Wouldn’t It Be Milchadik?

by Franklin Bruno

Teaching My Fair Lady how to speak Yinglish; or, how parody talks back.

“Wouldn't it Be Milchadik?” was commissioned by Triple Canopy through its 2011 call for proposals for the Research Work project area, which receives support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, the Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

Los Angeles advertisement for “Accent Elimination”; Eliza Doolittle (Julie Andrews) and Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), promotional still for original Broadway production of My Fair Lady, 1956. Photo: Leo Friedman.
My Fair Lady, performance view, Theater des Westens, Berlin, 1961.

IN MY FUR LADY, a collegiate musical first performed at Montreal’s McGill University in February 1957, a recent arrival in Canada demands instruction in local customs from a hapless guide:

On My Square Laddie, a comedy LP released in March of the same year, two Noo Yawkers trade complaints about the peculiarities of British English:

And in My Fairfax Lady, which documents a Los Angeles nightclub show that ran from 1957 to 1961, a Jewish low comic kvetches about the speech of other Americans:

The titles of these albums leave no doubt about their common source: My Fair Lady, Allan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s 1956 Broadway musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion. Present-day audiences know My Fair Lady best through George Cukor’s 1964 film adaptation, but these parodies were contemporary with the stage production and its unprecedentedly popular cast recording. Their central conceit will be obvious to anyone familiar with the originals: All three translate the struggle over linguistic difference, which is at the heart of the play and musical alike, into the dialects of their respective milieus. There is no doubt that Shaw’s intent was to present the political and cultural faces of such a struggle as well as the comic one; it is less evident that this intent survived Pygmalion’s own transformation into a glossy, tuneful Broadway property—or that it was recognized by My Fair Lady’s vast midcentury audience. Understanding what it meant for the Queen’s English of Shaw’s play to pass through Lerner and Loewe’s show tunes and emerge in Brooklynese, Yinglish, and Canadian requires learning the local vocabulary: Versions of once-standard songs must be compared, locations mapped, allusions glossed, and jokes explained.

In the opening scene of Pygmalion, phonetician and linguistic reformer Professor Henry Higgins astounds a motley crowd of Londoners by divining their places of birth, education (if any), and residence from their speech, and hence their positions in the English class system at the twilight of the Edwardian era. Higgins’s trick is more impressive for being turned at Covent Garden, London’s theatrical district, which acted, as in other modern cities, as an accelerant to class mixing. A bystander—who will turn out to be Colonel Pickering, a specialist in colonial dialects—asks, “Do you do this for your living at a music hall?” Higgins answers, “I’ve thought of that. Perhaps I shall someday.”

And so he did, in a way. My Fair Lady brought Higgins’s act to Broadway, the twentieth century’s successor to the vaudeville stage; the English music hall’s American cousin. In Lerner and Loewe’s version of the scene, the point of Higgins’s stunt is underlined by “Why Can’t the English?,” which establishes his character and convictions:

Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?
This verbal class distinction ought by now to be antique.
An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him.
The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.

In either incarnation, the play tests these assertions (which closely paraphrase Shaw’s didactic prose preface to Pygmalion) by means of a politically trenchant thought experiment: What happens to a rigidly stratified society when individuals’ geographic and socioeconomic origins can no longer be “placed within two miles—sometimes two streets”—by their simplest utterances? At Covent Garden, Higgins encounters Eliza Doolittle, a poor flower seller whose “deliciously low” Cockney accent fixes her position and prospects absolutely. The next day, she presents herself at his home and laboratory, proposing to pay for elocution lessons. Her aim is to speak well enough to work in a shop instead of the street; Higgins’s “inspired folly,” formulated on the spot, is to prove that a “guttersnipe” can be passed off as a lady—an “artificial duchess”—by transforming her speech (and etiquette, dress, and hygiene), and thus demonstrate the arbitrariness of linguistic and other social codes.

The musical lingers on the mechanics, quaint and tortuous by turns, by which this transformation is effected: Higgins’s gramophone recordings of local dialects, his use of Alexander Melville Bell’s “Visible Speech” shorthand system, arrangements of lab equipment that recall Dr. Frankenstein’s sanctum. In one scene, a flickering gas flame measures Eliza’s command of the aspirated (and aspirational) h—“In Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen.” Eliza’s phonetic epiphany comes when, drilled by Higgins to the point of collapse, she gives out with “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” in flawless Received Pronunciation; the speech, that is, of educated Londoners as codified by Oxford lexicographers. (The term itself is an artifact of Shaw’s time.) This moment supplies the title and occasion for one of My Fair Lady’s most emblematic songs, as Eliza trills her drills while Higgins and Pickering interject, “I think she’s got it!” over a cod-Spanish bolero. “The Rain in Spain” may be unique among Broadway standards in celebrating not a romantic relationship but a pedagogical one.

Tauba Auerbach, A. M. Bell’s Visible Speech, Vowels, 2006. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. © Tauba Auerbach.

THE THREE REWORKINGS of My Fair Lady with which we began all run Higgins’s experiment, which is to say Shaw’s, with different initial conditions. What made this musical an attractive vehicle for such treatment? The short answer is that “one cannot parody what is not familiar,” as Lawrence Levine reminds us in Highbrow/Lowbrow, his 1988 study of cultural hierarchy. The lampoons of Richard III and Macbeth common in nineteenth-century vaudeville and minstrel shows would have been pointless, as Levine shows, if the plays themselves had not been widely staged and seen not only by educated elites but by a broad cross section of Americans. Likewise, My Fur Lady and its kin would hardly have been created without some confidence that audiences would know the original.

In 1957, that confidence was wholly justified. At present, musical comedy has negligible cultural (much less countercultural) cachet, and its influence on the wider field of popular music is often downplayed, especially from the so-called rockist perspective that wishfully privileges the vernacular traditions of folk and blues over the synthetic products of the urban entertainment industry. From the late nineteenth century until well into the postwar era, however, Broadway musicals were central to American mass entertainment: They created star performers and songwriters, introduced hit songs that were adopted as part of the standard repertoire of popular vocalists and jazz musicians, provided the template and talent pool for the equivalent sector of Hollywood production, and made their most successful exponents a great deal of money.

All this was still true when My Fair Lady opened on Broadway. It was an immediate hit, and then a long-lived one, running for 2,717 performances over six years, a record at the time, and spawning a lengthy, lucrative US tour. Theatergoing was not, by the mid-1950s, the cornerstone of American leisure it had been up through the early twentieth century; nonetheless, it remained an ordinary enough activity in New York and other cities, rather than the elite (or touristic) one it has become. More than a million people must have attended the musical’s original incarnation.

Still, there is something auratic about any stage production: You can’t see it if it doesn’t come to town. My Fair Lady’s mass-cultural force multiplier was its original Broadway cast recording, released by Columbia Records within weeks of the show’s opening. Recordings of songs and comic monologues originating in shows and revues had been common since the days of the wax cylinder, but complete scores were rarely preserved in this way. The first, in 1938, was Marc Blitzstein’s ill-fated Brechtian musical, The Cradle Will Rock, but this was barely a commercial project; Decca’s 1943 release of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! was the industry landmark that proved the commercial viability of packaging all the music from a single musical as a recorded work in its own right.

Record “albums” at this time were multidisc collections of 78s or other small-format discs, presenting a song or two per side. In 1947, Columbia introduced the long-playing record: twelve inches wide, to be played at 33⅓ rpm. Developed to accommodate multimovement classical works with fewer interruptions, the LP format, with the side break as a forced intermission, was also a perfect match for the musical. The modern cast album, of which the My Fair Lady LP is a prime example, is a studio production that is both like (same songs, performers, and orchestrations) and unlike the corresponding theatrical performance. Its conventions were established in the 1940s and ’50s under Columbia executive Goddard Lieberson, whose studio-bound productions interspersed passages of scene-setting dialogue with the music itself and invariably included a plot synopsis and key to song placement in the liner notes, the better for home listeners to reconstruct their theatrical experience, or approximate one they would never have.

The only LP of the 1950s to outsell My Fair Lady was one that bridged the generation gap: Elvis’ Christmas Album.

By the 1950s, blockbuster shows (The Sound of Music, The Music Man, West Side Story) were routinely blockbuster albums as well, making their songs, characters, and situations part of the national lingua franca. My Fair Lady is a particularly well-made example of the genre: The elegance and craft of the songs aside, the vivid, characterful voice acting of Rex Harrison (Broadway’s Higgins) and Stanley Holloway (the English music-hall veteran who played Eliza’s father) translated to record better than most stage performances, while Julie Andrews’s transformation from caterwauling Cockney to lyric soprano made her a star. (The well-born Andrews, in fact, had to be taught the low dialect in much the same way as Eliza learns Received Pronunciation.) The work’s literary primogeniture also contributed to its popularity; if a mark of the middlebrow is its audience’s pretensions toward the highbrow, My Fair Lady fits the definition perfectly.

The album was extremely well financed and promoted. In an unusual move for the time, CBS, Columbia’s parent company, backed the Broadway production to the tune of $40,000 in exchange for the recording rights. The investment paid off: With sales of three million copies by the end of the decade, the My Fair Lady LP was the second-best-selling album, in any genre, released in the 1950s and the number one album of both 1956 and 1957.

The history of pop music has been written by the baby boomers, so it is worth emphasizing that the buyers of My Fair Lady and other cast albums—of albums, period, from Harry Belafonte’s career-making calypso collections to such still-in-print jazz classics as Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and Dave Brubeck’s Time Out—were not necessarily old people in the late 1950s; they just weren’t teenagers. So where was rock ’n’ roll? Simply put, it was on quickly recorded, cheaply manufactured 45 rpm singles released by independent labels, often regionally based, that lacked the capital and distribution networks to compete with the majors in the LP market. (Even Elvis did not record a full album until he was signed away from Sun Records by RCA.) With their relatively short chart lives, singles were (and are) often treated as ephemeral. Longer, costlier, and more durable, LPs were associated with adult genres and consumers, and their expensive stereo hi-fis. Well into the ’60s, artists like Sam Cooke and the Supremes, or their handlers, played both sides of the street, recording pop-soul 45s for radio and the youth market while releasing string-backed Tin Pan Alley standards on LP for parents. The only LP of the 1950s to outsell My Fair Lady was one that bridged the generation gap: Elvis’ Christmas Album.

ONSTAGE AND ON RECORD, My Fair Lady was a professionally crafted entertainment, its songs and its performances polished to a gleam. My Fur Lady is just as clearly the work of amateurs. Timothy Porteous’s lyrics are clever and specific but also verbose and metrically mechanical; the music (by several hands) is often awkward or rudimentary. Even so, journalist Robert Fulford, a contemporary of its creators, recalled the show as “the great national phenomenon of Canadian culture” of 1957 and ’58, attracting “wildly enthusiastic audiences … looking for something that was both entertaining and Canadian.” The extracurricular brainchild of Porteous and several fellow McGill students (mostly from the law school), My Fur Lady is not a song-by-song parody but a loosely plotted satire on the country’s culture and politics. Its objects included the government’s delay in approving a national flag (the Maple Leaf did not replace the Union Jack until 1965), Canada’s modest role in international affairs, and the limits of its sovereignty under the British Crown. In one song, the fictive occupant of the (very real) Office of the Secretary to the Governor General—a top-level royal appointee—admits, “I represent the Majesty / In a parliamentary travesty.”

The show’s through-line is anxiety about Canadian identity, or the lack of it, a much-debated subject following a 1951 report by the federally appointed Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences. Known as the Massey Report for its chair, career diplomat Vincent Massey, this document recommended government patronage of the fine arts, through national (as opposed to regional or provincial) institutions that would encourage a sense of collective cultural investment. The founding of the Canada Council for the Arts, still the country’s centralized administrator of arts grants and awards, was a direct result. Yet the report barely acknowledged popular entertainment, except to issue dire warnings about its insidious American forms: “Our national radio which carries the Sunday symphony from New York also carries the soap opera.”

Whatever musical comedy’s place on this spectrum, My Fur Lady would satisfy the staunchest protectionist’s demand for Canadian content. The action begins on Baffin Island, where the “Mukluko” Eskimos—a chorus line of pelt-clad McGill coeds—dance the “DEW Line Drag” in celebration of the wealth generated by overcharging the US and Canadian governments for building the Distant Early Warning system.

Then under construction, this chain of intra-Arctic radar stations was intended as the first line of detection of incoming Soviet bombers. Almost as soon as it was completed, ICBMs rendered this Bell Laboratories/Western Electric project “obsolete, obsolete,” as Geddy Lee sang in Rush’s 1984 no-nukes screed, also titled “Distant Early Warning.”

The album notes explain that these Cold War profiteers will lose their independence “under the terms of an ancient treaty” unless reigning princess Aurora Borealis (soprano Ann Golden) marries a Canadian by her twenty-first birthday, one month away. (Many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century agreements between First Nations peoples and European colonists were no less fantastic; in some cases, such “treaties” were blank pages signed by tribal representatives, their terms filled in by the French or British after the fact.) In Ottawa, apotheosized in song as “A New World,” the princess is squired by journalist Rex Hammerstein (played by Jim Hugessen). We have already heard the crux of her request to “Teach Me How to Think Canadian”; here is the entire number, with spoken passages typical of the cast-album format:

In contrast to Eliza Doolittle, Princess Aurora never asks to be taught to speak Canadian, and no change in her diction or manner ensues. It can’t: The surrounding dialogue argues that there is nothing to teach her, linguistically or culturally. To her wish “to be shocked by the national morality / And come to grips with Canadian mentality,” Hammerstein responds, “The trouble with Canadians is that they spend half their time convincing the Americans they’re not British and the other half convincing the British they’re not Americans—which leaves them no time to be themselves.” Huggesen—perhaps the recording’s worst performer—briefly attempts British and “Amurrican” accents in delivering this line,1 but at no point does any character speak with the dropped rs and raised vowels (coach for couch) of SCTV’s “Great White North” sketches, the backwater associations of that western Canadian accent and other regional variations (the so-called Ottawa Valley twang) being entirely foreign to the Montreal-based creators’ conception of the national voice and character.

Bob and Doug McKenzie (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) in “Great White North,” SCTV, 1980–82.
1 But not a French one. The musical’s seeming lack of reference to Anglophone Canada’s other linguistic other is surprising, especially given McGill’s location in Montreal. In Fur Nation: From the Beaver to Brigitte Bardot, Canadian cultural critic Chantal Nardeau reports that the French language is portrayed as “exotic and cute” in dialogue from My Fur Lady not included on the cast albums, and argues that the show’s treatment of “Mukluko” assimilation and identity also serves as a metaphor for Anglo-Canadian attitudes toward the country’s French minority.

In mocking a bland, blank Canadianness, My Fur Lady also posits it as what linguists call an unmarked case: a seemingly neutral standard of speaking—and, in the song, being—that difference can be measured against and subsumed into. Here, even the semblance of difference is thin. An “exotic” who sounds exactly like everyone else from her first appearance, the Princess represents a “primitive” society that, like the Dominion of Canada, recognizes a royal bloodline. In the end, she is married off not to the journalist but to the viceregal governor general himself, assimilating her previously sovereign First Nation to Canada, and hence to England. In My Fur Lady, comedy’s traditional use of matrimony as a metonym for social or political conciliation does twice its usual work, rationalizing the territorial expansion required by the fur and lumber economies on which the nation was founded while reflexively celebrating Canada’s own subjection to the Crown.

After the unexpected popularity of its brief on-campus run, My Fur Lady was remounted commercially in Montreal, presented as the first non-Shakespearean offering at Ontario’s Stratford Festival, and sent on an eighteen-month, 802-performance national tour. Two cast albums were issued by McGill Recording Services: a badly recorded piano and rhythm section document and a later modestly orchestrated studio recording, from which the selections here are taken. The university allowed students involved in the tour indefinite academic leave, though some roles were recast with professionals. Vincent Massey himself attended the Ottawa opening and visited the young cast backstage; though a college musical was no one’s idea of high art, a show that took the “one flag under one nation” message across that very nation was just the kind of project the Massey Commission had meant to encourage.

Massey’s approval all but stamped the proceedings as official Canadiana. In retrospect, as the journalist Fulford noted, “the My Fur Lady people” would prove to have been “a kind of Establishment-in-embryo,” with many participants coming to prominence in Canadian civic and political life. Timothy Porteous, the show’s chief writer and prime mover, served as an adviser and speechwriter to Pierre Trudeau and, from 1982 to 1987, as director of the Canada Council for the Arts. Such are the rewards of satire in the service of nation building.

MY FUR LADY projected Shaw’s hierarchies of language and status onto a monocultural a-topia; two more direct and dedicated parodies inverted them. In each, a highbrow-sounding Brit is trained, with difficulty, to adopt a low American dialect, as if in retribution for a quip of Higgins’s about English: “In America, they haven’t used it in years.”

My Square Laddie, the lesser of the two, is not derived from live performances; it was, per the liner notes, a “novelty platter” conceived by songwriters Max Showalter and William Howe solely for LP. Though the album was released by Foremost Records, a short-lived offshoot of a Kansas City record retailer, it is very much a New York production: Composer Showalter was primarily an actor; the record’s Eliza-in-reverse is voiced by the Royal Academy–trained Reginald Gardner, one of Hollywood’s stock Englishmen; and the surrogate Higgins is Gracie, played by Nancy Walker, a talented comic lead who had returned to Broadway in the 1940s after being typecast in “homely” roles by MGM. On this album, her performance meant to recall Hildy, the leather-lunged cabbie she originated in Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town. Finally, the figure of Pickering is Maggie, played by ZaSu Pitts, the silent-era star of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, who made the transition to talkies as a saucer-eyed spinster in 1920s and ’30s comedies.

This reverse-gender casting wasn’t intended to be progressive or transgressive; the choice simply exploited American associations of Englishness with effeminacy, though there is also a class element at work. In “What Makes a Limey Talk So Square?,” excerpted earlier, overhearing Gardner’s cultured speech (“I say there, lad, would you fetch me a cab?”) is “enough to make a working lady swear,” as Gracie and Maggie, peddling flowers and papers, assume from his diction that Reg “never gets his meat hooks dirty.” Once the characters meet, Gracie bets a bottle of gin against Maggie’s new earmuffs that she can lower Reg’s brow with a dose (and a dese and a dem) of “verse [voice] lessons.” These cover tone (“Talk loud, kid—in Brooklyn we talk loud!”) and vocabulary as well as pronunciation, but culminate in the expected phonetic epiphany, as Gardiner masters the front-rising diphthongs of “It’s the oily boid dat always gets de woim”:

This is one of Laddie’s neater matches, as the proverb requires only slight alteration to correspond with the meter of “The Rain in Spain.” The music has been downgraded as well, from the mock-Iberian bolero of “Spain” to brassy, riff-oriented swing. (The arrangements are by Billy May, the musical architect of Sinatra’s up-tempo “ring-a-ding” period.) This is typical of the songs’ method: Where Eliza Doolittle sings “I Could Have Danced All Night” as she basks in Higgins’s approval of her improving accent, Reg celebrates his successful “presentation” as an ex-con to the bookies at Aqueduct—a stand-in for the high-society gathering at My Fair Lady’s Ascot race—with “I Could Have Boozed All Night.” “The Street Where You Live,” recast as a 12/8 stroll that nods to rock ’n’ roll’s insurgency, becomes “The Block Where You Rock”; “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” becomes “Oh, to Be Bohemian.” The latter title is not meant to invoke the image of the Greenwich Village beatnik; here, bohemian connotes “vulgar but free-spirited,” not “poor and arty,” as Reg enthuses about joining the goils’ (speech) community: “They’re the salt of the earth, you know / Downtown girls with an uptown glow / Lowbrow, yes, but they’re never low.”

Billboard advertisement for My Square Laddie.

Parody often relies on such stock characterizations, but their use in My Square Laddie is particularly brittle and inert: on the one hand, an undifferentiated Englishness; on the other, outer-borough life depicted in terms of slovenliness, gambling, and drunkenness. To the extent that its central stereotype is a New Yorker’s idea of a flyover American’s idea of a New Yorker, I suspect that the album’s Manhattan-based creators were conscious of writing down to a hoped-for national audience. The humor depends on associating Brooklynese, like Cockney, with the low types who speak it. The idiosyncrasy or incomprehensibility of this speech is a standard mass-cultural trope, from the 1950s radio comedy The Magnificent Montague—in which a Shakespearean actor expecting a visitor from Brooklyn cries, “Where am I going to find an interpreter?”—to Saturday Night Fever and Moonstruck. What the Philadelphia-born Walker speaks on My Square Laddie, however, is a caricature of the New York dialect still extant throughout the five boroughs. There is no such thing as an autonomous Brooklyn, Bronx, or Queens accent, as sociolinguist William Lakov—a real-world Henry Higgins, minus the prescriptivism and the parlor tricks—concluded from his 1960s studies of New Yorkers. The dialect, an effect of overlapping waves of (mostly) European immigration on the speech habits of a densely populated city, is associated, though not exclusively, with the working and middle classes; but Brooklynese is no more exclusive to lushes and touts than it is to Brooklyn.

A Canter’s Band Box sandwich.

ON THE OTHER SIDE of the country, another parody of My Fair Lady offered a less deracinated representation of a city—more precisely, a neighborhood—and its speech. My Fairfax Lady, recorded in 1957 and released in 1960, is a studio facsimile of the floor show at Billy Gray’s Band Box, a Los Angeles nightclub that once stood on Fairfax Avenue south of Beverly Boulevard. To anyone familiar with Los Angeles, Fairfax will immediately signify the main commercial drag of one of the city’s most staunchly Jewish enclaves. The Fairfax district, about a mile east of Beverly Hills, is not a ghetto in the traditional socioeconomic sense: Middle-class Jewish families moved into the area in the 1930s, expanding westward from traditionally immigrant neighborhoods like Boyle Heights; an influx of Eastern European and Russian Jews during and after World War II solidified the district’s character. The residential center of LA’s Jewish community has continued to shift west, but the blocks of Fairfax between Wilshire and Beverly Boulevards are still lined with Judaica shops and delicatessens. The signage of one, the long-defunct Gordon’s, is depicted on the cover of the Fairfax LP, but the landmark example is Canter’s (and its adjoining Kibitz Room cocktail lounge), where an open-faced chopped-liver and egg-salad sandwich is to this day a “Band Box.”

On record, and presumably in the club, an opening chorus sets the scene:

It’s a street with a heart
And the heart has a burn
And the burn keeps me returning to …
Sodium and Gommorrah,
(Can I, can I, can I, can I get a hora?)
Fairfax Avenue!

Carol Shannon, a credibly prim Julie Andrews impersonator, plays Eliza Doowhittle, an English ingénue stranded in Los Angeles after a broadcast of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit from Television City, the CBS studio complex built across the street from the Band Box in 1952. Unable to make herself understood by locals, to find either a job or a nosh, she appeals to Colonel Dill Pickeling (Bert Gordon). Pickeling introduces her to “Professor” Billy Gray, playing a version of his nightclub MC persona as a kind of street-corner Higgins (“of all the phoneyticians, he is positively the phoniest”) with Los Angeles’s Kosher Canyon as his Covent Garden and firm convictions about proper diction, as heard in the already-excerpted “Why Can’t the Yankees Teach the English?” (Gray’s exaggerated accent is put on, in the tradition of what critic Jody Rosen has dubbed “Jewface.” On an LP of nonmusical nightclub comedy from the period, Gray code-switches between Standard English and Yinglish as setups and punch lines require.)

Detail from a Canter’s menu.

Aghast at the new arrival’s “accent mit a dialect,” the professor endeavors to “make of this dandy a Yankee Doodle,” exhorting Liza to “make with the pickle-shaped tones” and exchange her “Britishisms” for “Yiddishisms.” The conceit that the professor and Pickeling are speaking Standard American English drives “Why Can’t the Yanks?”: “The Oxford type to me is just a bust / But in the B’nai B’rith, good English is a must!” The English greenhorn, meanwhile, is so green as to be unaware she’s being taught the dialect of an out-group—the diaspora Jews settled within the surrounding blocks.

Fulfilling the liner notes’ promise to span the distance from “dialectician to delicatessen,” My Fairfax Lady tightly binds two key signifiers of Jewish (and other) immigrant culture, language and food, from Gray’s introduction (“When he starts a brand-new tongue, you bet it’s Hebrew National”) through the extended elocution lesson that occupies the record’s second side. Once she learned to say “Oy Gevalt!” instead of “Oooh, ge-walt,” Liza is initiated into the mysteries of the observant kitchen in a sustained reworking of Lerner and Loewe’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”:

Having “wanquished the wowels” and “conquered the cononsonantses,” Liza can also tell “unadulterated” horseradish—in Yiddish, chraine—from the beet-infused variety. This distinction serves as a shaggy-dog lead-in to the inevitable moment of phonetic epiphany and its accompanying song, as she reproduces the key word’s voiceless fricative with mounting confidence. In this case, the joke is much better heard than described:

by my lights, the richest and most pointed of the parodies under consideration—and the milieu in which it was made, requires discussing the backgrounds and careers of its principals in more detail than a stray descriptor (“ex-vaudevillian,” “veteran radio comic”) can convey.

Hare Ribbin’, 1944.

In some cases, I wish there were more to tell. An actress named Carol Shannon appeared in several television shows and one film from 1956 to 1957, but I cannot match her face to the Fairfax cover photo. Bert Gordon (1895–1974; born Barney Gorodetsky) is not a famous name, but his voice was familiar to the vast audience for 1930s and ’40s radio comedy. As the double-talking Mad Russian, Gordon was a regular on the Eddie Cantor program and guested on many others. The character also appeared on Broadway and in a handful of B-grade film comedies; his signature shtick was even imitated by a talking dog in Hare Ribbin’, a 1944 Bugs Bunny short. Throughout his career, Gordon enters every scene with his catchphrase, “How do you dooo?”—and so again in My Fairfax Lady, more than a decade after his heyday.

Fairfax’s top banana, Billy Gray (1904–1978; born William Victor Giventer), was a New York native and onetime law student who worked as a dancer and comic in Chicago and the Borscht Belt before settling in Los Angeles. He bought the Band Box in 1937 and ran it for the next twenty-five years. Never nationally famous, Gray was a Los Angeles celebrity, and the Band Box drew, in the words of Variety, “a regular clientele that has seen ’em all (and written for most of them).” When not headlining his own club, Gray worked Las Vegas, Reno, and the national supper-club circuit and appeared in a handful of films, most memorably in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot as agent Sid Polkinhorn.2

2 Some Like It Hot was made in 1959, during Fairfax’s run, and it is not surprising that its director, a Jewish émigré from Berlin, would have responded to Gray’s brand of humor: Wilder’s script for Howard Hawks’s 1941 Ball of Fire, in which a big-band singer teaches a starchy linguist jive and underworld slang, anticipated the parody’s inversion of Pygmalion.

Other comedians (Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett) and singers (Polly Bergen, Ella Mae Morse) also performed at the two-hundred-seat Band Box, but knockoffs of recent Hollywood or Broadway hits, no more than half an hour long (the entire Fairfax LP is twenty-five minutes), were the club’s main attraction. These were descendants of the simply staged, fast-paced “tab” (tabloid) shows common in early vaudeville: condensed, but not necessarily parodic, versions of popular operettas and musicals. Licensed to touring companies by the creators or producers of their full-length versions, tab shows thrived in “secondary markets” until the 1930s, after which they survived mainly as after-dinner entertainment in the “Jewish Alps,” where they collided with the local form of dialect comedy. Before finding film stardom in the 1940s, for example, Danny Kaye played in a Yiddish micro-Mikado during his apprenticeship as a Borscht Belt tummler. This is the tradition Gray and his contemporaries carried to the California desert from the Catskills and the Poconos.

LIKE OTHER BAND BOX SHOWS (all lost) in the same vein—The Cohen Mutiny, Ben Hurowitz, the James Bond spoof GoldfinkelMy Fairfax Lady was written and directed by Sid Kuller (1901–1993), a prolific writer of sketches and “special material” (additional lyrics to already well-known songs, tailored to a particular performer or occasion) from the 1930s through the 1970s. While much of Kuller’s often uncredited work consisted of innocuous gags for the likes of Bob Hope and Mickey Rooney, he also lent his particular talents to satiric revues (Meet the People, O Say Can You Sing) produced by the Federal Theater Project, the WPA arts program dissolved by Congress on the recommendation of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1938.3

3 Topical musical revues of the kind Kuller contributed to were a common vehicle for social criticism, no less than the works of documentary theater produced by the Living Newspaper. The last and most notorious work of the Federal Theater Project, 1939’s Sing for Your Supper, which introduced the left-patriotic cantata “Ballad for Americans” (later popularized by Paul Robeson), was among the shows that led directly to the congressional investigations and the demise of the entire program.
Tommy Rogers (Tony Martin) in The Big Store, 1941.

With Duke Ellington, Kuller also conceived the overtly antiracist revue Jump for Joy, which played to integrated audiences in Los Angeles in 1941. The show featured Ellington’s orchestra, a sketch by Langston Hughes, and a hit ballad, “I’ve Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good).” Written with Ellington lyricist Paul Francis Webster, Kuller’s material for Jump for Joy bitterly satirized stereotypical representations of African Americans—in plantation scenes, at rent parties—common in Hollywood movies and commercially produced Broadway fare. One of Kuller’s songs, “I’m Going to Georgia (and I’m Going to the USA)”—“Where the cravat’s the correct tie / Where you wear no Dixie necktie”—was sufficiently pointed as to be removed from the show after death threats against Ellington’s singer, Paul White.

Even in less overtly activist work, cross-cultural humor was something of a Kuller specialty. His song “Tenement Symphony,” introduced in the Marx Brothers’ The Big Store (also 1941), exaggerates the melting-pot sentimentality and schematic stereotyping standard in both comedy and melodrama of the period: “The noise from the ghetto / Forms the allegretto” as crooner Tony Martin rhapsodizes about “the Cohens and the Kellys / The Campbells and Vermicellis,” who cohabit harmoniously but noisily on New York’s Lower East Side. Later verses touch on romance between faiths and ethnicities: “Oh! Marie, Oh! Marie / You’ll be late for your date with Izzy!” A few years later, Kuller and Billy Gray revisited the theme on a risqué “party record,” “The Kellys, the Morellis, and the Lipschitzes,” in which companionability among the named families devolves (or blossoms) into open marriage:

KULLER'S LYRICS AND DIALOGUE for Fairfax press ethnic humor to another extreme, with a keen awareness of both its history and its complicity with stock narratives of tolerance and assimilation. Jewish dialect comedy had been a staple of vaudeville since the vogue for “Hebrew comics” (sometimes actually Jewish, often not) in the early twentieth century, especially in fish-out-of-water routines in which the ethnic outsider negotiates a society gathering, the Wild West, or some other unheimlich setting. Vocal as much as verbal, the style also played a role in the commercialization of phonography: The first million-selling comedy record was Joe Hayman’s “Cohen on the Telephone,” recorded in London in 1913 and released in the US the following year, on which the heavily accented protagonist contends with the unfamiliar technology and with his (unheard) caller’s inability to understand him.

By recasting My Fair Lady’s elocution-lesson sequences as an extended vaudeville sketch, Fairfax reminds the midcentury Broadway musical, with its tight integration of song and story, of its low-born, knockabout origins.

Like the plantation diction of minstrel songs, the sounds heard on records by Hayman and his imitators—several American comedians recorded competing versions of “Cohen”—often barely resemble the speech of the people they purport to represent. The related strain of Yinglish comedy developed—by Jews and for Jews—in the Catskills was an exaggeration as well but had an element of taking back defamatory stereotypes. My Fairfax Lady exacts a similar revenge, most obviously by reversing the linguistic and cultural roles of insider and outsider. By recasting My Fair Lady’s elocution-lesson sequences as an extended vaudeville sketch, Fairfax reminds the midcentury Broadway musical, with its tight integration of song and story, of its low-born, knockabout origins. This tactic extends to the record’s casual lewdness: When Gray sputters, “Posture!” and Doowhittle whoops as though goosed, the distance from Professor Higgins’s well-appointed consulting rooms to the flimsy office sets of one of vaudeville’s nurse-chasing medics—canonically, “Dr. Kronheit”—is collapsed.

Given the cultural geography of Los Angeles, it is fitting that this transformation would issue from an ethnic neighborhood near a nerve center of the entertainment industry. As noted, the action of My Fairfax Lady takes place just steps from where it was performed, across the street from the studio headquarters of CBS, the corporation that capitalized My Fair Lady and its cast album. The record goes out of its way to emphasize this proximity, when “Professor” Gray misrecognizes the acronym: “Canter’s Bologna Shop?”

The company also stood for the erasure of linguistic variation from American speech. Since 1930, when CBS developed its first “announcer’s test” for potential broadcasters, national radio (and later television) networks contributed to this homogenization, as newscasters and sponsors were encouraged to adopt standardized pronunciations and inflections, while ethnically marked voices were relegated to comic roles (like Gordon’s Mad Russian) or warm-hearted assimilationist sitcoms like The Goldbergs and Life with Luigi. Though never entirely successful, this coast-to-coast exercise in accent reduction was, in its way, an American realization of Shaw’s (and Higgins’s) dream of a linguistically homogenous England, achieved through commerce rather than pedagogy. For the showbiz underlaborers who appeared in My Fairfax Lady, CBS—nicknamed “the Tiffany network” for its prestige—represented another kind of hegemony: that of the “big time,” and the sort of lucrative TV and movie work for which specialized performers like Gordon and Gray were only rarely called. But at the Band Box, in the blind spot of William Paley’s unblinking eye, the out-group played to the in-crowd.

THOSE WHO CAN HUM ALONG with My Fair Lady will have noticed that both Fairfax and My Square Laddie often retain the rhyme schemes and metrical patterns of the originals. Kuller’s lyrics, especially, are a prosodic match for Lerner’s, and my guess would be that they were sung to Loewe’s melodies when the show was first presented at the Band Box. Using those famous—and copyrighted—tunes was not an option on record, and the task of altering their melodies and harmonic underpinnings fell to musical director Jerry Fielding, a former bandleader for Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life who was, at the time of Fairfax, laboring in the margins of the industry under the HUAC blacklist. Fielding’s recompositions of Loewe’s tunes balance paraphrase and parody; the record’s most apposite alteration comes in the final choruses of “The Chraine Is Red and Plain,” as the Latin-styled rhythm and trumpet fanfares of “The Rain in Spain” tip over into a Jewish wedding dance.4

4 This kind of klezmer-Latin hybrid is a microgenre unto itself. As critic Josh Kun notes in his book Audiotopia, the Los Angeles–based musician and satirist Mickey Katz made several regionally popular records of this kind (“My Yiddische Mambo”) in the mid-1950s. Katz played several stands at the Band Box; Fairfax’s core audience would have recognized the nod.

Despite these adjustments, and Showalter’s similar ones on My Square Laddie, Lerner, Loewe, and their attorneys attempted unsuccessfully to quash both albums, though their efforts did delay the release of My Fairfax Lady from 1957 to 1960. (My Fur Lady, with its much looser relationship to the original musical, was not similarly targeted.) While I do not not know how their makers showed that these albums counted as what Billboard called “justifiable satire”—one category of what is now termed “fair use”—their packaging gives some clues. The jacket of My Square Laddie emphasizes Showalter and Howe’s authorship of the songs and makes no mention of the work’s antecedents, while the liner notes of My Fairfax Lady baldly label it “a musicalized version of Shaw’s Pygmalion,” cutting out, as it were, the Broadway middleman.

“The Shaw Alphabet for Writers,” from George Bernard Shaw, The Shaw Alphabet Edition of Androcles and the Lion, 1962.

THIS IS ALSO A USEFUL REMINDER of what was at stake in inverting and relocating Shaw’s plot. An impetus for Pygmalion was Shaw’s own interest in linguistic reform, itself an outgrowth of his involvement with Fabian socialism. In a 1910 letter to poet laureate Robert Bridges, he wrote:

If we do not spell words as they are pronounced, our readers will pronounce words as they are spelt; so that in the end we shall have a change in the English spoken language which is in no way desirable. … This has been especially forced on my attention by my intercourse, in labor and Socialist movements, with working men who read a great deal but have no opportunity in their own class of hearing the words they read actually spoken. … If this only led to their being laughed at, it would be painful and unjust; but it would not hurt the language.

Shaw’s conviction was that the elimination of class-based speech differences would lead to a meritocratic society in which ideas were judged not by the accents in which they were put forward but by their content, to the benefit of both the working classes and the nation as a whole. Henry Higgins professes similar sentiments, and the character is often taken to be a mouthpiece for his creator. Shaw’s own linguistic activism, however, was more orthographic than phonetic. The playwright fulminated against Standard English spelling and its inconsistent rendering of pronunciation, which, he believed, was at the root of both regional speech variation and the telltale mistakes that marked the working-class autodidact. Proposals for spelling reform proliferated in early twentieth-century progressive circles, and Shaw’s own advocacy for a consistent phonetic alphabet extended beyond the grave: The so-called Shavian alphabet was designed by Ronald Kingsley Read, the winner of a 1958 contest sponsored by Shaw’s estate in accord with his wishes.

A Shavian Gettysburg Address, translated by Scott M. Harrison.

One of Shaw’s desiderata for the new alphabet, however, was that it would not inadvertently encourage changes in spoken English. The phonograph, etymologically poised between writing and sound, was a tool toward this end. In the letter already quoted, Shaw urges that, as speakers of “a dignified, handsome, and what I should call correct English, and not the dialect of the motor car and the week-end hotel,” both Bridges and the Shakespearean actor Forbes Robertson should make recordings of poems and soliloquies (including, not incidentally, some from Shaw’s plays) for posterity: “We could leave in the British Museum—failing a public institution specialized in phonetics—a record of your pronunciation, with a simple statement of your birthplace, education, and class, and, if necessary, a string of testimonials from your contemporaries to say that your speech was that customary among educated Englishmen of our time.” These proposals are of a piece with Thomas Edison’s conception of the applications of phonography: for business communications, as an archive of important family or public events, and for the preservation of the speeches and voices of great men. Musical entertainment was an afterthought.

The dialect recordings made by Professor Higgins are also anthropological exemplars, though not of ideal speech. On Eliza’s first visit, in fact, the scientist assumes that she is there to be recorded (for a small payment) and turns her away as redundant. “She’s no use: I’ve got all the records I want of the Lisson Grove lingo, and I won’t waste another cylinder on it.” Voices may be potential commodities in this exchange, but the records themselves are not: There is no suggestion that they are meant to be mechanically reproduced, distributed, or sold in quantity. (The reference to Edison’s cylinder format underlines this; the pressing of limitless copies from a durable master recording required Emile Berliner’s competing disc technology.) Forty-five years later, every copy of the My Fair Lady LP would preserve, alongside Rex Harrison’s archetypally proper English, Julie Andrews’s and Stanley Holloway’s Cockney delineations. Shaw could hardly have countenanced that the wider world would ever want quite so many copies of the “Lisson Grove lingo.” But the dialect joke was already on him: Between the writing of Pygmalion and its first London production, Joey Hayman was recording “Cohen on the Telephone” in the same city, committing a vaudeville version of immigrant English to wax for sale by—and to—the millions. The needle drops; Babel falls.

George Bernard Shaw.

and harping on the arbitrariness of convention, Received Pronunciation remained his unmarked case. At a time when linguistics was largely a prescriptive enterprise, it would hardly have occurred to Shaw that lower registers might have a value or significance of their own, except as curiosities, or that working men and women might not care to have their collective mouth washed out with soap so that they might not “hurt the language.” The possibility of such value, of course, is what the parodies of My Fair Lady—Fairfax, most explicitly—insist on. Politically speaking, this may seem more a matter of style than of content. At least to some: If being discouraged from using the accent of your affinity group, or not being taken seriously when you do, sounds like a minor inconvenience, I would wager you speak the dominant dialect. Even those for whom the valorization of difference and particularity has a neoliberal ring might question whether the forced merging of speech communities has ever set anyone on the royal road to social or economic justice.

It would not be worth insisting that some of My Fair Lady’s contemporary auditors understood Shaw’s position and its implications—well enough, in any case, to make fun of them—if this were not so often denied. It is a ritual gesture among Shavians to dismiss the musical; as critic Nigel Anderson once scolded, “It is a pretty story, but one must not call it Shaw.5 The playwright conceived Pygmalion as a contemporary play of ideas, comic in tone but serious in theme, set at the time it was written. The 1936 film version, produced with some input from Shaw near the end of his life, is similarly set in its time, updating clothes, cars, and Higgins’s lab equipment.

5 The most common complaint revolves around its altered ending, which, in all but marrying off Eliza to Higgins, capitulates to romantic conventions that Shaw undeniably loathed. Critical opinion differs widely about how much damage this does to Shaw’s overall conception.
Professor Higgins (Leslie Howard) and Colonel Pickering (Scott Sunderland) prepare for a phonetics lesson. Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, Pygmalion, 1938.

My Fair Lady, however, returns the setting to Edwardian times, complete with horse-drawn cabs and morning coats. Its faithfulness in this respect to Shaw’s play blunted its sociolinguistic and political point, in the view of musical-theater historian Gerald Mast, by confining the “question of speech to the class-bound England of 1912, circumscribed within a society Americans see as distant and foreign.” And, one might add, somehow respectable, even in its depiction of the lowest stratum of society. This, along with Pygmalion’s literary cachet, doubtless played a role in the musical’s mass appeal, confirming literary critic Lawrence Buell’s broader contention that “U.S. culture can be said to remain at least vestigially postcolonial so long as its citizens are impressed by the sound of an educated British accent.” And this is one reason that the parody albums’ midcentury settings are significant: They show that, pace Mast, not all auditors were deafened to the contemporary resonance of Higgins’s, and Shaw’s, linguistic prescriptions by My Fair Lady’s period quaintness and charm.

This is also what makes these recordings unapologetically of their time, and what makes retrieving their meanings and methods laborious. The same might be said of any work of culture that has not become canonical, or that, like My Fair Lady, no longer is. In the present cases, however, particularity and peculiarity are a strategic response, a way of turning Shaw’s “timeless” thematic concerns toward vernacular ends. This is not to argue that such parodies are a form of radical art. My Fur Lady and My Square Lady make conservative use of their source material, and even My Fairfax Lady, the most knowing and sharply etched of the three, can be seen as merely amelioratory in covering up the wound of not belonging (or not being a star) with a comic accent. But to expect more is to make a mistake similar to Shaw’s, by presuming that critique must make sense from every perspective, make everyone comprehensible to everyone else, and negotiate frictionlessly among competing interests and perspectives. Whatever records of this kind had (or still have) to say, they were not made to say it to, or for, everyone: They are inevitably provisional, dependent on their audiences’ grasp of local codes and conventions, and as complicit with the contingent forms of mass entertainment as the work they reworked. To recognize this is not to dismiss them, either as culture or as comment. There’s one thing to be said for parody: It never claims to speak a universal language.