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The Shows That Made Us: MY FAIR LADY

BWW Reviewer Louise Penn reflects on the "loverly" stage and film classic

The Shows That Made Us: MY FAIR LADY

When I was starting to think about what my choice would be for "The Shows That Made Us", it was difficult to pick just one title. Eventually, I settled on My Fair Lady. Written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, this is a musical version of the much-loved play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw.

This is the story of Eliza Doolittle, born in poverty with a feckless father and an absent mother. She brings home what little money she manages to earn and her father drinks it all away. Little wonder she has, as described by the pompous Henry Higgins, "wretched clothes and [a] dirty face".

When Higgins, a professor of phonetics, collides with Eliza in a rainy Covent Garden, his sense of mischief and adventure kicks in. He is sure he can mould this "cabbage leaf" into a duchess. Seduced by the idea of making some real money as "a lady in a flower shop", Eliza asks for just her birdcage from home in Lisson Grove and off she goes to live in Wimpole Street.

From this basic premise, all sorts of aspects of life and misunderstanding between the classes are explored. Higgins is a frightful misogynist, full of himself, a pompous ass who plaintively wonders "why can't a woman be like a man". As the role was created for an actor who could only speak-sing (the peerless Rex Harrison, whom some say was a Higgins himself), it has become a gift for actors dipping their toes into musicals as well as accomplished singers.

My first Eliza was Audrey Hepburn, on the screen. I was ten and she was luminous. It did not matter that the voice was not hers when she sang - and I doubt I knew that at the time. With the costumes by Cecil Beaton and the glorious sweep of the score, I was hooked. Harrison was retained from the Broadway original of the show, in which he had co-starred with Julie Andrews, an English rose who had trod the boards of the music halls since she was a child.

In time, I sought out recordings of the Harrison/Andrews production, before seeing my first live production of the show in 1988. It was the Opera House, Manchester, and we went from my hometown on a coach trip. The rain was torrential, but inside a magical cast was headed by Liz Robertson and Denis Quilley. My first proper stage musical, from the second row, where you could even see the make-up.

As well as the dynamic chemistry between the two leads, I recall clearly Norman Rossington's rousing Alfred P Doolittle getting to the church on time, and lovesick Robert Meadmore's Freddy "on the street where you live". The show had everything - it was funny, it was romantic, and it was totally improbable. Eliza was towering, Higgins was insufferable, and Freddy was a fool, wandering in the shade of the lamplight.

Since then, I have seen two more productions: a touring one with Amy Nuttall and Christopher Cazenove, and the NT production with (everyone but) Martine McCutcheon and Jonathan Pryce. I have numerous recordings (Alec McCowen and Tinuke Olafimihan is a favourite). Whenever I see My Fair Lady, or hear a note from the score, or catch the film, I feel a warm glow pass over me. It truly is "loverly".

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Photo credit: Warner Bros

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