A professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins is listening to the various speech patterns of the people outside St Paul’s Cathedral in Covent Garden, London. He bumps into an old colleague, Colonel Pickering, who has long admired the work that Higgins has achieved in the field of phonetics. Overhearing the strong cockney accent of a flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, Colonel Pickering wagers Higgins that he cannot turn Eliza from a cockney flower girl into a lady who will be accepted by the upper classes as one of their own. Intrigued by the challenge and confident of his own ability, Higgins installs Eliza into his home and proceeds to coach her and try to turn her into the lady that Pickering has challenged. Meanwhile, coal-man Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father, always one with an eye to the main chance, learns of the situation and attempts to capitalise on the events unfolding. He is unsuccessful.
More successful, however, is Higgins. Eliza is learning how to speak and act as an upper-class lady. She is taken to the social event of the season, the race meeting at Ascot where she manages to charm everyone, in spite of the odd lapse in speech, and especially a young man by the name of Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Later she attends a magnificent ball where she is studied most intently by one of Higgins’ ex-students, Zoltan Kaparthy who suggests to all around that Eliza is obviously a member of a European noble family. Once again Eliza has carried off the deception but receives no praise or acknowledgement of her achievements from Higgins. Deeply upset by his lack of feeling she leaves his home to stay with his mother, Mrs Higgins.
Higgins cannot understand Eliza’s actions and visits her at his mother’s home where he is told, in no uncertain terms, by her that he is a rude, selfish, egomaniac. He leaves and back in his study muses over the differences between a woman and a man. The door opens and Eliza is back. Irascible as ever, Higgins demands his slippers as the curtain falls!
Somehow Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe contrived to create a perfect musical out of a flawless play – an achievement unmatched before or since. They retained the plot, characters and many of the lines from Shaw’s Pygmalion and arranged them with a sparkling score. Every song is a showstopper.