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Despite being the most successful musical of its day and one of the most influential in the development of the Broadway musical, surprisingly little has been known about the creation of My Fair Lady.

Drawing on previously unpublished documents, Dominic McHugh’s excellent and revealing behind-the-scenes account of how George Bernard Shaw’s romantic drawing room comedy Pygmalion was transformed into a staple of the repertoire happily puts that right.

Championed by the Theatre Guild of America, the project courted first Alan Jay Lerner before making overtures to the likes of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter over a five-year period until Lerner re-entered the picture along with his writing partner Frederick Loewe, with whom he had recently scored successes with Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon. The work that resulted opened in New York in 1956 to critical acclaim and ran for a then record-breaking 2,717 performances, enjoyed a near six-year run in London and its memorable 1964 film adaptation picked up no fewer than eight Academy Awards.

McHugh charts the genesis and stuttering development of the work – often an uphill struggle against Shaw’s implacable ‘outrage’ against any suggestion of Pygmalion’s translation into a musical – and adroitly negotiates Lerner & Loewe’s aborted first version and the not insignificant challenges in casting the play’s central iconic characters, Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle.

What emerges is a narrative that itself seems a suitable candidate for a stage play – a process wracked by creative tensions and tentativeness, the difficult search for a new stage model that accommodated the subtlety of Shaw’s original while wresting itself away from the increasingly outmoded operetta-accented language of the contemporary Broadway musical, and, not least, the crucial evolution of the delicately ambiguous relationship between Higgins and Eliza.

McHugh’s interrogation of the journey from initial sketches to final, polished production – complemented by discussions of the film version, the cast album and subsequent revivals – deals intelligently with both the creation and the reception of My Fair Lady in a long overdue and valuable book.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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