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#170. To Musical or Not to Musical?

Musical adaptations have long been the butt of many jokes. This is usually because most people don’t consider musicals to be very serious. This can also be due to the thinking that Broadway will turn absolutely anything into a musical. Even if some plays or movies can easily make the transition to a musical (like The Phantom of the Opera), others are so ridiculous, you can’t help but wonder how they’ll pull it off (like Shrek: the Musical). And yet, similar to remakes, reboots, and sequels, the musical adaptation is yet another indication that a franchise is successful. Oftentimes, a play will be successful on stage, picked up as a movie, then turned into a musical. That’s not to say that movies have been turned into stage plays, and then into musicals, since there’s no tried-and-true method for arriving at a musical adaptation. This week’s two films examine an identical plot in both musical and non-musical forms.

My Fair LadyMy Fair Lady
Year: 1964
Rating: G
Length: 170 minutes / 2.83 hours

The challenge with adapting a film into a musical can often be the vocal talents of the actors. While a role may fit a specific actor or actress well, if they can’t sing, a musical adaptation will be difficult to produce. For instance, in West Side Story (1961), Natalie Wood portrayed Maria, but Marni Nixon dubbed over Wood’s singing for the musical numbers. Considering that West Side Story won Best Picture that year, it’s no wonder that Nixon sang over Audrey Hepburn’s parts for the Best Picture that came three years later: My Fair Lady. What’s interesting to note is that Rex Harrison sang his parts live while they were filmed, because he could not feasibly recreate his performance in the dubbing studio. This method of live singing was utilized in the 2012 musical version of Les Misérables, where all the actors performed their songs without dubbing.

One of the consequences of musical adaptations is that of extended running time. While the film My Fair Lady was based on had a runtime near an hour and a half, the musical adaptation almost doubled the running time, lasting almost three hours. Of course, with twenty songs added to the plot, it’s no wonder where that extra hour and a half came from. Fortunately, many of the songs included in My Fair Lady have become quite recognizable, thus enforcing the songs’ importance. Songs like “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”, “The Rain in Spain”, “I Could Have Danced All Night”, and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” have all been easily ingrained into popular culture, often being parodied or used in different contexts. And considering that My Fair Lady’s non-musical predecessor was only nominated for Best Picture, one can deduce that the songs made all the difference.

PygmalionPygmalion
Year: 1938
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 89 minutes / 1.48 hours

Even if Pygmalion didn’t win Best Picture in 1938, or either of the Best Actor and Best Actress awards, it did win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, which just goes to show that the source material that thrust My Fair Lady into Oscar gold was a solid piece of work. Then again, Pygmalion was up against nine other nominees that year, as compared to My Fair Lady’s four. Of course, this film didn’t directly translate into the My Fair Lady film without first stopping off on the stage in 1956 as the Broadway musical of the same name. Not all adaptations proceed this way, as shown by High Society (1956), a musical version of The Philadelphia Story (1940). What’s interesting with My Fair Lady is that, even though Rex Harrison reprieved his role from the stage in the film, Julie Andrews was replaced with Audrey Hepburn when it made the transition. Ironically enough, Andrews won the Oscar for Best Actress over Hepburn that year for her role in Mary Poppins.

Both My Fair Lady and Pygmalion are based off of the stage play written by George Bernard Shaw. As such, they both share the same plot. While on a London street, Professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard) is showing off his skill at elocution by being able to guess where people were from just based on their voice. He then goes so far as to say that, if he could change someone’s elocution, he could pass them off for a member of high society. Enter Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller), a cockney flower girl who is as far from high society as you can get. Professor Higgins takes her in as his personal project and uses all his skills to help change her voice. Unfortunately, nothing seems to be working until Eliza finally “gets it” and is ready for Professor Higgins to show off. The trouble now is that she may speak like a lady, but her content is far from it. Plus, Eliza feels used by Higgins and soon leaves him to try and return to her previous life.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 similar stories

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2 responses to “#170. To Musical or Not to Musical?

  1. Pingback: #102. Best Picture Musicals | Cinema Connections

  2. Pingback: End of Act Four | Cinema Connections

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