It wasn’t until the second half of the Fifties that a new set of shows with totally unprecedented innovations began to appear on Broadway. The first, of course, was My Fair Lady. 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.
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 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 music 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. The ballads, like “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly”, “I Could Have Danced All Night”, or “On the Street Where You Live” seem heavily influenced by Noel Gay’s score to the classic Thirties West End hit Me and My Girl, which seems rather fitting given that Me and My Girl’s script directly references Pygmalion. 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 just 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. Meanwhile, both the show’s most iconic number, “The Rain in Spain”, and the intense, scathing “Show Me” are based on Spanish dance rhythms. 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 in a way that relies on vocabulary and eloquence rather than on wordplay and clever rhyming like most of the previous great Broadway lyrical wits.
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 its cast recording remained the best-selling album of all time until well into the Rock era.
Granted, the score to My Fair Lady doesn’t sound particularly unusual today, but that’s because so many shows picked up on its innovations that they seem completely normal now. For one thing, at least three flop musicals blatantly tried to imitate the My Fair Lady model (four if you count the disastrous stage version of Gigi): First Impressions, an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring a wildly miscast Polly Bergen and an overwhelming Hermione Gingold in what was supposed to be a supporting role; The Girl Who Came To Supper, the very last of the Noel Coward musicals, starring Jose Ferrer and Florence Henderson, which had the bad luck to be a show about political intrigue which came to Broadway just as John F. Kennedy was shot; and Darling of the Day, a Jule Styne-Yip Harburg vehicle for Vincent Price, who for the record was one of those performers who really, really shouldn’t sing. All three shows had pleasant music, but only Darling of the Day had a really first-rate cult flop score, and none of them were particularly outstanding shows in any other respect. But beyond the more blatant attempts to imitate its success, My Fair Lady’s innovations, particularly its invented idiom of Broadway-style sprechtstimme, were major influences even on other wildly original works such as The Music Man.
The Music Man was also a historic game-changer for Broadway, but while its story was exceptionally well-done, it was still essentially a softer variant on the Pal Joey formula of a likable con artist. Most of its real innovations were musical, particularly its popularization of a very rhythm-driven form of patter song that was the direct ancestor to the modern Rap genre. Granted, this show did not invent that idiom…its ancestors had existed in various underground music scenes for some time…but in this era when Broadway was the main source of Pop music, it gave what we would call Rap its first taste of mainstream popularity, something that modern Rap fans would frankly do well to remember.
Interestingly, the show mixes these proto-Rap numbers into what is otherwise perhaps the most authentic period score in the Musical-Theater canon. With its old-fashioned singalongs (“Gary, Indiana”, “The Wells Fargo Wagon”), endearingly quaint set pieces (“Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little”, “Shipoopi”), and exquisite period ballads (“Goodnight, My Someone”, “My White Knight”), it captures the ambiance of early Twentieth Century Americana like no show before or since. Apart from the “Rap” numbers, the only time the score breaks away from its period consistency is for the emotional immediacy of the gorgeously moving (and overtly Pop-friendly) ballad “Till There Was You”. Predictably, this number wound up being a gigantic Pop hit, to the point of becoming the only Broadway show tune to be covered by the Beatles.
The next great innovator of the late Fifties, West Side Story, offered a more overtly and unambiguously tragic story than Broadway had yet seen in a non-operatic work, with a brutally gritty portrayal of gang violence set against an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Despite resetting the story in another time period and changing a great many details, it actually did a better job of cutting to the dramatic truth of Shakespeare’s play than the other major musical adaptation of the piece, Charles Gounod’s richly melodious but dramatically weak opera version.
The score combines desperately lyrical ballads like “Tonight” and “Somewhere” that represent the equivalent of Shakespeare’s poetic love scenes with menacing music that sounded like a hybrid of Be-Bop and Stravinsky to represent the world that would tear the lovers apart. There is endless debate on whether West Side Story or Candide represents the greatest music that Leonard Bernstein ever wrote, but it’s worth noting that both scores were written simultaneously (they debuted on Broadway only a year apart), making this easily the most fertile period in Bernstein’s career. They even traded some music back and forth between them: the melodies of Tony and Maria’s exquisite romantic pledge “One Hand, One Heart” and the bitterly comic Shakespearean ‘clown scene’ “Gee, Officer Krupke” were originally intended for Candide.
The lyrics are largely by a young Stephen Sondheim, and while he seems almost ashamed of them now, even hiring Lin-Manuel Miranda to translate half of them into Spanish for the 2008 revival, they actually hold up quite well today. Granted, they aren’t as sophisticated or meticulous as Sondheim’s later work, with the occasional misplaced accent and some moments where the characters seem to be overreaching their levels of education and culture in their word choices. But the vast majority of them are superb, with some beautiful poetry in the love songs (particularly “Maria” and “Tonight”) and some wonderfully biting turns of phrase in the angrier songs (although Sondheim has obliquely admitted that the lyrics to “Tonight” are actually by Bernstein himself, and “The Jet Song” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” were slightly neutered by Sondheim’s inability to get his original profane lyrics into the show unaltered…even a show this daring couldn’t say ‘fuck’ on stage in 1957).
The book was by an actual legitimate playwright, Arthur Laurents, and it shows, with some of the sharpest dialogue yet heard in a Broadway musical. Laurents even devised his own invented brand of quasi-futuristic slang for the characters (“Frabbajabba”, for example, or “Cracko Jacko!”), which makes the show so timeless and independent of its historical setting that some trendy director could reset it in some futuristic setting the way they routinely do with actual Shakespeare plays, and it probably wouldn’t change anything about the subtance of the work (granted, the one actual attempt at this, Ivan Van Hoe’s 2020 Broadway revival, doesn’t really bear this theory out, but I was thinking more in terms of a futuristic gimmick production that was actually competent).
Arguably above all else, the dances, by high Maestro director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, have become legendary in their distinctive look and style. The show’s choreography is often mocked today, especially in regards to the film version, but this is because to many modern audiences the idea of gang battles portrayed in ballet form (even ballet as comparatively gritty as this) is beyond their limited comprehension of screen portrayals of Gang warfare.
Amazingly enough, the show was distinctly underappreciated when it debuted, receiving mixed reviews and losing the Best Musical Tony to The Music Man (to be fair, that’s a decision no-one would want to have to make, but the general consensus today seems to be that West Side Story deserved the win simply for historic reasons). Not until the 1961 movie version became a smash hit and cultural phenomenon did people realize they had an immortal masterpiece on their hands.
Closely following it, and featuring several of the same collaborators, was Gypsy, which elevated the Pal Joey school of cynical Musical Comedy to Shakespearean levels, essentially creating a full-fledged Musical Play out of Musical Comedy’s trappings and musical sound.
As I stated, unlike most Broadway musical librettists, Arthur Laurents was an actual legitimate nonmusical playwright, and while three of his five musicals were flops (albeit admired ones), he created two of the genre’s greatest achievements with his books for West Side Story and Gypsy. The book to Gypsy is still one of the harshest and grittiest in Broadway history all these years later, and the dialogue has a level of sophistication and nuance that would have worked in a straight play, and a great straight play at that.
That’s not to say that this is one of those shows like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or 1776, where the book winds up outshining the music. Jule Styne produced a number of fine and enjoyable Broadway scores, but apart from his half of the Peter Pan score, this is the only true masterpiece he ever produced. With shattering anthems like “Some People” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, beautifully touching ballads like “Small World” and the heartbreaking “Little Lamb”, and infectious dance numbers like “You’ll Never Get Away from Me” and the smooth-as-Astaire “All I Need Is the Girl”, the show contains one of the greatest collections of old-style showtunes ever composed. It also contains Broadway’s most successful examples of deliberately manufactured Floppo numbers in the hilariously awful sequences showing the act Rose is trying to promote, building the joke as it only gets more ridiculous with each new incarnation.
The showpiece of the score, of course, is the virtuosic eleven-o’clock medley-aria “Rose’s Turn”, justly famous as one of the greatest climactic numbers in Musical Theatre. The score has a level of ambition that even the best of Styne’s other work doesn’t approach; Sondheim idolaters like to credit their hero’s presence on the project for its quality, but while he did a superb job on the lyrics (and basically created the “Rose’s Turn” sequence himself out of Styne’s melodies for the show), it would be another decade before Sondheim would write anything this good on his own, so I’m skeptical about taking that theory too far.
So the composition is flawless, but ultimately, the most significant thing about the show is that it contains Musical Theatre’s most coveted star part. Momma Rose (no-one ever actually calls her that in the show, but Musical-Theatre fans seem to instinctively refer to her that way) is like Hamlet or Lear or the other truly legendary roles of the dramatic stage, in that no one performance will ever achieve all of the possibilities it offers, and you don’t want ‘ideal’ casting so much as a new and fresh spin on the character with each new production. Ethel Merman merely embodied the character naturally with her blasting intensity in both dialogue and song, whereas Angela Lansbury brought all her classical training to the part and delivered an ultra-sophisticated acting performance. Tyne Daly was patently not up to the role vocally, but her very vocal inadequacy, combined with superb acting, stripped the character’s songs to their essence, making them sound less like catchy showtunes and more like the onstage nervous breakdowns they are. Meanwhile, Bette Midler poured on the charm and delivered the most winning and likable Rose to date. Bernadette Peters brought all of Rose’s emotional subtext to the surface in a stunningly vulnerable performance, whereas Patti LuPone went wildly over-the-top to emphasize Rose’s near-insane passion. None of these ladies was the perfect Rose, and no-one will ever be, because that’s not how these kinds of great dramatic parts work, and the possibilities offered by the role will surely carry us through many generations of new interpretations.
Both of these shows were far darker and more hard-edged than Broadway was used to, and they helped lay the stage for the later works of Stephen Sondheim, whose penning of the lyrics for both works served as a kind of apprenticeship for his later role as the Dark God of Musical Theater.