View the poem first and uninterrupted here.
The poem that spawned off of Julie Andrews’ masterful performance will be analyzed later, but for now, we focus on the original fair lady. Julie is renowned for her part in My Fair Lady on Broadway, a play that ran for around three years. From what I gather, that is a ridiculous amount of time spent on one play, and Julie invested everything she had.
In the short televised performance, she sings one song, I Could’ve Danced All Night. In the 2 minutes and 15 seconds of video here, we see Julie not only give everything in song but give her side of the play as well.
At 0:19 she averts her eyes to the right and loses herself in the trance of her story. The lyrics first sung within that 13-second spell are “I could’ve spread my wings…” after which she raises her hand close to heart. She is no longer just Julie Andrews, no, she’s Eliza Doolittle. She plays her character as much as she remains herself.
The mention of wings, symbolizing flight, exploration, and freedom, pertains to Julie and Eliza both. Eliza escapes the usual harshness of her teacher, Mr. Higgins, known in the play for overworking and bullying her. Julie’s prominence in Broadway gives her a home away from home, an escape from a troubled childhood full of the darkness with her abusive and inappropriate stepfather. Even if only a song, Julie invests her character and her life in it.
At 0:32, when she sings of things “never done before” she snaps her attention back to the camera, coming out of her trance to continue the tale with her full attention. Now she’s aware she’s performing, but when mentions of flight come close, her eyes go down then shift up and to the left. She’s free and living the magic of her story again with bright eyes and a grin.
When Higgins is mentioned in the song, at 0:47, “I only know when he…”, her eyes focus back to the center again. Julie and Eliza snap back to reality where dreams will have to come to an end.
When “began to dance” is sung, her eyes shift down for half a second and she cups her left hand to her heart. Julie and Eliza are in a state of bliss at this point, Julie at the dream of it, and Eliza at the memory. The left hand could symbolize love as well, as it’s said in a tradition derived from the Romans, a wedding ring—proof of profound love between two people—goes on the left ring finger because a vein connects it to the heart. Eliza’s love for Higgins and Julie’s for her freedom are clear. Even more so, after “with me” passed her lips, her hand drifts down, replaced by her wide smile.
At 1:07 viewers see Julie’s full investment to her performance and her character when her smile spreads and she sways left at “danced all night”. She’s given herself to the song, trying to live it and make it last. Seven seconds later she’s back to her traced when she starts with “…begged for more”. Now she wants to carry on forever. Eliza wants to relive the dance and the night itself, while Julie wants to extend her freedom and good fortune.
At 1:35 she centers herself once more, only to be distracted six seconds later near the mention of flight. Eliza relishes the excitement and bliss as Julie carries it with her. Both hands rise to her heart moments later as if she could grip the memories to keep them there. Both hands drift down, right first, then left as she knows the moment of realization.
At 1:55 her right hand rises to her heart again at the word danced, only to drift back and be replaced with her bright grin at “with me”. Three seconds later, notes heighten, starting with the word danced and hitting their peak at “all night”. It’s important to note here she raises her arms, carrying her notes up as if she could float with them.
When the song finishes, she ends with a full bow, a humble gesture of respect for the audience and the character she’s given herself over to play. She comes back up with her widest grin and gives a slight bow to the left before the screen slides to black.
Overall, the most important parts of the song, where she holds her hands to her heart, loses herself in a trance, and dazzles the audience with her perfect grin are the mentions of dances, wings, and flight. In the dance, Eliza felt bliss and freedom, all in good fortune in the break for cruelty. Wings and flight are more for Julie’s sake as she takes this performance and soars to new levels in her home on Broadway. In the 2 minutes and 15 seconds Julie had, she gave everything in her for the performance and herself.
For this long list of reasons, I will forever wonder at the fact Audrey Hepburn was granted the film role over Julie. She even agreed the role should’ve gone to Julie by right, but the film’s director, Jack Warner, didn’t consider her. He didn’t feel her name big enough to draw a crowd, so he opted for Audrey instead. While sound logic to sell tickets, getting a big name will not always be the best choice to do the part justice.
Audrey’s voice is much different than Julie’s, contrasted here with the same song. While Audrey holds airy, innocent, and feminine qualities to her voice, attractive in theory, her voice didn’t have the range to hold the song. When her version of the song plays, it’s clear her voice lacks control, a scattered breeze trying to carry notes beyond its own weight. Her fragile voice breaks into breathlessness and cuts out on the last note, as it proves much too high for her. In the film, her voice is replaced by that of Marni Nixon, with the exception of the line “sleep, sleep, I couldn’t sleep tonight”.
Julie’s voice has qualities similar to water instead of air. Her voice flows with an unmatched control and steadiness, as the performance means much more than a mere part in play. Eliza is part of her, so her voice carries not only the notes well within her range but the memories of Eliza as her character. Julie uses nonverbal language to deepen the audience’s connection with her in the limited amount of time while she uses her body to bring her voice up and keep it there.
Viewers are left to wonder at the stark difference in the quality of the two performers. While Audrey was a well known and experienced actress meant to draw a crowd, her singing left something to be desired, as it does not fit this particular song at all.
Audiences do get a consolation prize for Julie not being cast in the film role as Eliza: her iconic role in Mary Poppins. The Disney classic remains a household name 52 years later, and as fate would have it, Julie beat Audrey to win the Best Actress award for her role as Mary. In a lighthearted and joking dig at director Jack Warner, she thanks him for being the reason she won the award, seen here. Audiences had the privilege of watching Julie as Eliza for years with the added bonus of her role as Mary Poppins, giving her a shot at some of the best of both worlds. Fate saw to her return to the play as its director this year, 60 years after its original release, giving her a new perspective on her beloved role.
Now at long last, onto the poem inspired by the short performance. It’ll be broken down into more manageable chunks for analysis.
My fair lady clad in white
Against the dark background you light
You sing a song of flight and dance
Avert your eyes right, in a trance
Thought of wings cupped close to heart
The viewers’ eyes dare not depart
Thought of things not done before
Mere seconds glance down to the floor
Then all at once up to the left
Seconds keep your tale from theft
The first line not only calls the play by name as My Fair Lady but plays at words as Julie plays the fair lady. The color references the appearance of her dress as television in 1956 played in black and white. The dark background not only references the appearance on television but forces viewers to see her as the light. It symbolizes her ability to be as warm and loving as people know Julie, despite her childhood struggles as well as Eliza’s ability to persevere through the difficulties of learning ‘proper English’. The remaining majority of the section calls to attention both Julie’s body language and the most important words as she reacts to them. The last line references a want for control and stability, something she didn’t experience much, if at all in childhood.
The heartfelt tale told of your dance
And so begins half second trance
Left hand drifts to and from heart
With a grin, your favorite part
With the dance, you drift and sway
Eyes to the left, so far away
Thoughts on things not done before
Eyes down, with excitement soar
Back up, your heart’s cupped in both hands
Right down first, watched from the stands
Left down with you, right up at dance
Right back down, two seconds glance
The second section focuses on her body language to show not only her reactions as she plays Eliza but her investment to the role itself. With an ongoing theme of exploration and freedom at heart, Julie combines her reality with Eliza’s.
And with the dance your notes will rise
To end the story in your eyes
Arms lift your notes to greatest height
As they soar into the night
And with your end, there comes a bow
Though your grin does not allow
Story of dance and flight to fade
Under the black drift of night’s shade
The last section calls attention to her style as she handles her voice with the height and power of notes. It brings her humble bow to the surface with a reminder to viewers of the performance and readers of the poem: the song may be finished, but the performance will never fade. The last line makes reference to the screen as it slides to black and draws the poem to a close with an end to the dream for Julie and memory for Eliza.
Overall, the poem’s AA, BB, CC…rhyme scheme help with the rhythm to keep the experience somewhat musical, for the inspiration did come from a song. As the analysis wraps up, readers and I are forced to say goodnight but not goodbye to our fair lady.