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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

In the original myth, Pygmalion is a sculptor who falls in love with the statue he is sculpting, Galatea. Venus grants his desire to transform the lump of stone (or ivory) into a woman. Jean-Leon Gerome painted the transformation scene somewhat kinkily about 120 years ago.

In Gerome's vision, the transformation started at the head and flowed downward, so that Galatea was able to bend at her half-transformed waist and kiss Pygmalion with her fully transformed lips while her feet were still entirely stone. After the transformation was complete, they married and had a kid.

George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion character is a professor of linguistics, Henry Higgins, who coaches a woman, Eliza Doolittle, to transform herself from a lower-class cockney lass to an upper-crust lady. He falls in love with her, but she rebuffs him. Shaw's title is ironic. Higgins neither sculpted Liza nor prayed for her to have life.

When Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe adapted Shaw's play into a musical, they sensibly dropped the trappings of Roman myth. They entertained several suggestions for a title, including "Fanfaroon," an obscure word meaning someone who blows their own fanfare. (It would be a great name for a blog.) They ended up, of course, using a line from a nursery rhyme, "London bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down. London bridge is falling down, MY FAIR LADY."

They also altered Shaw's story. Liza agrees to stay with Higgins. She loves him.

The nursery rhyme is accompanied by a physical game. Two people hold hands and make an arch with their arms. The rest of the group marches under the arch, or bridge. When the line "My Fair Lady" comes, the bridge falls down, and whoever is caught in the arms of the people who had formed the bridge is caught, trapped, imprisoned.

Just like Liza, marrying an emotionally abusive, utterly self-absorbed, selfish, tyrannical man like Higgins. And it's interesting how Lerner and Loewe's title subtly alludes to Liza's impending imprisonment. Except for her, it won't be a game.

Sensibly, Lerner and Loewe attempted no sequel.

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