Book Review by Alan Gomberg
Book Review by Alan Gomberg
Dominic McHugh's Loverly: The Life and Times of My Fair Lady is the latest book to recount the history of a single musical in a scholarly and analytical fashion. The author has clearly spent hundreds of hours poring over outlines and drafts of the book, lyrics and music of the classic Lerner and Loewe musical, as well as an enormous amount of other material, including letters, contracts, articles and books. In little more than 200 pages, he provides not only an extremely detailed history of the writing of the show, he also covers the hiring of the production team and the cast, the rehearsal process, the critical reception, the film and several major revivals. McHugh, a lecturer in music at the University of Sheffield, also devotes considerable attention to exploring the characters and their relationships. As you might expect, there is some musical analysis here as well. McHugh has done a fine job of organizing all this so that the book flows smoothly and clearly in a logical fashion.
To his great credit, McHugh rarely if ever accepts hearsay or personal reminiscences as wholly reliable sources. Although he frequently cites Lerner's account of the show's creation (which can be found in Lerner's memoir, The Street Where I Live), McHugh's research into primary sources reveals that Lerner's memories were not always accurate. I'm sure some readers will not be surprised by this, but it's most interesting to learn that even some of Lerner's stories that sound plausible cannot have happened as he told them.
Those to whom such a serious book on My Fair Lady sounds appealing will find Loverly a must. McHugh describes the development of the book, lyrics and music in extraordinary detail (even if a few sections might have profited from a bit more editing). McHugh generally avoids getting overly technical in his discussions of the music. Despite my lack of knowledge in this area, I found his musical analyses and descriptions generally clear and sometimes quite illuminating. Every once in a while there was something I did not truly understand, but occasional references to "sounding the tonic" and minor sevenths do not faze me and shouldn't keep anyone from reading this book.
Central to McHugh's account of the writing process is the gradual evolution of the show from an almost conventional romance, as Lerner and Loewe originally conceived it, to a much more ambiguous depiction of the relationship between Eliza and Higgins.
Indeed, in a section called "Love, Ambiguity, and the Higgins-Eliza Relationship," which ends the book, McHugh suggests that the show as written is not much of a romance at all. Although McHugh probably makes as strong a case as possible for the interpretation that Eliza and Higgins are not harboring unexpressed romantic feelings for one another, I found his arguments intriguing but largely unconvincing. He seems to take it as a given that the characters are consciously aware of all their feelings, and that their statements and actions should be taken at face value. For example, he writes of "Show Me" that "there is little sense of Freddy acting as an object against whom Eliza can vent her rage toward Higgins." Since Eliza barely knows Freddy, it's hard not to think that the underlying reason for her explosion is rage toward Higgins.
Given McHugh's expertise in musical matters and the fact that he discusses the music in some detail elsewhere, it's a tad surprising that in this section he focuses almost exclusively on the characters' words and not at all on the music.
Although I was not convinced here, I must credit McHugh with giving me a greater appreciation of the ambiguity for which Lerner and Loewe seem to have consciously striven, even if he sometimes seems to be suggesting that there isn't much ambiguity but simply no romance at all. The section does make for stimulating reading.
Speaking of Rittman, we learn that she did a great deal of the musical notation as the score was being written, especially for the accompaniments. McHugh does emphasize that Rittman's notations were based on listening to Loewe play the accompaniments and that "the overall authorial control was Loewe's," a point that Rittman herself reportedly emphasized, but it's hard not to feel that Rittman never received quite the credit she deserved.
I was also especially intrigued by the description of the original introduction to "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," which makes you appreciate both the ingenuity of Lerner and Loewe's first version and the brilliance and superiority of the version we all know. Another fascinating section is the discussion of some earlier versions of "Why Can't the English?" These were distinctly Coward-like and not nearly as effective and appropriate for Higgins as the final version. A complete draft of an earlier version of "Why Can't the English?" is included in the appendices, along with early versions of several other lyrics.
Some readers may be surprised that McHugh doesn't address the obvious grammatical errors in some of Higgins's lyrics or some other questionable rhymes and word usages.
While Loverly is an admirable and important book, it's a bit frustrating at times. Occasionally, McHugh overstates things past what his own research suggests or he seems to set up information that he then doesn't deliver (leaving you uncertain whether something got cut or if his setup was an overstatement). One especially frustrating example is when he tells us that a letter from set designer Oliver Smith to producer Herman Levin contained "tantalizing details," and then doesn't reveal them.
Yet there are some matters on which he goes into excessive detail. For example, there is surely more information than necessary on producer Levin's attempts to secure a date on which Harrison, who was starring in Bell, Book and Candle in London at the time he was sought for Higgins, would be available to start rehearsals.
Occasionally, McHugh states things that simply do not align with the content of the script, as in his discussion of the musical's "timescale," in which he makes some excellent points but also thinks that the first act jumps directly from March to July. He seems to have missed the signs that the published script's Scene 5 covers more than just a few days or even a week or two. Another example is when he states that the only time Higgins's treatment of Eliza is not "insulting or patronizing" is when he prevents her from leaving by tempting her with chocolates (which I think actually is rather patronizing). Surely Higgins is neither insulting nor patronizing in his speech of encouragement to Eliza just before her breakthrough with "The Rain in Spain."
Here and there are some mildly problematic statements on factual matters. There are not a great many, but they are slightly bothersome. For example, McHugh writes that Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon were the first two Lerner and Loewe musicals "to be filmed." This statement seems to confuse the order in which the films were made with the order in which the shows were originally produced. Of the first London production of My Fair Lady, he writes that it was "almost unheard of for a major Broadway show to be brought to England with production and cast almost intact." In fact, there had been several earlier Broadway musicals that made the trip to London with production and cast comparably intact. There are a few other such relatively minor misstatements, but none detracts in any significant way from the overall accomplishment.
Despite those reservations, there's so much to recommend about this book that I feel a bit ungrateful to be carping, so I will close by emphasizing that Loverly's strengths substantially outweigh its weaknesses. McHugh deserves our gratitude for the immense amount of new information he provides.
And I want someone to record the "Decorating Eliza" ballet.
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