Defying Expectations – Overcoming Limitations

A production of My Fair Lady at York Grand Opera House prompts us to think about how life can imitate art.

Life imitates art

Many people will know that the story of My Fair Lady is about a flower girl who aspires to work in a shop.

We wondered how feasible achieving this sort of lifestyle change would be in the United Kingdom of the 21st Century.

Not Being Limited by Other People’s Expectations of Us

​More people than ever are going to university, so we are obviously becoming a more educated nation, which is good.

But, with more people being the first member of their family to do so, we are also potentially becoming a nation of people who are rejecting the idea that we are going to let what people like us have achieved in past limit what we ourselves are going to achieve.

That is essentially what Eliza Dolittle decides in the musical.

You’ve Got to Have a Dream to Have a Dream Come True 

In this we are exactly like Eliza Doolittle, the heroine of both the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion and the musical My Fair Lady created by librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe, does.

When confronted by the limitations that society placed on her and the opportunity to change she washes her hands and face and goes in search of her dream.

It may not have been much of a dream by the standards of today’s social media celebrities, a job in a flower shop or as a lady’s maid.

It may also have been a dream that is hijacked by the Svengali under whose influence she falls, when he commits to passing her off as a duchess at a society ball.

Svengalis and Puppeteers

Svengali might seem like a strong word to use, but the story is as much about control as it is about self-improvement and the fulfilment of a dream.

The original play has been interpreted as an attempt by Bernard Shaw to poke fun at the snobbery of English society, but what he is actually describing is how the rules of society control both entry to different social groups and control the people who have been granted entry.

This was not lost on the designer of the original programme Al Hirschfeld, who portrayed Bernard Shaw puppeteer controlling Henry Higgins who is also seen as pulling the strings that control Eliza Doolittle.

Overcoming Obstacles

The road to creating a successful musical out of Pygmalion was not as easily achieved.

The play lacks any of the essential elements of a musical.

There was no element of the plot that could be considered a love story, neither was there a sub plot or secondary love story and there was no opportunity to create a single ensemble number.

Bernard Shaw himself had been uncomfortable with the idea of Pygmalion being converted into a musical.

It was not until after the writers’ death that the film producer Gabriel Pascal who had purchased the rights to all of Bernard Shaw’s work started looking for lyricists and composers to work on the project.

Oscar Hammerstein II, and Richard Rodgers, tried but gave up, and when they were finally asked Lerner and Loewe took two years before they started to write anything.

Change Precedes Progress

The solution that Lerner and Loewe found to resolving the lack of the essential elements of a musical in Pygmalion was to create extra scenes to fill the gaps between the acts of the play.

They changed what they were working with in order to achieve their objective.

There is more to My Fair Lady than simply being a great musical. It is a musical that the creator of the idea, George Bernard Shaw, did not want made. It is the musical that many composers believed given the nature of the plot could not be made. Yet somehow it was made. People decided that it should be made, they put the work in and they created not just a stage musical but also an iconic film musical as well.

Hard Work Fulfills Ambitions

Perhaps just like Eliza, the people who brought her story to the musical stage, if you want something to happen all you have to do is learn how to do it and then work hard to achieve your ambition.

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