The Other My Fair Lady
By Peter Filichia —
We can’t let March go by without celebrating the anniversary of one of the greatest musicals of all time. Fifty-five years ago this month, My Fair Lady opened.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of the people who knows the Rex Harrison-Julie Andrews cast albums inside out. You may prefer the 1956 Broadway edition, which fans of Harrison tend to favor, or the 1958 London edition, which is the favorite of Andrews admirers; he’s less mannered on the former while she sings better on the latter.
But wait! Last week, we also marked the 35th anniversary of My Fair Lady’s first (of three) Broadway revivals. Even die-hard fans of the show might not be aware that this production that opened on March 25, 1976 received a recording, too. It’s a darned good one that makes for some loverly listening.
Now no one is going to pretend that the two original leads, both of whom won Oscars eight years down the line (one of them for this very role) didn’t have far more star power. But this is an alternate universe Fair Lady.
Ian Richardson was already known in England as an illustrious interpreter of Shakespeare when he signed to portray Henry Higgins. To Americans, he was then obscure, although he became a household name in quite a few households by playing the not-so-nice politico Francis Urquhart in House of Cards, To Play the King and The Final Cut.
Richardson offered a more nuanced performance — but, to be fair, it benefited from Harrison’s blazing the trail before him. One other factor is that Richardson was the more natively musical of the two. The famous story about Harrison’s initial refusal to do the first New Haven performance because he was terrified that he wouldn’t be able to do it with an orchestra? Richardson’s performance suggests that this would have never been a problem for him.
Right from “Why Can’t the English?” we can see that Richardson played it with more umbrage and outrage than Harrison had. And while he complained about people “dropping ‘h’s’ everywhere,” he rolled his “r’s” in a most pretentious fashion.
Employees often take on the characteristics of their employers, so there’s fun in hearing in “I Could Have Danced All Night” that Mrs. Pearce (Sylvia O’Brien) rolled her “r’s” too in a most affected fashion.
What’s wonderful is that when Richardson reached the sincere sections of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” – especially the line – “like breathing out and breathing in” – he didn’t roll his “r’s” at all. Here he became a genuine human being. But, oh, when he arrived at the ranting and raging section of the song, he was back to being pretentious.
Note his “A Hymn to Him,” too. The way Richardson sang “One man in a million may shout a bit” had a subtext of “If there’s even one.” When he said, “Mrs. Pearce, you’re a woman,” he sounded as if he were noticing that aspect of her for the first time. His “I’m an Ordinary Man” offered the same sense of outrage. But note that Richardson did transpose two words in one line that hurt Alan Jay Lerner’s perfect rhyme. Listen and see if you can catch the mistake.
We can’t suggest that flub is the reason why Richardson lost the Best Actor in a Musical Tony – but how in the world did George Rose win it for playing Alfred P. Doolittle? No one should be winning that prize for merely appearing in three scenes and singing two songs. Think of Rose’s win as a lifetime achievement award. That he was known as a gentleman in an often unsavory business probably didn’t hurt his chances either. But what an irony that he won in this category when Stanley Holloway couldn’t even win the 1957 Best Featured Actor in a Musical Tony. (Sydney Chaplin did for Bells Are Ringing – although it was really a lead role.)
Rose did a British Music Hall version of scatting in “With a Little Bit of Luck.” In “Get Me to the Church on Time,” he added a mixture of laughing and crying about his fate. And here’s a comment on the times: While the original Broadway and London cast albums had Doolittle sing, “Be sure and get me to the church on time,” the 1964 soundtrack, issued smack-dab in the middle of the swinging ‘60s, introduced the actual lyric: “For God’s sake, get me to the church on time.” That mild oath is used here, too.
Robert Coote, the original Pickering, returned. Did he make an error in “You Did It” when he sang “Duke of Transylvania” instead of “Prince of Transylvania”? Had Lerner changed the word for some reason? We’ll never know. (While we’re at it, we might as well wonder if either the Duke or the Prince of Transylvania knew Frank N. Furter.)
So-called “long-playing” records couldn’t hold nearly as much music as CDs eventually would; thus the original and London Fair Ladys didn’t offer “The Embassy Waltz,” one of the most felicitous pieces of instrumental show music. One does get to hear it as a bonus track at the end of the CD release of the original cast album of My Fair Lady, but here it’s in its rightful place — between “On the Street Where You Live” and “You Did It.” What’s more, that bonus track is a recording made by one-time popular orchestra leader Percy Faith. With all due respect to the esteemed maestro, this 1976 cast album recording is preferable. It fits better, because the same orchestra that’s been playing throughout the cast album plays it. That does make a difference. So you can keep the Faith, which does sound tacked on; I’ll take this rendition of “The Embassy Waltz.”
Is there any harder role in the entire musical theater canon than Eliza Doolittle? Think of how many stages an actress must go through: down-and-out, mildly ambitious, angry and frustrated, progressing, succeeding, failing, succeeding again – all before she truly finds out “who this Miss Doolittle is.” Christine Andreas got all of those while displaying a beautiful voice.
One of my all-time favorite show biz stories comes courtesy of Ms. Andreas. As a child in Camden, New Jersey, she attended a Catholic grammar school run by old-world, in-the-wimple-and-habit nuns. One of them recognized little Christine’s vocal abilities early on – and was quick to tell Mrs. Andreas, “If you don’t allow your daughter to become a singer, you’ll go to hell when you die.”
As if there aren’t enough commandments! Now Mrs. Andreas suddenly had an eleventh to follow: Thou shalt make thy daughter a singer. It was in the cards, anyway; a lovely instrument such as Andreas’ eventually gets heard. But I still love the story. Chicago has a character named Go-to-hell Kitty, but the world was spared Go-to-hell Andreas.
This production played 377 performances, most of them at the St. James Theatre. In other words, Richardson and Andreas went to the St. James so often that they probably called it St. Jim. For those who either went far fewer times or not at all, here’s the 1976 revival cast album of My Fair Lady to either remind you of or to introduce you to its glories.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.