The standard insights about how this musical managed to be adapted incredibly faithfully from a play no-one thought could be musicalized, and the various historical anecdotes regarding that process, while certainly fascinating, have been covered by so many critics by now that I’m not going to attempt to reiterate them here. But what’s much less common for critics to note is that My Fair Lady, while more similar to Shaw’s original Pygmalion than anyone could have expected, isn’t identical to it.
For one thing…and this is something that people who haven’t read or seen Pygmalion don’t realize…the Higgins in Pygmalion is far less likable than his My Fair Lady counterpart. He has much more exaggerated negative qualities and is generally a much more unpleasant character. Despite their devotion to their stated goal of presenting Higgins’ character more accurately than in the film version of Pygmalion, they still softened his rougher edges to some degree, probably for the sake of highlighting the never-acknowledged love plot between him and Eliza that Shaw always stubbornly insisted he didn’t write.
This leads us to the most obvious difference between the two…the ending, which modern audiences raised in the era of political correctness are starting to complain about. Here’s the thing though—the ending of Pygmalion isn’t really that different from the ending of My Fair Lady in terms of content; They just have a very different tone. The tone at the ending of My Fair Lady is sentimental, and the tone at the ending of Pygmalion is actually kind of flippant (Higgins giving Eliza some instructions, then laughing as she walks off), but the thing is, they don’t really imply different endings. Both of them imply that Eliza is not going to walk out of Higgins’ life, but neither of them really imply that a romantic relationship is likely to develop between them. Maybe the ending in My Fair Lady _feels_ romantic, but it doesn’t really directly imply romance. It just implies she’ll come back to him, that she wasn’t really willing to write him out of her life permanently, which is made pretty clear in the play, too.
The only real difference is that in Pygmalion, Eliza seems genuinely likely to marry Freddy. I don’t know if she actually does, as whether Shaw’s epilogue is actually part of the play is a subject of endless debate, but it doesn’t seem that unconvincing because the Eliza of the play is clearly shown to be a pragmatist. The Eliza of the musical is a romantic…even though her part in the script is mostly very similar, her songs (in particular, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” and “I Could Have Danced All Night”) establish her as such. It’s pretty hard to believe the Eliza of the musical would marry a man she didn’t love for convenience’s sake, whether she ends up with Higgins or not, while the Eliza of the play would probably do it…she says she’s going to, and in the play, there’s no real reason to disbelieve her.
To be honest, I kind of see Shaw’s point about wanting to clarify the ending. Shaw pointed out that, as much as we want to see a romantic happy ending with these two people, who clearly have some romantic tension between them, would you really wish on any woman the trial of having to try and have a romantic relationship with Henry Higgins?
In any case, while most people make a much bigger deal about the book, the actual new content in My Fair Lady was not the Shavian dialogue, but the score. People always talk about about how the book to My Fair Lady, because it’s based on a Shaw play, is totally different from that of any other Broadway show of the era, but the music is different, too. The score to My Fair Lady was, to the pop of its time, what Indie crossover artists like Gotye were to the pop of the early 2010s. Remember, Broadway was the pop of that era, and My Fair Lady sounded nothing like the Broadway pop conventional for that era, like the scores of Guys and Dolls or The Pajama Game.
This is partly because Broadway’s pop was very Jazz-based at that point in history, and My Fair Lady, given its setting and source, couldn’t really use Jazz influences, so they had to create a score that always sounded either old-fashioned, utterly timeless, or simply like nothing anyone had ever heard before. So the ballads, like “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly”, “I Could Have Danced All Night”, or “On the Street Where You Live”, have an elemental quality that sounds detached from any particular time period. The numbers for Higgins are a sound never before heard anywhere, a totally new genre that was designed partly to enable a leading man who wasn’t a singer to perform a significant and expansive portion of a score, and partly simply to expand Shaw’s dialogue into song
The rest of the score is simply old-fashioned. Doolittle’s two musical numbers, for example, are old-school British music hall numbers, the Ascot Gavotte is, of course, a gavotte, and the Embassy Waltz, which used the melody of a cut number called “Come to the Ball”, is a very period-appropriate ballroom waltz. I don’t know how much those sounds had stayed in the mainstream consciousness in England at the time, but to Americans, they would have sounded straight out of a bygone era, which helped set the show’s period. Even the lyrics in My Fair Lady don’t sound like Broadway’s traditional brand of witty, sophisticated lyrics (e.g. Cole Porter). They are witty, but they are witty in a way that relies on vocabulary and eloquence rather than on wordplay and clever rhyming, like Porter or Ira Gershwin.
But this very non-contemporary sound was the biggest popular success of the 50s. As I said, Broadway was the pop music of the 50s and this score sounded nothing like any other Broadway score, but it became the standard by which all Fifties pop music was judged, and remained the best-selling album of all time until well into the Rock era. It doesn’t even sound all that different anymore because so many shows have imitated its innovations…even other famously original shows like The Music Man drew on aspects of My Fair Lady’s innovations.
You don’t really have to know the historical context to recognize My Fair Lady’s score as marvelous music, but understanding that context helps you realize what a staggering work of genius it was in its own time, and I hope it may lead some of you who might have become jaded to the show’s excellence through overexposure to appreciate it anew.