Lerner & Loewe: My Fair Lady

Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, Stanley Holloway/Franz Allers (Naxos Musicals 8.120876)

22 June 2008 3 stars

My Fair Lady: Naxos MusicalsThe most popularly successful musical of its day, My Fair Lady ran a whopping six and a half years – 2,717 performances – in its original Broadway run, starting in 1956. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, the lyricist-librettist and composer respectively, had never before enjoyed such critical and public acclaim. Their Brigadoon (1946) did well, and Paint Your Wagon (1951) eventually made its money back after its transfer to the big screen, while their first two shows, What's Up and The Day Before Spring,had only short runs. But somehow, everything clicked with My Fair Lady, perhaps because Lerner and Loewe were for the first time relying wholly on extremely fertile source material – Shaw's Pygmalion – rather than a plot of their own creation.

After Shaw's death, the Hungarian impresario Gabriel Pascal (who had brought Pygmalion to the cinema in a famous adaptation starring Leslie Howard) started to pursue various writers, including Rodgers and Hammerstein, to turn Pygmalion into a musical, but they all gave up in despair. Lerner and Loewe's turn came in 1952, and the show obtained both a producer (The Theatre Guild) and a potential leading man for Henry Higgins (Michael Redgrave). After months of trying, Lerner and Loewe also gave up (and indeed ended their collaboration for a while, both starting new works with other people), but in the wake of Pascal's death in 1954 the pair tried again, and this time came up with a way of doing the piece which adhered more closely to the progress of Shaw's screenplay than they had initially intended. Mrs Higgins' tea party was transformed into the now-famous Ascot Scene, but although an early outline had several unfamiliar situations in it – Higgins was encouraged by his mother to marry Miss Eynsford Hill and Eliza was seen crying in Windsor Park after the episode at the races – in the end, the musical version which went into rehearsal on 3 January 1956 remained remarkably faithful to the play.

When the show tried out for a week in New Haven, various changes were made, including the addition of a song for Higgins ('A Hymn to Him') and the removal of a whole scene that included the songs 'Come to the Ball' for Higgins and 'Say a Prayer for Me Tonight' for Eliza (the former a favourite of Lerner's that he liked to sing in concerts, the latter reused in the 1958 film Gigi) and an extensive ballet sequence. The choreographer, Hanya Holm, conceived the latter as a 'nightmare' in which Eliza is dragged, sobbing, kicking and screaming, through a series of sadistic lessons in which she is taught how to move and behave like a woman (an aspect of her transformation which goes undocumented in the final version of the show – now we just see her taught how to speak); in all likelihood, it was too dark and did not fit in with the rest of the show. After further modifications and a trial period in Philadelphia, My Fair Lady opened in New York on 15 March and the rest, as they say, is history.

On 26 March 1956, the cast was taken into the studio to record the Original Cast Album, which brings us to this new release from Naxos Musicals. Now that the recording is out of copyright in the UK (though not in America), it's being released relatively cheaply by various labels, but I'm afraid the sound quality on this one prevents me from a wholehearted recommendation. In every single track, the orchestra sounds muddy and boxed in, most noticeably, of course, in the sensational Overture. Admittedly, the vocal performances still carry the sharp characterisation of the original cast, and the definitive performances of Rex Harrison (at his most spontaneous and relaxed as Higgins), Julie Andrews (vocally fresh and feisty) and Stanley Holloway (incomparable in his pastiche music hall numbers) do not deserve a mere three-star rating; nor does Franz Allers' meticulous conducting, the benefits of which are difficult to enjoy here. But with the cleaner and clearer official Sony release of the original Columbia album still available at roughly the same price as Naxos', I can't really see a reason for opting for the latter over the former. Indeed, it's almost sacrilege to short-change one of the very greatest Broadway recordings of all time with such a pale imitation (one, I might add, which is in no way up to the usual high standard of Naxos' transfers of out-of-copyright operatic and classical recordings). Even Richard Ouzounian's flippant liner essay strikes me as inadequate, given the source material, and it has one or two errors and inaccuracies in it (Noel Coward was not the first choice for Higgins, for instance). Although there are no crackles or scratches on this Naxos release, other labels – notably the wonderful Sepia Records – tend to do a much better job in this field.

The bonus tracks might clinch it for potential buyers. Naxos provides Percy Faith's lavish recording of The Embassy Waltz and five tracks from an album called Lyrics By Lerner, featuring Kaye Ballard in most cases but Lerner himself in 'There But For You Go I' from Brigadoon. This is an interesting collection of recordings, with 'A Jug of Wine' from The Day Before Spring a genuine rarity. However, with the Sony release containing extensive archive interview footage of the original recording session and an interview with Lerner and Loewe, I'm afraid that there's no question of which version to go for.

By Dominic McHugh