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Based on BERNARD SHAW'S Pygmalion

First produced at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on 15th March, 1956, with Rex Harrison as "Higgins", Julie Andrews as "Liza" and Stanley Holloway as "Doolittle".

THE place is London; the time, 1912. It is a blustery March evening outside Covent Garden, where street-entertainers are performing for the arrival of opera patrons. Flower girls are selling bouquets. Dapper young Freddy Eynsford-Hill upsets the flowers of Eliza Doolittle, a cockney flower merchant. As she protests volubly, and later as she tries to sell some flowers to Colonel Pickering, Professor Henry Higgins from a distance is painstakingly writing down her speech in a little notebook, for he is a distinguished phonetician interested in all kinds of dialects. Liza at first suspects he is a policeman, but Higgins manages to convince her otherwise. By her dialect he can recognize the place of her origin, since, as he insists, he can place any Englishman within six miles of his home by the quality of his speech. This leads him to lament that of all nationalities, the English are the ones incapable of speaking their own language correctly ("Why Can't the English?"). Spurred on by a wager with Colonel Pickering, Higgins decides to transform Liza in speech, manner and dress into a duchess. But Liza has her own ideas of what constitutes the good life ("Wouldn't It Be Loverly").

In a slum area in Tottenham Court Road, Liza's father, Doolittle, and his pals have been drinking. Doolittle, having exhausted his funds, prevails on Liza to give him some money, after which he jubilantly gives voice to his general philosophy of life ("With a Little Bit of Luck").

Liza has now come to live with Professor Higgins, who devotes himself painstakingly to teaching her how to act like a grand lady. Higgins convinces both her and her father that, beyond this experiment, he has no further interest in her. Indeed, he is a confirmed bachelor who never allows himself to get involved with a woman ("I'm an Ordinary Man"). At long last Liza responds to Higgins' instruction and manages to drop her cockney accent ("The Rains in Spain"), much to the delight of Higgins and Pickering, who proceed to express their joy in an uninhibited fandango.

At Ascot Pickering informs Mrs. Higgins that her son will soon make his appearance with the transformed Liza. Within the enclosure, elegant gentlemen and ladies are watching the races -- their reactions reflected in the ballet, "Ascot Gavotte". Eliza now appears under Higgins' arm. Beautifully gowned, and very much the lady, she instantly captures the heart of young Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Smitten, Freddy later haunts Higgins' house for a sight of Liza ("On the Street Where You Live").

The night of the embassy Waltz has arrived. It is here that Liza is to meet her final test. Exquisitely attired, and in every sense the well-groomed lady, Liza carries herself with the utmost poise, as she dances a waltz with Higgins ("Embassy Waltz"). Her triumph is complete: She is taken for a Hungarian of royal blood. Later the same night, back at Higgins' place, Pickering is exuberant over Liza's triumph, while Liza herself nostalgically recalls the pleasures of that evening ("I Could Have Danced All Night"). But before long she turns angrily upon Higgins for not having left well enough alone by allowing her to remain a flower salesgirl. For, now that she is a lady, what will become of her? Higgins suggests she marry some nice young man. This serves only to arouse Liza further. Packing her things, she storms out of Higgins' house to stumble outside into Freddy. He protests that he is in love with her, but Liza is skeptical. ("Show Me") and brushes him off. In an attempt to find her true identity she returns to the flower mart outside Covent Garden, where she is not recognized, even by her own father. When he does he gives her the cheerful news that he is about to get married ("Get Me to the Church on Time").

Meanwhile, Higgins is upset to discover Liza has left him and is led to wonder why women behave the way they do ("A Hymn to Him"). When next he does see Liza, it is at his mother's house, where Liza has come for a brief visit. He would like her to come back to him, but when Liza informs him that Freddy has asked to marry her he loses his temper and calls her a fool. Liza retorts that she can marry anybody she wishes, that, as a matter of fact, she can get along in life very well without Mr. Higgins ("Without You").

At his home, at dusk, Higgins recalls Liza and realizes how much she has come to mean to him ("I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face"). Without her, he is lost and lonely. Liza slips silently in as he is thus musing. When he finally notices her he barks: "Liza! Where the devil are my slippers?!"

In adapting Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion for the musical-comedy stage the highest standards were applied to every aspect of the musical theatre -- text, lyrics, music, choreography, direction, Cecil Beaton's costuming and Oliver Smith's sets -- to create as near perfect a production as human ingenuity and imagination could contrive. The result was, as the critic William Hawkins said, "a legendary evening", or, in the words of Brooks Atkinson, "one of the best musicals of the century ... close to the genius of creation." With these and similar critical accolades as a springboard, My Fair Lady went on to become the greatest commercial triumph the American theatre had known up until that time. On 13th June, 1961, it became the longest-running production in Broadway history, outdistancing the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical play, Oklahoma!, which had held that record up to then. By that time it had been seen by over three million patrons, and had earned almost forty million dollars; the long-playing recording by the original cast sold over three million discs at a price of fifteen million dollars; the motion-picture rights were sold for over five million dollars. The national tour of a second company begun on 18th March, 1957, stayed on the road several years, breaking box-office precedents in city after city. Numerous companies were formed to present it throughout the civilized world, including the Soviet Union in 1960.

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This document was originally published in The Complete Book of Light Opera. Mark Lubbock. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1962. pp. 897-99.


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