Inquiring Minds: Music Scholar Uncovers Forgotten Songs from “My Fair Lady”

Dominic McHugh

Dominic McHugh

The musical “My Fair Lady,” based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” has been praised as the “perfect musical” and is filled with some of the most recognized songs in American musical theater. The hit show opened on Broadway in 1956 and starred Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle and Rex Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins. Harrison reprised his role in the 1964 film version that also starred Audrey Hepburn as Eliza.

Audiences, myself included, have delighted in the ambiguous relationship of Eliza and her Higgins and have happily sung along to such tunes as “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “On the Street Where You Live.” The show included other songs that never saw the Broadway stage and thus a way into our hearts. Five songs were scrapped before rehearsals even began, with two more songs and a ballet sequence cut prior to the Broadway debut.

Dominic McHugh, lecturer in musicology at the University of Sheffield, uncovered the musical numbers while conducting research at the Library of Congress. Last month, the songs were performed for the first time in nearly 60 years during a concert he put on at Sheffield.

We caught up with him to talk about his discovery.

Tell me a little about yourself? What brought you to the Library of Congress for research?

I first came to the Library in October 2006 to begin my doctoral research on “My Fair Lady.” I was a PhD student at King’s College London from 2006 to 2009 and wrote a dissertation about the musical’s genesis and sources. Subsequently, I developed my thesis into a book, “Loverly: The Life and Times of ‘My Fair Lady,'” which was published by Oxford University Press in 2012. I’ve also used my research to write program notes for the BBC Proms and Edinburgh Festival, and I also spoke about it on a BBC TV documentary called “Michael Grade’s Stars of the Musical Theatre.”

This research led you to discover songs thought to be lost from the original performance of “My Fair Lady.” How did you make the discovery? What collections were you using? What was going through your mind when you found them?

I was so lucky from the start of my visit to the Library to have the help and guidance of the wonderful Mark Eden Horowitz [of the Library’s Music Division]. On the last day of my first visit, Mark showed me an inventory of the Warner-Chappell Collection, which came from the publisher of “My Fair Lady.” The collection is stored off-site, so I had to return in 2008 to look at it. It turned out to be 16 boxes containing the original band parts used by the players in the Broadway pit in 1956. But the most amazing materials were the handwritten scores by the dance arranger Trude Rittmann and the orchestrators Robert Russell Bennett, Phil Lang and Jack Mason. Rittmann’s scores showed the extent of her input into the show: she didn’t just arrange the dances but also wrote the routines for the overture, entr’acte, scene change music and reprises. It was also exciting to find a couple of scores in Frederick Loewe’s hand, including an intermediate version of “Why Can’t the English?” called simply “The English.”

Can you tell us about the musical numbers? 

The orchestrations for the three numbers [cut before the Broadway debut] were there: “Come to the Ball,” the “Decorating Eliza” ballet and “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight.” I’d always wondered what the ballet sounded like, so this was the most exciting discovery. I also came across several alternative orchestrations for “On the Street Where You Live,” the verse for which had to be revised during the tryouts because it wasn’t funny enough.

(Edit: It is also interesting to note that “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight” was finally heard by the public when Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe used the song for their musical “Gigi” a little later.)

Why were they dropped from the performance?

The three numbers were dropped because the show was simply too long. They formed a long sequence of perhaps 15 minutes in which Eliza returns from the ball, Higgins persuades her to go on with her lessons (“Come to the Ball”), she has more lessons (ballet) and then on the night of the ball she asks Mrs. Pearce to pray for her (“Say a Prayer for Me Tonight”). Lerner realized it could all be removed without affecting the show, and everyone felt the ballet was too cramped on the library set, so Lerner wrote a two-minute scene of dialogue instead. Loewe also wrote a completely different “Embassy Waltz,” which shows how much they worked on the final scenes of Act 1 during the tryouts.

Did you learn anything that you may previously not have known?

I hadn’t really appreciated how dark the ballet must have been until I saw the music. It was conceived as a nightmare and has music to fit! I also hadn’t realized that “Why Can’t the English” had caused so much trouble until I found various versions of it in the Warner-Chappell Collection, all of which dated from January 1956. They didn’t come to the final version until the very end of rehearsals.

How is finding them and reintroducing them significant to musical society/enthusiasts/scholars/educators?

As one of the most enduringly popular musicals of the 1950s, “My Fair Lady” remains of interest to a general audience to a greater extent than most of the other works written in that period. I decided to put on this concert with the cut material because it’s easy to take great works of art for granted, without appreciating how their apparent ease and fluency came about. Lerner and Loewe worked for several years on this musical, and it was a tough nut to crack. But it’s so famous that it’s almost a cliché that people dismiss without a second thought. So I felt that if we could look at some of the other material they wrote for the show – most of which is pretty good and all of which is interesting – it would help to illustrate the high level of self-criticism Lerner and Loewe had to exercise in order to get it right. Aside from all of that, I was dying to hear the ballet and the other cut numbers for which original orchestrations survived, and I was thrilled to finally get that opportunity. It was especially wonderful to share the experience with my students, who played in the orchestra. One of them, Matthew Malone, conducted and did a lot of restoration work on the orchestrations too, so it felt like scholarship in action.

You’ve conducted other research at the Library and produced publications on “My Fair Lady” and other American musicals. Why the interest there? 

The scholarly field of the American musical theater has considerably expanded in recent years, and I was lucky to enter it when it was just taking off. I had always loved musicals as a child, and not just in a casual way – I had all the Astaire-Rogers movies on video by the time I was 10 years old, for instance. As a teenager I then became obsessed with Italian opera, but while I was in high school I was musical director for quite a lot of shows, including “Kiss Me, Kate.” I read music at King’s College London, and in my third year I was lucky to attend a course on Broadway, taught by Professor Cliff Eisen. Cliff is a Mozart scholar, but he decided to introduce this course and I realized I already knew the entire repertoire and really loved it. As an adult I was able to appreciate its richness in a different way, so I abandoned my plans to do a PhD on Verdi and did “My Fair Lady” instead!

Can you tell us about other collections you’ve used? Any collections and/or items you’ve found most illuminating? Any other interesting discoveries?

By now I’ve looked at a large number of the musical theater collections in the Library. My favorite is the Richard Rodgers collection, because his sketches are extraordinary. He seems to have had an unprecedented ability to write out many of his songs almost fully formed. My heart is in the Lerner and Loewe collections. Their relationship is richly charted through Loewe’s manuscripts in particular, though I also love some of the correspondence in the Lerner collection, such as fan mail from Harold Arlen (composer of “The Wizard of Oz”). The Irving Berlin collection is great because he lived to be over 100 years old, and there’s some wonderful correspondence with Fred Astaire in it. They were great friends, and it’s fascinating to see how domestic their letters were.

I recently explored the Wright and Forrest collection, which I hope will form the basis of a future book project for me. They wrote hundreds of songs based on the music of classical composers, and I was stunned to find that they kept the published sheet music by those other composers, annotated with notes on how they were going to turn them into songs.

I also recently looked at the Hugh Martin papers – he was the composer of “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – and was impressed by how many songs he wrote for projects such as “Make a Wish” and “Look Ma, I’m Dancin,'” which weren’t particularly successful. In the Harold Rome collection I found a sketchbook for his musical “Fanny,” which indicated that he went and researched French folk songs before writing the score; to anyone who knows the show, that makes a lot of sense, and I was elated to find it. I should also mention the Cole Porter collection, which includes some brilliant sketches and manuscripts. At the moment I’m working on an edition of his letters, so I’ve spent some happy hours looking through this collection!

Why do you think it’s valuable for the Library to preserve such historical collections, and what do you think the public should know about the Library’s mission to collect and preserve our cultural and historical heritage?

At a time when public services are becoming more and more accountable, institutions such as the Library are an easy target for criticism. Why should money be poured into preserving bits of paper written on by dead people? But all the artists and other figures whose papers are held at the Library of Congress have created works of art that define what it means to be human: to be American or European, to be young or old, a man or woman, and so on. The arts and humanities represent our liberty – people have fought wars so that we can continue to live our lives with the freedom to be who we want to be, and that freedom is often best expressed through words, music songs or art. The American Musical Theater collections at the Library show this brilliantly, whether in the songs of Cole Porter, the music of Leonard Bernstein or the musicals of Howard Ashman. It doesn’t matter whether we all like the works of these writers. No price can be put on what they represent. America is lucky to have this unique library with its unparalleled collections, and I hope it continues to receive the support it deserves in preserving the country’s cultural heritage.

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