Happy 60th, My Fair Lady By Peter Filichia
There are very few musicals that become so illustrious that they are soon referred to and recognized by their initials alone. ACL is one and POTO is another, but long before they came on the scene, there was MFL: My Fair Lady. (Get the new vinyl pressing here).
Although the Soothsayer in Julius Caesar warned him to “Beware the Ides of March,” MFL didn’t have anything to fear when sixty years ago it chose March 15th as its opening date. The 1956 musical started a run of 2,717 performances, then unprecedented for a musical, and enough to keep it in first place for almost a decade.
Starting in 1958, MFL amassed 2,281 performances in London, but Theatre Drury Lane is larger than any of the three venues – the Mark Hellinger, Broadhurst and Broadway – that the six-time Tony®-winning smash played during its seventy-two months on Broadway.
Bookwriter-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, composer Frederick Loewe, director Moss Hart and producer Herman Levin made it look easy, but of course creating a musical never is. The birthing pains of musicalizing Henry Higgins, the wizard who turned Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower-seller into a lady, were particularly arduous. Dominic McHugh proved that in his wonderfully detailed and extraordinarily researched book Loverly, which Oxford University Press brought out in 2012.
Gabriel Pascal, who produced the 1938 film of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, saw musical possibilities, but the still-alive Shaw was hard to convince. Many have assumed that the playwright hated The Chocolate Soldier, the operetta based on his Arms and the Man, simply because it was a musical; McHugh reports that his objection was that Soldier superseded Arms and prevented it from getting additional productions. He wasn’t going to let that happen with Pygmalion. But, oh, it did. Shaw died in 1950, and Pascal as well as The Theatre Guild approached and were refused by Frank Loesser and Cole Porter. Little did Porter know that he would come to love MFL so much that he would reserve a seat to see it once a week during the entire run.
The Theatre Guild preferred Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green to Pascal’s suggestion of Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg. Lane was more inclined to write Li’l Abner with – here’s an irony – Alan Jay Lerner. Actually, years earlier, Lerner had thought of musicalizing Pygmalion with Kurt Weill, but the composer’s death in 1950 ended that possibility.
Mary Martin and her husband Richard Halliday supported the Theatre Guild as producer and got Rodgers and Hammerstein involved. Meanwhile, Gertrude Lawrence, who’d once played Eliza in Pygmalion — and had earlier approached Noel Coward to musicalize the play for her – was irked when Lerner and Loewe took over and she wasn’t asked first. To be frank, Lawrence’s notoriously less-than-stellar vocal performance in The King and I was held against her. ”Without Mary Martin,” McHugh writes, Lerner “felt that the musical would not hold up.” Lerner said that the star had that “combination of the little girl and the great lady,” and said he’d do “anything short of homicide to see Mary as Eliza.”
Her reaction, however, turned out to be akin to a dentist drilling. That she heard some Lerner-Loewe songs and decreed that the “dear boys have lost their talent” has been told many times, but McHugh let us know that one of the songs they auditioned was “Just You Wait,” Eliza’s fantasy of killing Higgins as revenge for the arduous lessons he’s inflicting on her. A lyric at the time had Eliza say of Higgins that she’d like to “kick your bloomin’ arse.” Knowing the utterly proper image that Martin liked to uphold – years later she would tell Jennie lyricist Howard Dietz that his “Before I go and meet my maker, I want to use the salt left in the shaker” was “dirty” – that line alone may have made her reject MFL.
Truer words have never been spoken than McHugh’s “Eliza Doolittle is the ultimate Broadway musical heroine … she embodies the triumph of aspiration.” So who to play her? The names of Judy Garland, Deanna Durbin, and Dolores Gray were bandied about. Petula Clark auditioned. A Times report stated that Gray and Tom Helmore would play the leads. (They didn’t.) Also sought was Judy Holliday, which ultimately provided another irony: her Ella Peterson in Bells Are Ringing would wind up besting Julie Andrews’ Eliza in the 1956-57 Tony® race for Best Actress in a Musical.
But that came much later. During the writing, many changes were made. Eliza’s father Alfred P. Doolittle originally appeared in the opening scene. Higgins’ mother visited her son to champion Clara Eynsford-Hill as his possible wife. At Ascot, Freddy Eynsford-Hill – an eventual Eliza admirer — was revealed as a compulsive gambler. Eliza’s faux pas was her yelling “Come on, get the bloody cork out!” and later “Come on, Dover, get the bloody lead out.” After her Ascot debacle, Higgins had a too-demonstrative cheer-up song for “Lady Liza.” Higgins and Pickering went out shopping for boutonnieres and ran into Zoltan Kaparthy, which made them know and worry in advance that he’d be at the Embassy Ball and would unmask her. So they returned home and told Eliza they were cancelling. She responded by going upstairs and coming back down all dressed to go. Eliza’s leaving Higgins spurred him to actually attend Alfred P. Doolittle’s wedding in hopes that she would be there.
Pascal died in 1954, leaving the field open for new blood. The Theatre Guild was furious that Herman Levin stepped in and optioned the property, given how much time, money and effort it had put into it. If the Guild had produced it, that once-august organization might still be around today.
As time went on, the female-starring vehicle morphed into a male-centric vehicle, but Michael Redgrave nevertheless rejected the chance to play their male chauvinist Pygmalion, and Levin went to everyone’s second choice: Rex Harrison. He agreed, but first had to finish doing Bell, Book and Candle in London, star in a film and direct a play; then he’d start MFL rehearsals. Levin was concerned: “Is he aware of the magnitude of the physical undertaking of a musical?”
In fact, he wasn’t; there have been many stories of how he almost didn’t go on at the New Haven premiere when he realized how hard it was to sing over an orchestra’s playing.
Eventually nineteen-year-old Julie Andrews was entrusted with Eliza, although Levin thought her hair was “rather drab” and insisted that she dye it auburn. Harrison would get $3,000 a week – more than $26,000 today – while Andrews’ weekly paycheck would be a third as much.
So was Stanley Holloway’s. He wanted co-star billing for playing Alfred P. Doolittle, but Harrison wouldn’t hear of it; the two hated each other for the entire run.
Directors? John Van Druten and then Alfred Lunt said no, but Moss Hart said yes. As for a choreographer, Gower Champion’s asking price was deemed too high. Michael Kidd was interested, but when he flatly said he didn’t like “You Did It,” Hart refused to work with him.
Songs that came and went had such titles as “Dear Little Fool,” “The Undeserving Poor,” “Shy,” “Who Is That Lady?” and “What’s to Become of Me?” Add to these “There’s Always One You Can’t Forget,” whose title at least Lerner recycled into his 1983 musical Dance a Little Closer.
None of those saw the light of the New Haven tryout (let alone the Philadelphia one), but Higgins’ “Come to the Ball” did – and was deemed by Lerner as a “disaster in ¾ time.” “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight” was only heard in New Haven, too, although film audiences heard it three years later word-for-word and note-for-note in Gigi. Lerner had never much liked the song, but Loewe did; as a result, during pre-production he played it for Gigi producer Arthur Freed who decided that it would beautifully fit the film.
Along the way, Lerner was predicting that the show would have “one of the greatest moments of any musical.” You may infer he meant “The Rain in Spain,” or the stunning reveal of the Ascot attendees, but no: the big ballet in which Eliza prepares for the ball was his choice – but not the choice of New Haven audiences, critics or Moss Hart.
Had this ballet not been cut, would choreographer Hanya Holm have won a Tony®? She didn’t; Michael Kidd did for L’il Abner, so although he lost out on millions in MFL royalites, his doing a different show that Tony®-season wasn’t a total loss.
Only “Show Me” and “The Rain in Spain” (which took Loewe ten minutes to write) were intact from Day One. “Why Can’t the English?” originally included the lyric “With ev’ry Oriental / Good speech is fundamental.” There was an extra verse to “Get Me to the Church on Time” and the show’s biggest hit was originally called “On the Street Where SHE Lives.”
“A Hymn to Him” was written during rehearsals after Lerner heard Harrison often complain about women.
The score that survived did well enough, didn’t it? The original cast album of MFL was the first-ever album to sell two million, then three million copies. (It’s again available on vinyl, by the way.) Columbia Records made a $15 million profit on recording costs of $40,000.
It wasn’t quite what was heard in the theater, for record producer Goddard Lieberson had Lerner change “For God’s Sake” in “Get Me to the Church on Time” to “Be Sure and.” (If he hadn’t, would the “Parent Advisory” label had then come into being?)
Finally, here’s an observation apropos nothing at all. My taking notes on Loverly had me abbreviating names: “HH” for Higgins and “APD” for Alfred P. Doolittle. Eliza Doolittle’s “ED” made me crack a smile, for today those initials stand for something else entirely.
However, the funniest of all were Freddy Eynsford-Hill’s initials: “FEH.” Can’t you hear Higgins’ now in “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” yelling out “Marry Freddy? FEH!”
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.