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5 Shows You Didn't Know Were Inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s 'Pygmalion'

Category Broadway

|by Mark Robinson |


From ‘My Fair Lady’ to ‘Pretty Woman’

While several of the plays of the great George Bernard Shaw have served as the inspiration for new plays and musicals, none have spawned more progeny than Pygmalion (1913). Shaw’s play – which takes its title from a Greek myth in which a sculptor falls in love with his creation – follows a cockney flower girl named Eliza Doolittle who courageously seeks a better station in life by enlisting the help of Henry Higgins, an arrogant professor of phonetics who boasts he can fool people into thinking she’s a duchess. Pygmalion has inspired playwrights, composers and lyricists since the play first premiered in 1913. Broadway currently plays host to both a Tony-nominated revival of My Fair Lady and a musical adaptation of Garry Marshall’s film Pretty Woman, both of which, different though they may seem, are part of a lineage of plays and musicals inspired by Shaw’s interpretation of the classic myth. We’re mapping out the history of plays and musicals that draw from both the timeless myth and, ultimately, from Shaw’s masterpiece.

Henry Hadden-Paton and Lauren Ambrose star in Lincoln Center’s revival of ‘My Fair Lady’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Henry Hadden-Paton and Lauren Ambrose star in Lincoln Center’s revival of ‘My Fair Lady’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)

One Touch of Venus
Loosely based on the Pygmalion myth that also inspired Shaw’s play, One Touch of Venus (1943) is a musical with music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by poet Ogden Nash, and a book by Nash and S.J. Perelman. It is based on the novella The Tinted Venus by Thomas Anstey Guthrie, which sought to spoof the Pygmalion myth. Rodney Hatch is a New York City barber who becomes so enamored with a sculpture of Venus at the local museum that he places a ring on her finger. When he does, she comes to life. She immediately falls in love with him, but he finds himself saddled with the responsibility of teaching her about life in modern America, and handling her aggressive libido. Of course, in true musical comedy form, hilarious complications arise. One Touch of Venus starred one of Broadway’s favorite leading ladies, Mary Martin, in the title role.

My Fair Lady
The most obvious title to appear on this list would of course be the 1956 Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady, which is currently enjoying a celebrated revival at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre. My Fair Lady comes closest to adhering to Shaw’s work, since it attempts to adapt the play directly for the musical stage (with a few alterations). Alan Jay Lerner carefully transitioned Pygmalion to the musical form, keeping his lyrics as intellectual as the Shaw’s words. Songs such as “Why Can’t the English?,” “I’m an Ordinary Man” and a “Hymn to Him” feel as though they could have been written by the playwright himself, and Frederick Loewe’s music is both elegant and character-driven, in keeping with the tone of the play. Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews played Higgins and Doolittle, respectively, in the original Broadway production.   

Educating Rita
Of all the plays inspired by Shaw’s Pygmalion, it is perhaps British playwright Willy Russell’s Educating Rita that most organically feels like its heir-apparent. The play, which premiered as a contemporary piece in 1980, concerns a working-class hairdresser who seeks to become more well rounded, and signs up for a university course in English Literature. Her tutor is Frank, an alcoholic lecturer at the college who must reconcile the diversity of their backgrounds in order to relate to Rita. In the end, she ends up teaching him as much about life as he teaches her about great books, with both facilitating a surprising evolution in the other.  

Me and My Girl
Me and My Girl (which originated in Britain’s West End in 1937 and came to Broadway in 1986 via a hit London revival in 1985) actually tips its hat to both Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. The Herefords are a wealthy family of the British aristocracy, well-known for their high society parties and noble lineage. When the Lord Hereford dies, his heir is found to be the cockney Bill Snibson. When Bill arrives at Hereford Hall, the family is appalled by his crass and casual nature – not to mention his girlfriend, Sally the outspoken fish seller. As the family tries to train Bill on propriety and the ideals of noblesse oblige, they plan to scare off Sally, who will never make the proper wife of an earl. When Bill refuses to let Sally go, Sir John Tremayne (one of the family trustees), sends Sally to his friend at 27 A Wimpole Street, London, for lessons. This is, of course, the address of Shaw’s Professor Henry Higgins.  

Pretty Woman
This brings us to Pretty Woman, which just opened at Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre at the end of the summer. Pretty Woman is adapted from the popular 1990 film of the same name, but its story is clearly inspired by Pygmalion. A prostitute named Vivian (with a heart of gold, of course) is taken home by a millionaire named Edward, who secures her services for a night. After he grows enamored with her, he extends the arrangement. She is reluctant at first, but he lavishes her with gifts, teaching her about the finer things in life – and she, in turn, teaches him about love and respect. “Welcome to Our World,” a number that takes place at a polo match, is a clear allusion to the “Ascot Gavotte” scene in My Fair Lady (which originated in Pygmalion), with Edward showing Vivian off to his society friends. The musical features a score by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, with a book by the late Garry Marshall and J.F. Lawton (based on his screenplay).

Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.

 

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