Learning "Fair Lady"

My Fair Lady opened for a record-setting six-and-a-half-year run on Broadway on this day in 1956 — music by Frederick Loewe, words by Alan Jay Lerner, direction by Moss Hart, story taken from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews starring. In her recent memoir, Home, Andrews describes her involvement with the play as “one of the most difficult, most glorious, most complex adventures of my life.”

Some of the difficulties originated with Harrison. Then forty-eight and with an international reputation, Harrison had limited patience for his twenty-year-old costar’s learning curve. He also had a healthy sense of his own entitlement as both star and scholar: he so regularly and disruptively hauled out his Penguin edition of Shaw’s play that Hart and Lerner presented him with a full-sized taxidermist’s penguin, to great applause from the cast. In four-letter-word style, Harrison lobbied Hart to have Andrews fired; instead, Hart canceled company rehearsals for two days and gave Andrews a crash course in how to do Eliza Doolittle:

Moss bullied, cajoled, scolded, and encouraged. He yelled from the floor, “No! You’re saying it like a schoolgirl! Give me more.” And then again, “Louder! I want that angrier.”… He leapt onto the stage to show me what he wanted. He snatched Eliza’s purse from my grasp and whacked an imaginary Higgins. He showed me how Eliza might sit in the scene at the Ascot, teacup held high, pinky finger extended.

By the end of the forty-eight hours, says Andrews, Hart had made Eliza “part of my soul” and earned her eternal gratitude — perhaps on more than one count:

Dear Moss. He later told me that he said to his wife, Kitty Carlisle, “You know, if this were the old days, I’d have taken her to the penthouse at the Plaza Hotel, locked the door, made passionate love to her all weekend, and she’d have emerged Monday morning — a STAR!”
Kitty apparently replied, “Well, darling, we know we love each other. If you think it’ll do any good — go ahead.”

Andrews’s transformation was mirrored by one in Harrison, who became so jittery before the show’s first preview performance that he refused to go on. By this time, Andrews was full of confidence and no doubt enjoying her Higgins-whacking lines:

Just you wait ‘enry ‘iggins, just you wait!
You’ll be sorry, but your tears’ll be too late!
You’ll be broke and I’ll have money;
Will I help you? Don’t be funny!
Just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins, just you wait!

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.