In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1957 & 1958: My Fair Lady (Broadway cast recording)
One of the most fascinating details learning about the early years of best selling albums for me is that at one point Broadway soundtracks could sell a lot. Now soundtracks and pop music have always been connected in modern pop culture. Many classic songs have come from soundtrack albums which in many cases anchor that album to massive success and we’ll get to a few of those soundtrack albums later on in this column.
But for the most part, soundtracks that get big mainly come from movies. Broadway, for the most part, doesn’t make too much of a pop culture impact in modern-day mainly because it largely exists outside the realm of popular music. The only times a Broadway musical has made a pop chart impact since the early ’60s is usually when it connects with the popular music and/or zeitgeist of the era becoming such an undeniable cultural juggernaut like with Hair in the late ’60s, Rent in the ‘90s, and Hamilton in the 2010s.
But back during the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Broadway musicals were the pop music of the day. Broadway soundtrack albums could sell lots of copies and top the charts for a long period competing with the rising rock and roll and other popular music trends of the day. As music critic Chris Molanphy notes, with Broadway musicals being a big part of American culture during the post-war economic growth of the ‘50s, record buyers who didn’t live near New York City and/or couldn’t afford a Broadway show used Broadway soundtracks as a bit of a souvenir allowing them to enjoy the music and story of a musical in the convenience of their home. My Fair Lady was a big part of that lifestyle.
My Fair Lady had a long road to success. The inspiration for the musical came from George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion which centers on a working-class British flower girl named Eliza Doolittle who takes language lessons from a phonetics professor named Henry Higgins who tries to pass her off as a noble member of high British society. Plans for a musical version had been in the works since the ‘30s when film producer Gabriel Pascal acquired the film rights to several of Shaw’s plays including Pygmalion. Shaw, having not liked previous adaptations of his plays, wouldn’t allow for a musical adaptation of Pygmalion. After Shaw died in 1950, lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and his partner Frederick Loewe were approached by Pascal to create the musical adaptation.
While trying to make the adaptation, Lerner and Loewe ran into problems with the story and structure as it didn’t have many of the musical elements expected at the time such as a main love story, a subplot, and an ensemble. It was enough of a difficulty that even the legendary team of Rodgers and Hammerstein passed on it with Hammerstein telling Lerner a musical adaptation of Pygmalion was impossible. On that advice, Lerner and Loewe abandoned the project for a couple of years. They eventually came back to it after Pascal’s death in 1954 and decided to give the project another shot. This time, magic clicked apparently with all the elements coming into place while changing some elements of the original play for the musical and adding dialogue in between every act. They settled on My Fair Lady which came from the “London Bridge is Falling Down” nursery rhyme.
Opening on Broadway in March 1956, My Fair Lady, was an instant phenomenon. A hit with both audiences and critics, My Fair Lady became for the time the longest-running musical ever with 2,700 shows and launched a then-unknown 20-year-old Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle who would go on to have massive success in Broadway and film in the following decade some of which will eventually show up in this column. Its soundtrack was just as much of a phenomenon hitting number one on Billboard’s album chart for 15 weeks in total over four different years in 1956, 1957, 1958, and 1959 becoming the best selling album of both 1957 and 1958. Only three albums since would be the best seller in two different years: the West Side Story soundtrack, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and Adele’s 21.
It helps that the musical numbers are pretty good for the most part. Like with a lot of musicals, you probably already recognize a few of the songs even if you’re not a huge musical theater person. Songs such as “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face” still pop up every now and then in pop culture and are the songs most remembered from My Fair Lady and for good reason. Like with many Broadway musicals, the songs are all lively and well-made in the old-style Broadway sense to get you into the story. You can enjoy it no matter if you know the musical or not and without knowing about its context in the musical.
Listening to the My Fair Lady soundtrack in 2020, Julie Andrews easily remains the best part about it. Listening to her performance as Eliza, you can easily see why she became a big star in Broadway and film. All throughout, she radiates this sunny warm joy in her performance that just puts a smile on your face. She was clearly meant to sing and be in theater and film. Elsewhere in the cast, Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins doesn’t really sing but performs more along the lines of sing-talking and he manages to pull off the authoritative and absurd style of the character. Both Andrews and Harrison sound like they’re having as much fun as possible playing these roles which is most evident in the hilarious enunciation lesson of “The Rain In Spain.”
While it doesn’t present it upfront at least in the musical version, the story in its original context has a political message. Mainly one that pokes fun of the class system and gender standards in early 20th century England that Shaw was in which inspired him for Pygmalion. Shaw uses his story of this working-class girl feeling like she needs to change herself to be considered as a proper woman of society in the upper class to call it out as bullshit and point out how superficial the upper class is. And the lack of a traditional love story or happily ever after ending in its original form is also a case of going against the norms of plays of the time subverting audience expectations. This type of story still has resonance today in 2020 as many people have still been defying what’s expected of them in society.
In terms of why its soundtrack resonated enough with people that it was the best selling album for two years in a row and linger on the charts for years, I’d gather it’s because people just like listening to it. Admittedly, I’m not a huge musical theater person so I might be missing some of its context in the time. Plus, there’s not a lot of sources for pieces this old for me to go by and understand why it resonated so much. But as I mentioned above, Broadway soundtracks did big business selling in the ‘50s so the success of My Fair Lady isn’t anything out of the ordinary for the time just more successful than the others.
In subsequent decades, My Fair Lady has remained a big cultural touchstone. In 1964, Warner Brothers released a film adaptation of My Fair Lady which returned Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins as well as Stanley Holloway as Alfred Doolittle. Most notably, legendary actress Audrey Hepburn headlined the film as Eliza. Julie Andrews could have very well reprised her role for the movie but Warner Brothers wanted a big headlining star which Andrews wasn’t at the time (Andrews would do just fine that year with her debut film appearance in Mary Poppins whose soundtrack will eventually wind up in this column.).
With Hepburn in the lead, most of her singing was ghost sung by Marni Nixon, the woman who ghost sang for many actresses like Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Deborah Kerr in The King And I. This was done over Hepburn’s objections as the filmmakers didn’t think her singing was adequate enough which caused minor controversy at the time. Like the play, the film was also a critical and commercial success becoming 1964’s highest-grossing film and winning three Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director in 1965.
Since then, My Fair Lady has continued playing including several Broadway revivals throughout the years even as recent as 2018. My Fair Lady may have been the biggest Broadway soundtrack of its era but it won’t be the last. We’ll be touching upon a few more of them pretty soon.
Next time: TV soundtracks get their chance to shine with Henry Mancini’s soundtrack for Peter Gunn