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Retro Redux: My Fair Lady Masquerades As Muzak

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When I was in my late teens I had a part-time job as an assistant to a broadcasting consultant, a guy who made a pretty good living helping people through all the FCC licensing requirements for starting a new radio station. It was kind of interesting as teenage jobs go, but not as much as you might think from the sound of it. Mostly I sat in his office and worked on tedious but undemanding paperwork, including adding up population data and making copies on his primitive blueprint machine. (This was before Xerox copiers became affordable for small offices.)

I hadn't really given much thought to those days until recently, when I once again had a memory triggered by hearing a song (something that seems to happen more often than it used to, which I'm sure is yet another sign of growing older). Hearing that song took me right back to that small office, and the reason it did is because of what happened when my employer decided to improve the work environment.

He read an article one day that described how background music created happier and more productive workers — old hat now, but something that was not widespread at that time. Of course, I was his only worker and in my mind I was already exceptionally productive – or at least I was when I wasn't dozing off – but I was all for the idea of having music playing while we worked. I liked music anyway, but I would have been for anything that might help to keep me awake.

I thought he would just bring a radio into the office, but instead he went out and bought a brand new hi-fi amplifier, speaker, and record changer. (This was before stereo became the standard.) He also bought three or four long-playing musical albums, and we began listening to them while we worked. There were only two problems: first, having only a few albums meant that we heard them over and over and over. And second, they were all Broadway show tunes — which turned out to be his favorite kind of music.

At that stage of my life, I knew that there were live shows in New York that seemed to get a lot of attention, but they were pretty far removed from my world and it wouldn't have occurred to me to go out of my way to sample the music. Still, as I listened to those records I discovered that a lot of the songs were cleverly written and sounded pretty good, and the singers and musicians were talented, so I did enjoy them — at first. But inevitably I grew sick of hearing them again and again, and although he eventually added a few other records, those first albums are the ones that always come front and center in my memory. And to get even more specific, the one among them that I remember best is My Fair Lady.

Maybe that's not so surprising, because that album is one of the best selling of all time — it was on the Billboard Top 40 album list for 292 weeks. And it's the show that made a star out of Julie Andrews. When she warbled "I Could Have Danced All Night", she sang her way into musical stardom and the beginning of a long career. Her whimsical duet with Rex Harrison, "Rain In Spain", was destined to become famous too, and the same could be said about song after song, from Harrison's touching "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face" to Stanley Holloway's fun turn with "Get Me To The Church On Time".

An interesting postscript was that when it became time to make a movie of My Fair Lady a few years later, Julie Andrews was passed over for the lead, even though by then she'd starred on Broadway in another hit show, Camelot, with Richard Burton. Instead, the part was given to Audrey Hepburn, who did a good job with the acting part and was said to be an okay singer, but her songs were dubbed by a pro, Marni Nixon. Meanwhile, Julie accepted a part in Mary Poppins — and won the Oscar for best actress. Revenge is sweet.

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