Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Why can’t the musical learn to speak?

with 3 comments

Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady

Yesterday, I picked up an album that I’ve wanted to add to my record collection for some time: the original cast recording of My Fair Lady, featuring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. I’ve always felt that this was the one musical I’d have killed to see on its initial run, and it’s as strong a work as ever. What strikes me about it the most now, though, is its almost startling intimacy. This has always been a “big” show in its sheer physical production—the back of the record sleeve trumpets “its sumptuous sets by Oliver Smith [that] require the use of two revolving stages”—but its most memorable songs are practically chamber pieces, and it would translate beautifully to a tiny theater. I like the movie version a lot, but it suffers, like so many musicals of that era, from its determination to fill every inch of the Panavision image with expensive color and spectacle. Musicals have never seemed entirely comfortable on widescreen: I’ve always felt that the 4:3 or Academy ratio was more properly scaled to the human form in motion and song, and a wider frame only creates a temptation to fill the edges with clutter when we should be focusing on the performers.

But in some ways, the opulent look of My Fair Lady only underlines one of its most memorable choices, which is to conclude on a man singing to himself on an empty street. It may be the greatest closing number of any musical I know, simply because of the subtle confidence it exudes in both performer and material. Rex Harrison, as I’ve noted before, wasn’t much of a singer, but he moved with unparalleled confidence within his own limitations, and it speaks to the strength of the underlying story that its climax turns, so gracefully, on a moment of quiet realization. For once, the costumes and sets are set aside, and the stage—or screen—is bare, almost colorless. And it’s a choice that perfectly suits the song and character. Henry Higgins doesn’t fall in love with Eliza, exactly; the most he can bring himself to admit is that he’s grown accustomed to her face. It’s a revelation that comes almost as an aside, and the show turns the volume down so that we can hear it. (That said, in the movie, Harrison sometimes looks a little lost as he wanders from side to side on the Panavision screen, and this is one place where I find myself wishing for a more modest production.)

Illustration by Al Hirschfeld for My Fair Lady

It’s hard to imagine a blockbuster musical ending the same way these days. Broadway has been inflating its shows for years, presumably to justify its correspondingly inflated prices, and with so much on the line—nearly every musical ends up losing its investment in the end—it’s desperate to give audiences the impression that they’ve gotten their money’s worth. More intimate shows may do well at awards season, but spectacle is what draws in the tourists, at least in theory, which leads to jukebox tunes, bigger numbers, grander sets, and stunts straight out of Cirque du Soleil. If My Fair Lady were mounted for the first time today, I’m not sure it would end the way it does: I have the uncomfortable feeling that we’d see a big reprise at the following year’s Ascot Races, with the ensemble spilling over the sides of the stage. The confidence that inspired “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” has been replaced by a kind of dread of boring the audience. But when every other song aims to be an eleven o’clock number, the effect can be deadening, and it leads to a sort of storytelling that only trades in the bluntest, most obvious emotions.

As a result, it’s grown harder for a musical to build itself around the patter songs of Henry Higgins, much less the conversational talk-singing that Harrison used to fill the stage with nothing but his own personality. (Interestingly, I learn from Roger Ebert that while the rest of the movie cast sang to a prerecorded soundtrack, Harrison refused, and he performed with a wireless microphone hiding in his tie.) Higgins isn’t there to please the audience, but himself, which is what makes him such an engaging character. Given the manner in which he talks to us, we have no choice but to meet him halfway. It’s a refreshing contrast to many of the musical protagonists we see now, with their “I Want” numbers and so great a need to be liked that they practically climb over the seats to ingratiate themselves. One of the curious things about art is that the most successful works of an earlier era can start to seem radical in comparison to their followers, which follow and simplify the outlines of the formula without really understanding it, and that’s manifestly true of My Fair Lady. It’s unclear if we’ll ever see its like again, but I hope we will—although not without a little bit of luck.

Written by nevalalee

September 8, 2014 at 9:06 am

3 Responses

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  1. I like what u wrote


    September 8, 2014 at 9:09 am

  2. An insightful post. I think the last golden age of Broadway came to an end in the 60s. We have had remarkable musicals since that time and some great performers, but the pivot came as the shifting dominance of other forms of Mass media fragmented the audience. As a child, growing up in Ontario, Canada, I and my parents could see the big Broadway stars and productions on Ed Sullivan. The top pop tunes included Broadway show stoppers and beautiful ballads.There were enough old time Hollywood producers & directors who still knew how to take the codes and conventions of the Broadway stage musical and adapt them to the codes & conventions of cinema. By the 70s Ed was gone, the top 40s disappeared into fragmented competing sub genres and the “realism of cinema” seemed to vaporize the magical sound stages where musicals could still cast their illusion.

    Now Broadway musicals appear to depend in part on Disney animation and re-inventing old television & Hollywood product. Perhaps this is the only way to re-introduce the codes & conventions of the musical to a young audience, unfortunately it all depends on spectacle and the wide-screen world of modern cinema to give them their cue.


    September 14, 2014 at 3:19 pm

  3. Thanks—you make some good points. In theory, it’s a good thing that the musical is competing with every other art form in the world for attention, but in practice—as with movies, books, and music—it manifests itself as a reliance on familiar brands rather than a search for the unpredictable breakthrough.


    September 16, 2014 at 8:08 am

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