Why can't the English teach their children how to speak? This verbal class distinction by now should be antique. If you spoke as she did, sir, instead of the way you do, Why, you might be selling flowers, too!
— Henry Higgins, "Why Can't The English?"
My Fair Lady started life as a stage musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, and starring Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. It was a smash hit when it opened in 1956, and set new records for the longest run in Broadway musical history (a title now held by The Phantom of the Opera, which is still running).The musical follows the young Eliza Doolittle, an outspoken and hopeful flower girl in Edwardian England who takes elocution lessons from Professor Henry Higgins, who (as a result of a bet with the kindly Colonel Pickering) promises to turn her into "a lady." He then trains her, day and night, using some downright bizarre machinery and techniques (the marbles make sense, but some of the others...)When Higgins attempts to try Eliza out on Society by introducing her into his mother's box at Ascot, the transfigured flower girl also encounters young Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who, unaware of Eliza's true social standing, is instantly smitten — despite Eliza's humiliating lapse into vulgarity at the running of the horserace itself.The lessons finally culminate in the Embassy Ball, at which ambassadors, lords, and the Queen and Prince of Transylvania will be present. The ball, despite the presence of the venal language expert Zoltan Karpathy, goes incredibly well; Eliza dances with the prince and many at the ball believe Karpathy's identification of Eliza as a Hungarian princess(!).Then the relationship between Eliza and Higgins, which had been steadily improving, takes a huge blow when Higgins takes all the credit for Eliza's success. Eliza is understandably saddened and enraged and she leaves the house after an outburst that leaves Higgins angry and confused; the rest of the play involves them figuring out their relationship in their own way, though if it works out in the end is left to the viewers' interpretations.In 1964, Warner Bros. released a movie adaptation, which starred Audrey Hepburn as Eliza.
This work provides examples of:
Adaptation Decay: Not enough, really. One peculiarity about the film is how it uses the old stage directions, even the meta jokes that don't work in a movie setting. Instances of this include Higgins doing a short jig at the horse race — a Call Back to "I Could Have Danced All Night" — but without the knowing laughter of a live audience, he merely looks a like a lunatic. He also sets a teacup on his hat, a gesture which would be funny on-stage, but looks really odd in this context.
Adorkable: Freddy gets positively randy over Eliza's bad social graces.
Alliterative Name: Henry Higgins. Eliza, a Cockney girl, struggles with dropping H's and calls him 'Enry 'Iggins.
Ambiguous Disorder: Higgins, who comes from noble stock, is such an offensive and crass boor that his mother has banned him from her social circle. This is illustrated at the horse races where sumptuous hats and tuxedos are on display; enter Higgins, crashing the party in his usual, dusty-looking tweed. Higgins' out of control ego could suggest some kind of narcissistic personality disorder or, considering his obvious genius, a high-functioning form of Asperger's.
Blessed with Suck: Alfred's windfall is a double-edged sword, as he's now forced to enter into legal marriage with "Mrs." Dolittle. As if 'avin' to act like a bloomin' gentleman weren't enough already.
Bowdlerization: The name of the oily language expert was changed from Nepomuk to Zoltan Karpathy, because St. John Nepomuk (as Shaw was well aware) was a Catholic saint and patron of the confessional.
Break the Haughty: Mrs. Higgins' favorite sport with her son, and she delights in Eliza putting him in his place in front of her.
British Accents: Received Pronunciation ("Queen's English") as enforced by Henry Higgins. A wide variety of other, more "common" ones, especially during the opening scenes.
Higgins: "How many vowel sounds did you hear altogether?"
Pickering: "l believe l counted 24."
Higgins: "Wrong by 100. To be exact you heard 130."
Deconfirmed Bachelor: Henry Higgins embodies this trope, having said 'So here I am, a confirmed old bachelor and likely to remain so' and so much more. The only hang up is that he can actually be considered deconfirmed by the end—though most people agree he had at least befriended and came to care about Eliza by the end—and since he is such an extreme case that he'd never even had a female friend before, by his own admission, this could still be enough of an about face to qualify him.
Got Me Doing It: The voice exercises start getting to poor Pickering after awhile. "'Ave you troid the ploin cayke?"
Grief Song: "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face" arguably, since it's a combination of grief and anger. Doubles as Love Epiphany.
Hates Everyone Equally: Higgins' defense to Eliza's charge that he still treats her like rubbish. In point of fact, he treats everyone like that — and he's proud of it, too.
Higgins: The question is not whether I treat you rudely, but whether you've ever heard me treat anyone else better.
He-Man Woman Hater: Henry is very misogynistic, though he insists he's not. In fact, he's got a whole song dedicated to whining about how much he dislikes women ("An Ordinary Man"). The end of the play may have helped him get over it, but again, it's up to viewer interpretation.
Two whole songs — there's also "A Hymn to Him" (a.k.a. "Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?").
Higgins even uses that exact phrase, then shudders at the idea of marriage. He also has a hard time admitting Eliza "might" be attractive when he suggests she marry herself off (cue flamboyant flourish), laments that women aren't more like men, and while all this might have been intended as Belligerent Sexual Tension it's taken so far that the idea of a sexual/romantic relationship between him and Eliza becomes ... a stretch.
Higgins asks Pickering where one can find a Ladies' Dress Shop. Pickering replies so quickly, Higgins asks how he would know. Pickering clears his throat and says "Common knowledge" (despite having just arrived in London from years living in India).
If you insist, you can interpret Higgins' "Why Can't A Woman Be More Like A Man" number as evidence.
Hypocritical Humor: As they prepare for the ball, Pickering downs a glass of port and curses Higgins for his constant serenity. Before they leave, however, Higgins peeks over his shoulder and quaffs some alcohol, too.
Men Are Uncultured: Henry Higgins believes in the inversion of this trope, that it's the hysterical women who ruin discussions of classical literature by wanting to talk about love and that if a man wants to see a play or ballet and a woman accompanies him, he'll inevitably spend it searching for her glove.
Missing Mom: Seeing as Eliza's father remarries, and his side comments about his old wife are along the lines of "You look just like her, Eliza" and "Just like her, you never give me money!" it can be safely assumed Eliza's mother is dead.
He didn't "re" marry, actually...
Pickering:"...marriage isn't so frightening; you married Eliza's Mother."
Doolittle: "Who told ya that, guv'ner?" [Gives Pickering a headshake and a slightly leering wink.]
Honorable mention goes to Henry's teacup and saucer.
No Sympathy: The servants express more compassion for Higgins than his hapless student (Doesn't rest / Doesn't eat / Doesn't touch a crumb!) Cut to Higgins munching on cakes while Eliza is wasting away.
Also, while trying to practice with marbles in her mouth, Eliza accidentally swallows one, but Higgins simply replies "Doesn't matter, I've got more", and puts more into her mouth.
Nursery Rhyme: The title, of course, comes from "London Bridge is falling down", a snatch of whose melody is heard at the beginning of "Get Me To The Church On Time".
Obsession Song: "On the Street Where You Live". Considering that Freddy continues to wait outside for several days: possibly weeks — this song can get creepy for some viewers.
One really should consider that he has no other polite way of contacting her, due to Higgins. It's not as if he could just text her.
The text of the musical says that he arrives at the house after Ascot. Six weeks later is the Transylvanian Embassy Ball, and the day after that is the first time we see Freddy again. He's been on that street for SIX WEEKS.
Parental Abandonment: Eliza's father pushes this into borderline abuse levels as he not only leaves all of his children to fend for themselves, he takes their hard-earned money for himself to waste on alcohol. (And he brags about this, no less!)
The line immediately following his proud description of his parenting style? "You've got a good heart, Alfie..."
Pass Fail: The plot is driven by Higgins' bet that he can train a rough, low-class flower girl into passing as a member of the aristocracy.
Pet the Dog: After a full day of nonstop, grueling exercises, an exhausted Higgins finally offers Eliza a few soft words of encouragement. At this, her voice instantly transforms into an impeccable upper class accent.
Alfie gets one when he cajoles Eliza to be self-reliant, as "she's a lady now."
Pink Product Ploy: Every DVD cover since 2004 has a pink background. (The 2004 cover actually uses a 1964 poster which was pink to begin with.)
Plank Gag: Happens during the "With A Little Bit Of Luck" song, since Alfie Doolittle is singing in what seems to be a construction area and there is inevitably someone who swings a plank around and someone else gets hit by it.
Princess for a Day: Well, for several months. Eliza's training is to help her pass as a "lady."
A Pupil of Mine Until He Turned to Evil: It seems Higgin's contempt for his pupil lies in the fact that he abandoned academia; Zoltan uses his linguistics abilities "more to blackmail and swindle than teach."
Pygmalion Snap Back: Eliza has one at the Ascot Gavotte. She later returns to the flower garden and is not recognized, despite using Cockney. She spends most of Act II speaking in some sort of British/Cockney hybrid, so it's not clear if she wants the Pygmalion results to stick.
Rags to Royalty: Well, upper middle class. And she was able to be taken for nobility.
"The Reason You Suck" Speech: Both Eliza and Henry deliver these to each other. Several times. Henry even gets a Reason Your Speech Sucks Speech.
Eliza even gets a Reason You Suck Song ("Just You Wait").
Right Behind Me: At the end of "Just You Wait", Eliza realizes that Higgins was standing behind her, watching her singing about his death. Awkward...
Springtime for Hitler: Higgins sarcastically writing a letter of recommendation for Alfred Dolittle, calling him "one of the original moralists in England." An American philanthropist dies and bequeaths a fortune to Alfie.
And you, dear friend, who talked so well, You can go to — Hertford, Hereford, and Hampshire!
Talk About the Weather: While in public, Higgins advises Eliza to stick to mundane topics: the weather, and everyone's health. It backfires.
Mrs. Higgins, disgusted with every word that comes out of her son's mouth, echoes this advice in the end.
They Wasted a Perfectly Good Sandwich: Higgins and Pickering are too stuffed to finish the last cake tart. Not to worry, says Higgins; he knows somebody who loves these. He marches right past a famished Eliza to feed it to a parrot.
Training from Hell: Linguistics training from hell, although not as over-the-top as some examples.