some of its songs, which she found disappointing, she dropped out.

Her withdrawal may have been more than a little bit of luck because the adaptors had become fascinated by their source, which was not a star vehicle but a classic Shavian battle of the sexes to be played by two stars. Lerner and Loewe liked, in particular, the ending of its 1938 film adaptation. Unlike the play, which ends as Eliza slams the door on Higgins, never to return, the film version, written by Shaw and five other writers, appends a new final scene in which she returns to Higgins’s study, a suggestion that the two may reconcile.

“Loverly: The Life and Times of My Fair Lady” by Dominic McHugh (Oxford University Press)

Parsing script drafts, McHugh shows how, as the work evolved, lines and gestures were added to establish the ambiguous nature of Eliza and Higgins’s relationship. McHugh points, for example, to the moment near the end of Act I when Higgins hesitates, then proffers his arm to escort the resplendent Eliza to the ball. As gloriously elaborate as the original production was in design and staging, subtle moments such as the ones McHugh underlines made the show unforgettable and singular for being one in which the curtain falls on characters who may or may not live happily ever after. “My Fair Lady” was, as one of the book’s chapter titles puts it, “Shavian but not Shaw.”

McHugh’s work is painstaking, and at times that’s a problem. Thousands of facts weigh down the tale of what is, after all, a buoyant musical play. McHugh becomes preoccupied with who spoke to whom and when, who flew to London and why, who signed contracts and for how much.

He also scants on details of the show’s rehearsal period, when the brilliant director Moss Hart brought everything to life. It’s well known that when Julie Andrews faltered badly in rehearsals, Hart closed down production and spent a weekend “pasting” the part on her. What transpired must have been as thrilling and as exciting as the show itself, but we learn little about it in this account.

“Loverly” is also thin when it comes to first-hand interviews. Might Julie Andrews have recalled what transpired, beyond what McHugh quotes from her autobiography? Might other surviving members of the original production have offered recollections? If they had, we might experience greater feeling for why the audience roared on opening night — and for years to come.

Bartell is an arts and travel writer in Manhattan.


The Life and Times of “My Fair Lady”

By Dominic McHugh

Oxford Univ. 265 pp. $29.95