CREATION OF A LADY: Alan Jay Lerner on MY FAIR LADY

For many years, Tams-Witmark published a semiannual magazine called MUSICAL SHOW, featuring interviews, articles, and trivia about our vast library of classic musicals. Our MUSICAL SHOW archive contains a wealth of entertainment and information about Broadway’s greatest musicals. In the coming months, we’ll periodically be sharing highlights from back issues of MUSICAL SHOW.

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Alan Jay Lerner, lyricist/librettist/director/producer, was born on August 31st, 1918. Collaborating with composer Frederick Loewe, and later with composer Burton Lane, Mr. Lerner wrote the lyrics and/or book to many of the greatest musicals in Broadway history, including BRIGADOON, CAMELOT, GIGI, ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER, PAINT YOUR WAGON, and, of course, MY FAIR LADY. On the anniversary of his birth, we’re reprinting this MY FAIR LADY piece, which Mr. Lerner wrote for MUSICAL SHOW in 1963. Happy Birthday, Alan Jay Lerner!

 

CREATION OF A LADY

Copyright ©1963 Tams-Witmark Music Library, Inc.
Lyrics copyright ©1956 by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.

It seemed to me, when I graduated from college, that everything that could be said in lyrics had been said. If you were witty, how could you be wittier than Larry Hart? If you were romantic, how could you be more romantic than Oscar Hammerstein? We start off, in any art form, eclectic; but it’s an acute problem–how to find an individuality.

I’ve been writing lyrics, professionally, since 1940. It’s only within the last few years that I have begun to feel for myself, that I’ve come close to finding something that’s pretty much my own. It isn’t Hammerstein. It isn’t Hart. It isn’t Porter; it’s my own particular vernacular, and the first song in MY FAIR LADY, “Why Can’t The English,” I think, illustrates what I mean.

The first ten minutes of any musical offering should dictate the style of the entire evening: on what level the work is to be accepted critically and emotionally. Loewe and I wanted Professor Henry Higgins to be the first one to sing. We decided he should not be a singer; he should be an actor who sort of spoke some songs. We wanted the audience to know at the beginning of the evening, before they had heard anybody else–this was what they were in for.

Creation of My Fair Lady

Rex Harrison in the original Broadway production

Higgins was going to sing, and the question was what. There was no situation, so obviously it was to be a character song; it would concern itself with the cornerstones of his personality, his frustrations, his intense interest in the English language. How do you write a comic song of that nature, which is to be spoken, and not have it sound like Coward or Gilbert? We wrote several versions until we finally discovered a key. We didn’t write the song first; it was written much later, the result of having solved another problem. We found that if we could write each comedy song based on some emotion–either frustration or anger or disappointment or bitterness–on a definite emotion, we could escape from a humor that came from clever rhymes or from the author’s intrusion of himself. It would come out of the antic of the character.

Look at her–a pris’ner of the gutters;
Condemned by ev’ry syllable she utters.
By right she should be taken out and hung
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue!

I can only speak of the second song, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” with pain because it was obvious that the leading lady was there, and she must have a song to establish her. (In a musical play, even with the dialogue of Bernard Shaw, nothing established a character as much as a song.)

My great frustration was that I couldn’t find a climax for the song without going into someone’s head resting on a knee, and there I was back in “Over The Rainbow” and “The Man I Love.” I went seven weeks trying to find a solution for it. Finally, I couldn’t find a creature comfort that was as climactic as someone’s head resting on a knee. So the lyric stayed.

Creation of My Fair Lady

Julie Andrews in the original Broadway production

Someone’s head restin’ on my knee,
Warm and tender as he can be,
Who takes good care of me…
Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly?
Loverly! Loverly!
Loverly! Loverly!

Every time I hear it, my skin turns a little crabby.

The next song of the play, I think, is a good example of the inter-relationship between composer and lyricist. No lyric writer can ever realize himself or his talents alone; I don’t think it’s possible for a lyric writer to ever reach his full expression without continuing collaboration with a composer. The knowledge of how a composer thinks and how he creates and how he feels about work is simply of incalculable influence upon a lyric writer and upon his ideas.

“With A Little Bit Of Luck” was the introduction of the father, Doolittle, and we wanted a character song to establish him.

Creation of My Fair Lady Luck

Stanley Holloway, with Gordon Dilworth and Rod McLennan, in the original Broadway production

The Lord above made liquor for temptation,
To see if man could turn away from sin.
The Lord above made liquor for temptation–but
With a little bit of luck,
With a little bit of luck,
When temptation comes you’ll give right in!

We decided the type was to be an English music hall song. The reason is indicative of what I mean by knowing the abilities and inclinations of a composer: Loewe does not write jazz. He’s Viennese by birth and is more at home in tempo than rhythm.

The song, “Just You Wait,” wherein Eliza Doolittle gives vent to her hatred and anger of Higgins, was the song that told us how to write the show.

Just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins, just you wait!
You’ll be sorry but your tears’ll be too late!
You’ll be broke and I’ll have money!
Will I help you? Don’t be funny!
Just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins, just you wait!

We had written eight songs before we wrote that one, and none of them seemed right. It was after writing “Just You Wait” that we threw out all the others and started over, because it was there that we suddenly saw the value, the whole kind of freshness that seemed to nail down an emotional attitude, an emotional point of view.

Creation of My Fair Lady

Richard Springle, Aurora Florence and Chris Carsten in the 2016 China tour from Big League Productions.

I don’t know how to talk about “The Rain In Spain” because we had no idea what its effect would be. We wrote it in about ten minutes. We’re very slow workers; I don’t know what happened. I said one day, “We’d better write something where they scream with joy about the Rain in Spain.” Fritz sat down and wrote it in a very few minutes.

By George, she’s got it!
By George, she’s got it!
Now once again, where does it rain?

We thought it would be amusing if Higgins did a little Spanish fandango–and that was the end of it. I think it’s quite obvious to any student that it’s not a great piece of music, nor a great lyric. It’s just a pure, simple piece of business that seems to come out of Eliza’s longing. Certainly it’s nothing anybody should examine twice.

“I Could Have Danced All Night” was the unsolvable problem; the reasons were manifold. One was a dramatic one. It was impossible for Higgins to love Eliza, for them to admit to themselves that they felt anything emotional about each other. At the same time, you have to have a ballad in a musical, and it seemed like the place for it; but every song we wrote–we wrote seven–said too much. Somehow they seemed to indicate that Eliza was in love with Higgins or that she felt something for him. Finally, we were only able to write the song when we were near the end of the whole work itself and we had written “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face.” We said, “There’s the ballad. We don’t have to worry about a ballad. We’ll just go back and write a happy song.”

Creation of My Fair Lady I Could Have Danced

Audrey Hepburn in the film version of MY FAIR LADY

I could have danced all night!
I could have danced all night!
And still have begged for more.
I could have spread my wings
And done a thousand things
I’ve never done before.

Writing happy songs is the thing I care least about doing. I’m embarrassed by that lyric. Although I think the first half of it is very good, it’s not something I’m proud of; it’s not a lyric I enjoy listening to in the theatre. I said to Loewe, “Can’t we make it look a little more interesting? We’ll put the servants in and give it some kind of life other than a girl being ecstatically happy.”

The last song, “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face” is my favorite. Years ago, Maxwell Anderson wrote a book called Off Broadway; and for those students interested in writing for the musical theatre, I certainly recommend it. He discusses what he calls the “recognition scene,” that scene wherein the hero or heroine recognizes the nature of his problem, be it external or internal, and either conquers it or is conquered by it. We felt that Higgins must have a recognition scene in which he recognizes the nature of his problem, albeit obliquely and slightly astigmatically.

Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn!
I’ve grown accustomed to her face!
She almost makes the day begin.
I’ve grown accustomed to the tune
She whistles night and noon.
Her smiles. Her frowns.
Her ups, her downs,
Are second nature to me now;
Like breathing out and breathing in.
I was serenely independent and content before we met;
Surely I could always be that way again–and yet
I’ve grown accustomed to her looks;
Accustomed to her voice:
Accustomed to her face.

The only difference is–he neither conquers it nor is conquered by it.

Creation of My Fair Lady

Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison in the final scene

Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers?

There are tears in Eliza’s eyes. She too understands.