Sheffield concert gets international attention

A concert being performed at Sheffield University on 19th May based around the music cut and lost from the early development of My Fair Lady is hitting the headlines. This concert is the culmination of extensive international research undertaken by Dr Dominic McHugh, lecturer in musicology at Sheffield University and a Trustee of Overtures, our musical theatre archive trust.

In today’s The Sunday Times main paper, 10 May 2015, Arts Editor, Richard Brooks has written –

SEVEN songs that were dropped on the eve of My Fair Lady’s historic run on Broadway in 1956 are to be performed for the first time in almost six decades after a British academic discovered the music in the United States Library of Congress.

The numbers were performed to only a few thousand people in pre-Broadway appearances in Connecticut and Philadelphia before the songs were dropped from the show before the move to New York. The lyrics and scores were subsequently thought to have been lost.

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Rex Harrison, who was chosen to play Professor Henry Higgins more for his box office appeal than his voice, was so intimidated by the prospect of performing two of the numbers — Lady Liza and Please Don’t Marry Me — that he locked himself in his dressing room at the New Haven Theatre in Connecticut for an hour before he was cajoled out.

After securing agreement from the estates of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, the composers, the original lyrics and music will be performed on May 19 by students at Sheffield University, where Dominic McHugh, who found the lost songs while researching a book, is a lecturer in musicology.

“To find the original hand-written orchestral scores was an incredible joy,” he said. “Everyone assumed some of the music had been lost for ever.”

McHugh waded through scores of boxes before chancing on the material. “Most of the papers were rubbish, and there was no catalogue,” he said. “It was a fluke that it was discovered at all. Everybody assumed the music was lost, but it had languished there for decades.”

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As well as Lady Liza and Please Don’t Marry Me, a song from the ballet scene entitled Decorating Eliza, during which Higgins orders Eliza to speak and walk properly while holding a whip, was abandoned.

“Nobody really knew what the ballet music consisted of,” said McHugh. “Many musicals of that period included a ballet and they spent months devising it, but they realised after one performance that the show was just too long and the ballet didn’t quite work, so they got rid of it.”

The same fate befell Come to the Ball, which was originally performed by Higgins following his return from Ascot races, and Say a Prayer for Me Tonight, initially intended to be sung by Andrews and featuring the lyrics: “Say a prayer that he’ll discover / I’m his lover / For now and evermore.”

“It was significant [that the song was dropped] because Eliza doesn’t admit to loving Higgins in the final version of the show,” said McHugh.

Despite the song’s removal from My Fair Lady, its composers clearly liked it and it was performed by Leslie Caron, the former wife of British theatre director Peter Hall, in Gigi, the 1958 musical film.

When My Fair Lady, based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, opened to critical acclaim on Broadway, audiences had no idea that it had been subject to such last-minute changes.

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The story of the Cockney flower girl taking speech lessons from Higgins to allow her to pass as a lady ran for a then record 2,717 performances over six years. In 1957, it won six Tony awards including best actor in a musical for Harrison.

A London production opened in April 1958 and ran for 5½ years. A 1964 film version, starring Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, took eight Oscars, including best film and best actor. Since then, there have been several theatre revivals on both sides of the Atlantic, including a production by Cameron Mackintosh in 2001, which won Martine McCutcheon, who played Doolittle, an Olivier award for best actress in a musical.