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'My Fair Lady' Couldn't Actually Dance All Night, So These Songs Had To Go

Julie Andrews starred as flower girl Eliza Doolittle in the Broadway premiere of <em>My Fair Lady.</em>
Julie Andrews starred as flower girl Eliza Doolittle in the Broadway premiere of My Fair Lady.

When a Broadway musical feels as effortlessly right as Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's did to audiences in 1956, it's easy to imagine that it simply sprang to life that way. Not My Fair Lady. The musical, based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, is filled to bursting with some of the best-known songs in Broadway history — "The Rain In Spain," "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," "On the Street Where You Live" — but it turns out the show originally had other tunes that almost nobody knows. On Tuesday night, England's University of Sheffield hosted a performance of seven songs that were dropped from the musical before its Broadway opening, some of which were being heard in public for the first time in almost 60 years.

My Fair Lady was first conceived as a vehicle for Mary Martin, but she didn't want to do it. Then it was reworked for Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison, and by the time it got into rehearsal five songs had already been cut. And still it was way too long. If you want an audience to beg for more, you can't actually dance all night, so after the very first preview in New Haven, Conn., the composers cut another 15 minutes of material.

It came right after flower girl Eliza Doolittle made her disastrous debut at the Ascot Races. She was ready to quit her lessons, so linguistics professor Henry Higgins, played by Nathan Spencer at the University of Sheffield, enticed her with visions of triumphs to come. The song that followed, "Come to the Ball," was performed exactly once by Rex Harrison at that first preview 59 years ago. (In the audio link above, it is performed with the original orchestral arrangements for the first time since that performance.) By the end of the song, Eliza is willing to continue.

And there follows a dream ballet — a nightmare, really — in which she resists her lessons. At one point, the script called for Higgins to be standing above her symbolically with a whip (glad they cut that). And when she finally completes the lessons, she sings a little ditty — "Say a Prayer for Me Tonight," which was also cut — to buck herself up. But that song didn't go to waste; Lerner and Loewe recycled it for their musical Gigi a few years later.

The five songs that were cut before rehearsals include a tune called "Lady Liza," sung by Higgins and his buddy Colonel Hugh Pickering; "Please Don't Marry Me," a lament for Higgins; and "Shy," in which Eliza confesses she has feelings for her professor. The composers decided that wasn't true to George Bernard Shaw's original play, so they replaced it with "I Could Have Danced All Night," where she expresses excitement rather than affection.

All of this was documented by the University of Sheffield's Dominic McHugh in his book Loverly: The Life and Times of My Fair Lady after he found the music for the forgotten songs in an uncatalogued collection at the Library of Congress in 2008. In Sheffield's Firth Hall on Tuesday night, he and the audience got to hear what might have been, but wasn't — because, after all, you'd never get to the church on time with all those extra songs.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.