Sixty-one years ago, on 15th March 1956, a very young (and very nervous) Julie Andrews stepped on to the stage at the Mark Hellinger Theater. It was the Broadway debut of My Fair Lady - a show that would go on to achieve success so phenomenal that no-one could have predicted it.
Today, the show is an icon in theater history, and musical buffs will likely know all its most famous trivia. But with such a long and rich history, there are still a few My Fair Lady facts that few people have heard.
It Almost Never Happened...
When George Bernard Shaw first penned the play Pygmalion, he could have had no idea it would become the Broadway hit still talked about more than 60 years later. In fact, he hoped it would never become a musical at all.
Pygmalion was far from Shaw's first success. In 1894, he wrote Arms and the Man - a comedy set during the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian war. The play debuted at Avenue Theatre, where it enjoyed roaring success and quickly became a favorite of society’s social scene. In fact, once the curtain fell and the playwright appeared on stage, it was said that only one member of the audience booed amidst raucous applause (to that audience member, Shaw quipped "my dear fellow, I quite agree with you, but what are we two against so many?").
Arms and the Man was so popular that Leopold Jacobson picked it up and transformed it into an operatta titled A Chocolate Soldier. The production was a wild success - amongst all except Shaw. He detested Jacobson's interpretation, and described it as being "in the worst taste of 1860". Even more troubling for Shaw was that while A Chocolate Soldier was running, theaters refused to put on productions of Arms and the Man, for fear of losing out to close competition. Overall, the experience made Shaw vow never to allow one of his plays to be made into a musical again - which led to conflict when theater directors were clamoring over the rights to Pygmalion. But true to his word, Shaw held out, and it wasn't transformed into a musical until long after his passing.
Following Shaw's death, the rights to Pygmalion were held by Gabriel Pascal. Surprisingly, Pascal also never made it into a musical in his lifetime - but not for lack of trying. Unlike Shaw, Pascal was eager to have a musical produced, and enlisted the help of lyricists Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Ultimately, the task proved too difficult and the collaboration failed. It wasn’t until after Pascal’s passing that Lerner and Loewe returned to the project and at last completed it.
...Even On Opening Night!
Throughout rehearsals, Harrison’s ego proved to be a problem when he rejected the show's working title - Liza, later amended to Lady Liza - because it shifted the focus to the female lead and relegated him to secondary character. In the end, the writers settled on My Fair Lady. He was also said to bring a Penguin Publishing copy of Shaw’s original work to rehearsals with him in order to ensure the new script was as true to the play as possible.
However, surprisingly, the opposite was the problem on opening night, when Harrison has a crisis of confidence and was convinced his singing wasn't good enough. The entire cast and crew were actually sent home, believing the show to have been cancelled, before they were recalled at the last second. After all, the show must go on.
Film Casting Wasn't Plain Sailing Either
While Andrews may be a living legend of the entertainment business today, she was just 19 at the time of My Fair Lady's debut and at the beginning of her career. Ultimately her performance in the Broadway play was a huge success, amongst both critics and audiences. And yet, when the musical was picked up for a movie adaptation, Andrews was passed over for the role of Eliza. Instead, producers decided to cast someone with more star power to star opposite Harrison - Audrey Hepburn. This surprised even Hepburn herself, who was 35 at the time of playing the 19-year-old character. She reportedly said that Andrews should play the role, but took it on after being told that Andrews wouldn’t be cast even if she turned it down.
Hepburn was one of the era's most popular actresses, but she wasn't a practiced singer. In fact, even after strenuous preparation, most of her singing in the film was dubbed by Marni Nixon (when Hepburn was first told about this, she reportedly walked out, only to come back the next day and apologise for her behavior). And when it came to awards season, Hepburn didn't receive a best actress nomination. In the year that she was eligible, the Best Actress Oscar was won by none other than Julie Andrews. After being passed up for the role of Eliza, Andrews had gone on to star in the titular role of the Disney adaptation of Mary Poppins.
Andrews made reference to this twist of fate in her acceptance speech, when she thanked My Fair Lady's film producer for "making this possible". But it seems she doesn't bear any hard feelings; in 2016 she directed an Australian revival of the original Broadway play.
Rex Harrison, on the other hand, was cast to play his original role in the film adaptation - but not without some hesitation. Producers were concerned that he was too old to play Eliza’s love interest, and approached Peter O’Toole instead. However, O’Toole’s salary demands were too high and after Harrison sent some younger-looking headshots, producers were eventually convinced.
It Continues To Influence Pop Culture
My Fair Lady has undoubtedly made its stamp on theater history, but it’s also provided inspiration for some surprising endeavors. For example, when Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane was questioned about the character Stewie, the sophisticated and snobbish Griffin family baby, he replied: ““I’m a big musical fan. In My Fair Lady, Professor Henry Higgins - Rex Harrison’s character - always just amused me. In college I worked up an impression of Rex Harrison in order to get girls...I thought, there’s gotta be something funny here. This is a secondary character, no-one’s going to pay attention to him. Rex Harrison was always so funny to me - why don’t I just do that voice and make it the baby?”
It seems the creative world is still drawing inspiration from the pedantic professor who teaches Eliza to enunciate through his famous idioms. Which brings us to the final fact…
The Rain In Spain Doesn't Stay Mainly In The Plains
Rainfall is much heavier in the mountains. Sorry, Higgins.