When you spend much time backstage during performances of a popular musical, you quickly gain a sense of which numbers are most loved by the audience. Applause is a barometer of affection. Individual performers also figure in to the response of the patrons. But I would not dream of singling out any member of the current My Fair Lady cast in terms of popularity on the applause meter: they are all marvelous.
I will say, however, that in the 63 years since the musical opened the songs that please the audience the most have not greatly changed: “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”, “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “The Rain In Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On the Street Where You Live,” “Get Me to the Church on Time, and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”
The songs’ popularity is reflected not only by nightly performances in 2019 but by their recording history. It is common knowledge among Broadway-musical lovers that the original cast album of My Fair Lady was titanically successful. Released on April 2, 1956, it has the fifth longest run of any album in the Billboard 200 charts with 480 weeks. More than nine years!
Less well-known is just who, along the way, has recorded the musical’s hit tunes, which, at a moment when Arianna Grande’s “7 Rings,” with its use of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” tops the Billboard singles chart, struck me as worthy of comment. More than comment: a deep-disc dive on YouTube.
“I’ve Grown Accustomed,” “On the Street,” and “I Could Have Danced” appear to have been covered the most. This is understandable: each has a romantic aspect, and each can understood outside the context of the show’s story. “I’ve Grown Accustomed” has been recorded by many luminaries – Johnny Mathis, Barbra Streisand – but my favorite version is that of Sideshow Bob in an episode of “The Simpsons.” (“The Simpsons” parody versions of musicals contain more cleverness than most new shows on Broadway, and, yes, that animated series once did a full-out parody of the current Beaumont show. It was called “My Fair Laddy.”)
The most popular version of “On The Street” was the first: Vic Damone’s, in 1956. I’m more partial to the renderings by PBS-fundraising favorite The Lawrence Welk Orchestra, which performed it many times, though never, I’m sorry to say, with polka stylings.
The recording history of “I Could Have Danced” is more spirited. Though the subject of covers by Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams, most of the singers have been female: Sylvia Sims and Rosemary Clooney are among them. For most standards, to be recorded by Florence Henderson on “The Brady Bunch Variety Hour” would be the height of novelty. Not for “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Not when Peggy Lee did a cha-cha-cha version on her 1960 album, “Latin ala Lee!” (Peggy Lee was white, blonde, and born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota.)
And especially not when another Scandinavian blonde did a cover. I’m speaking of that great Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson, who recorded the song for a 1960 gala performance and can be seen, on YouTube, in two other performances of the classic. Miss Nilsson, who, as it happens, is the subject of a new documentary broadcast this weekend on PBS, was not known for the lilt of her dancing. She did, however, appreciate the importance of a performer having firm foundations. Asked to name the most important thing for a singer, she sensibly replied, “Comfortable shoes.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com