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George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion has been adapted many times for different media, but most notably as a musical entitled My Fair Lady. This musical was so popular that some screen adaptations have used the title "My Fair Lady" instead of the original "Pygmalion".

Why was the title changed to "My Fair Lady"? Is there any connection with the nursery rhyme "London Bridge is Falling Down" which is often also called "My Fair Lady"?

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    Presumably, you're not asking why they avoided Pygmalion as a title, but why they chose My Fair Lady instead of something else? One likely answer comes to mind: focus groups (a.k.a product marketing).
    – Mick
    Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 16:03
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    Is the account in the wikipedia article en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Fair_Lady#Background unsatisfactory? It cites a book by Lerner, The Street Where I Live, which presumably has more details. Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 18:43
  • It’s a Hollywood musical, most likely the producers were worried the classical allusion would be lost and/or off-putting for its intended audience. Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 16:09
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    Huh, TIL. I always assumed it was a West End musical first.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 16:10
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    @Randal'Thor it was, with Julie Andrews in the starring role. The movie with Audrey Hepburn came later.
    – verbose
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 12:20

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The title of the musical is discussed by Alan Jay Lerner (the librettist) in two passages in his 1978 memoir The Street Where I Live. Lerner gives no indication that anyone involved with the musical ever considered using the name Pygmalion, and does not explain why. The guess in comments that the title might have been considered too obscure for a popular musical seems plausible, or maybe everyone involved was aware that Shaw had disapproved of musical adaptations of his plays, and choosing a new title was a way of distancing the adaptation from the original.

We now had the rights, the principal players, the scenic designer, the costume designer, and the director—but still no title.

It has been my experience over the years that unless the title is born with the idea, as it was with Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon, after a while it becomes a parlor game, and like all parlor games the longer you play it the sillier it is apt to become. To date we had had “Liza” and “Lady Liza,” both of which went to their final resting places in the trash basket—because it would have seemed peculiar for the marquee to read: “Rex Harrison in ‘Liza’.” For a short time we had “My Fair Lady,” but discarded it because it sounded like an operetta. While we were in London, Fritz† came across “fanfaroon,” a rarely used English word meaning someone who blows his own fanfare. He clung to it tenaciously, primarily I believe because it reminded him of Brigadoon. The song on which we were now working was called “Come to the Ball,” and for a while we even considered that.

Alan Jay Lerner (1978). The Street Where I Live, p. 78. New York: W. W. Norton.

† Frederick (“Fritz”) Loewe, the composer.

Towards the end of the second week of rehearsal,* Herman† came to the theatre at “teatime” with two large pieces of wrapped cardboard under his arm. He called Fritz, Moss,‡ and me together and revealed the secret under the brown paper. It was the layout for the first advertisement for the New Haven newspapers announcing the opening. Our itinerary was to be one week in New Haven, four weeks in Philadelphia, and then New York. The advertisement said: “Herman Levin presents Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in ‘?’.” “Now listen,” he said, “we’ve got to have a title. People have to know the name of what they have seen so they can tell their friends to go and see it!” His logic was irrefutable. “Call it anything,” he went on. “You can always change it on the road. After all, when Oklahoma opened it was called Away We Go.” “Why don’t we just take the title that we all dislike the least,” I suggested. There was a collective, apathetic nod. After a brief summary of all the candidates, we decided the title we found the least indigestible was My Fair Lady, and with a helpless shrug we agreed to it. A few months later we all thought it was brilliant—except Fritz, who still liked “fanfaroon.”

Lerner, p. 98.

* Rehearsals started on 3 January 1956 (McHugh, p. 44). † Herman Levin, the producer. ‡ Moss Hart, the director.

However, Dominic McHugh says that contemporary documents such as letters and billing sheets contradict some of the details in Lerner’s account.

[Lerner’s] chronology is difficult to corroborate with documentary evidence. During the autumn of 1955, the show is typically referred to as My Lady Liza, and most of the contracts refer to this as the title. Then on November 29 Lerner wrote a long letter to [Rex] Harrison, in which he mentioned the issue of the title in the postscript: “Fanfaroon has not been abandoned, although there is stiff opposition,” he wrote. “But My Lady Liza will definitely not be it. I know this will break your heart, because you seem so terribly fond of it.”1 Although Lerner claims in The Street Where I Live that the final decision was made during the second week of rehearsals, in fact it must have happened between December 16 and 28.2 My Fair Lady it was to be, and on December 30 Levin sent the record producer Goddard Lieberson an outline of the billing sheet for the show for use on the cover of the Original Cast Album with the new title stamped proudly across the middle.3

1. Letter of November 29, 1955, Lerner to Harrison, HLP, 25/7.
2. December 16 is the latest date on which Levin refers to My Lady Liza (in the contract with the Nolan Brothers); the letter to Coote of December 28 is the earliest mention of My Fair Lady.
3. Letter of December 30, 1955, Levin to Lieberson, and attached billing sheet, HLP, 24/11.

Dominic McHugh (2012). Loverly: The Life and Times of My Fair Lady, p. 44. Oxford University Press. Notes renumbered from the original. ‘HLP’ = Herman Levin Papers, Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, Madison, Wisconsin.

The question asks if there is a connection with the song ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’. The overture to the musical quotes from this song, but McHugh thinks it likely that this was composed after the title was chosen:

The Opening music is also succinct. […] The music for this brief piece is wonderfully free and harmonically complex, but its most obvious point of interest is in the reference to the English nursery rhyme “London Bridge Is Falling Down,” which contains the line “my fair lady.” Rittmann† and Loewe include the music that goes with this line as a sneaky reference to the show’s title. Since the musical was named only in late December 1955 (see chap. 2), the Opening music almost certainly has a late date of composition, probably during the rehearsal period, which would explain why no manuscript exists in Loewe’s hand.

McHugh, p. 125.

† Trude Rittman, the dance arranger.

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  • It seems quite uncommon for musicals based on books or plays to take the title of the original work. Carousel is based on a play called Liliom; Cabaret on I Am a Camera (which was itself based on Goodbye To Berlin); Oklahoma! on Green Grow the Lilacs; The Sound of Music on The Story of the Trapp Family Singers; etc. (Although there are a few exceptions: Gigi kept its name, and South Pacific is based on Michener's Tales of the South Pacific.)
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 10 at 11:59
  • @StuartF I did a survey of Wikipedia's Category:Musicals based on plays and it seems that around 20% of adaptations keep the title. (Hard to be precise because of the need for judgment, for example, is A Catered Affair close enough to The Catered Affair? Is The Hotel Mouse close enough to Le souris d'hôtel?) Commented May 10 at 20:23

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