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Stage Door: "My Fair Lady" through the Years

by Nathaniel R

Tony season is (nearly) upon us so we're reviving the Stage Door column toward the end of March. But before we start reviewing shows, a history lesson.

Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Dolittle

My Fair Lady began its classic life in 1956 as a Broadway musical. No, that's not quite right. It began its life as George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, which premiered way back in 1913, over a century ago! That play inspired the stage musical by Lerner & Loewe. On March 15th previews will begin for the latest Broadway revival. Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) headlines as Eliza Dolittle, with Harry Hadden-Paton as Professor Henry Higgins, two time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz (♥︎) as Eliza's father, and showbiz legend Dame Diana Rigg (The Avengers, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Game of Thrones, etc...) as Higgins' mother. 

This will be the sixth major incarnation of the hit musical. Let's recap...

March 15th, 1956 The first incarnation of My Fair Lady opens on Broadway starring Julie Andrews as Eliza, Rex Harrison as Professor Higgins, Robert Coote as Colonel Pickering, Cathleen Nesbitt as Higgin's mother and Stanley Holloway as Eliza's father. The following year at the Tonys it received 10 Tony nominations and 6 wins. Curiously and famously it (and the concurrent TV musical Cinderella) made Julie Andrews a major star but she lost the Best Actress Tony (to Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing). She would then be denied the opportunity to recreate the role on the big screen! Andrews stayed with the stage run for two years. The show closed in 1962, which was, back then, a gargantuanly long run -- Broadway shows didn't used to stay open for 20-30 years as some hits do now.

Christmas 1964 My Fair Lady opens in movie theaters starring Audrey Hepburn. Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway are the only cast members to transfer from Broadway and both are Oscar nominated. Repeating their fates at the Tonys, Harrison wins and Holloway loses the Oscar in their respective categories. The film took Best Picture and 7 other Oscars, divvying up the statues with 1964's OTHER blockbuster musical Mary Poppins. Both were bonafide sensations at the box office.

March 21st, 1976 The first Broadway revival hits but it's not as big of a deal with awards securing only 2 Tony nominations and 1 win (this time for Mr Dolittle, rather than Higgins, played by George Rose). In this first revival Eliza Dolittle (Christine Andreas) wasn't nominated -- in fact, only one woman since Julie Andrews has been nominated for a major showbiz prize for playing that role. Crazy right? That was Liz Robertson at the Oliviers in 1979 across the pond. You'd think Eliza would be one of those awards-magnet roles, but it's actually not. The first revival closed one year after opening. 

August 14th, 1981 The second revival, starring Rex Harrison (again) and Nancy Ringham as Eliza receives only one Tony nomination (Best Revival back when the category was shared between plays and musicals). This was the least successful of the My Fair Lady runs, closing a little over three months later.

November 26th, 1993 Though this production ran a month longer than the '81 revival, it also wasn't a hit. It received zero Tony nominations (coincidentally the winner for Revival that year was Carousel, which is ALSO back on Broadway for this Tony season so they're competing again). Richard Chamberlain and Melissa Errico led the cast.

March 15th (previews) / April 19th (opening), 2018 The new production with Lauren Ambrose as Eliza Dolittle. She apparently has a stellar singing voice but I've only seen her onstage in a straight play. She played Juliet in Shakespeare in the Park some years ago (and was the best Juliet I've ever seen, full stop).

Will this fourth revival be the charm for Tony Awards and can Lauren Ambrose beat the odds and get a Tony nomination for it? This will be her third Broadway show. She was snubbed in the 2006 Tony season despite winning the Drama Desk Best Actress for "Awake and Sing!" a show which Tony voters actually loved (it received 8 other nominations).

Lastly, will they ever remake the movie? Remember years ago when they were supposed to remake it with Anne Hathaway or Carey Mulligan?


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Reader Comments (24)

I would love to see what Lauren Ambrose does with the role. I think too many directors cast an actress for the big transformation, and not necessarily how the actress charts the change in the first act. (Which is the big error in Hepburn’s work). Ambrose has been great playing scrappy, tough working class girls , and I would be so excited to see how she handles such a complex part (Wendy Hiller in the 30s Pygmalion is particularly good at this).

The original My Fair Lady production has one of my fav Broadway anecdotes. Apparently, late into rehearsal, there was a feeling that Andrews wasn’t working. So the playwright Ben Hecht was brought in, and over the course of a weekend, broke down Andrews work, and helped her reimagine the performance. This was on a musicals doc, and they even showed footage from American tv of Andrews acting out what happened during the weekend. It was fascinating

March 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterIanO

I've only seen the movie, and listened to the Original Cast recording. Such a great score, except for Show Boat, maybe the greatest ever. But the movie is so unimaginative. Merely stuffed and mounted. Rex Harrison goes through the motions and Audrey Hepburn is only excellent once she's been transformed. She's not convincing at all as a guttersnipe, and the dubbing is atrocious. This is especially wonky when if you've seen Funny Face and can hear she's a perfectly acceptable singer. I read somewhere that one of her biggest disappointments was when she found out the songs she'd already recorded wouldn't be used,and instead Marni Nixon's would be dubbed in.

March 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterken s

They have a younger Professor Higgins which makes sense...the movie version is gorgeous to look at - those costumes are ravishing

March 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Goddamn Jack Warner. After making Bette Davis' life a living hell, he then disregarded Julie for the film version of MFL because he thought she wasn't famous enough. WTF. Then he lied to Audrey, promising she could do her own vocals. He went behind her back and dubbed her. Julie won the Oscar and thanked Warner for making it possible. BOOM!

March 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Eliza has won a couple of more Olivier.

Martine McCutcheon won in 2002 and Joanna Riding a year later in 2003. Riding took over McCutcheon when she had to withdraw due to ill health.

They were both wonderful.

March 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterKeegan

I just love Harry Hadden-Paton. He was perfect in Downton Abbey. Maybe he's a tad young for the role, but I nelieve he'll do a fine job.

March 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

This brings back painful memories of 2013, when my spouse and I decided to see all the rest of the BP winners we hadn't seen. One of the low moments, among many (yes, I finally sat through both Forrest Gump & Braveheart), was sitting through the 1964 film. I was shocked at how dull I found it, how static the direction, and how repellently Rex Harrison's character came across. Also: how Gladys Cooper got a nomination for BSA for her cameo in it I will never know (I totally love her otherwise, btw). I still don't get all the love for this movie at all and never will.

March 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Happy for Lauren Ambrose. Remember when she was going to play Funny Girl?

March 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I remember when I saw this movie for the first time. I was about 9 years old, and my parents got the VHS tapes from the library. I was engaged in the film (though I remember it being too long), but I HATED that Eliza came back to him in the end. I've never been able to get the bad taste from that moment out of my mouth. I don't have a desire to see a production of this ever again. Logically I know it's not the worst best picture winner (I am aware that the movie does a lot of things well), but personally for me, it's nearly there.

March 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCash

Are you a fan of Richard Chamberlain in general, Nathaniel? I love 'The Thorn Birds' and 'The Slipper and the Rose.' :)

March 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

You forgot GIGI, ahem ;)

March 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Tyler -- i LOVED him as a kid because of both of those things

March 9, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

lauren ambrose sang in 'six feet under' in a brief fantasy bit about being stuck in a temp job and having to wear pantyhose: 'you ride up my thighs'

loved claire fisher [my second favourite character after ruth]; i was about to ask where lauren ambrose has been since 6FU but imdb shows she's been working steadily - just in things i've not seen

how old is eliza meant to be? was shocked to discover ambrose just turned 40

March 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterpar

@Peggy Sue, I do! Wasn’t it about 10 years ago that Ambrose nabbed the lead in Funny Girl, which ultimately never came to fruition. Would’ve loved to have seen it on Broadway. Hope this one is a winner.

March 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Lauren Ambrose can definitely sing - she's played at Joe's Pub a few times with The Leisure Class. There's a clip of them doing a VERY different take on "My Man" from Funny Girl floating around out there, but check out this version of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcVq3VzoNgc

She's got the pipes, but it will be interesting to see if she can act the part as well. I'm glad she's found a vehicle with Bart Sher after their planned Funny Girl revival got canned.

March 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDancin' Dan

Keegan - that is a very kind summary!

For anyone interested, that revival of My Fair Lady was quite the controversy in the UK. McCutcheon was a small-time pop singer cast in Eastenders (the biggest soap opera at the time) and became a household name and national treasure.

She quit the show and launched a fairly successful pop career this time, before being cast in a revival of My Fair Lady opposite Jonathan Pryce. She said it was a dream come true.

Initial reviews were glowing (and absolutely lead to her taking the Olivier win) yet very early on she started missing shows due to ill health. This mutated into exhaustion and she was missing more shows than she was performing in. Pryce publically called her "unprofessional" and it kick started a debate in the theatre world about casting "stars" - she simply wasn't theatre-trained and so couldn't manage the demands of the role 6 days a week.

Joanna Riding (her understudy) performed in more shows than McCutcheon during Martine's run and scored both a nomination and win at the following Oliviers.

Martine went on to Love Actually and... not much else, unfortunately...

March 10, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterkermit_the_frog

Kermit - I don't think it's kind. Martine had ME which is a dibilitating condition which has led to life long illness' for her. Trained actors cannot cope with ME any more than untrained actors and I suspect with the same condition the same would have happened to them.

March 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterKeegan

Keegan - I stand corrected (that's what happens when you read tabloid accounts and don't delve any deeper!)

What a shame - I do remember her being interviewed to promote a new album last year and her mentioning that she is still ill...

March 10, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterkermit_the_frog

I went looking for Lauren Ambrose singing on YouTube and came across her performance as a child on Star Search. Even better, a clip of her singing God Bless the Child to Isaac Mizrahi!

March 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBiggs

I saw part of the Hepburn/ Harrison film last week.
Such luscious costumes! I kept eagerly looking at every detail of the design. Cecil Beaton, one of the great designers of the world.

I agree with Cash, though, about that ending. The play "Pygmalion" didn't end that way, that was tacked onto the musical as a "happy ending", 1950s 1960s style. "Pygmalion" adherents were outraged. I saw this with my parents too, but at least my mother volubly hated the ending, and told me how wrong it was.

As for Richard Chamberlain, I love him. He's such an engaging actor. He dives so whole heartedly into his roles, you feel like he's taking you on an adventure. And he either picks the best adventures, or it's the best because it's with him.

I loved him as Raoul Wallenberg. As the original Jason Bourne, he had heart and soul in the role, and you desperately wanted him to recover his identity.

March 10, 2018 | Unregistered Commenteradri

I saw MFL at the Kennedy Center. Few years ago. However, to be honest, it's slow and horribly dated. The music, of course, is lovely. I am fairly pleased with how the movie saga settled. I loved Audrey, especially upon her transformation. I dont really care about the dubbing. I don't think Julie had the elegance that Audrey had for the second half. BTW - I saw the majority of the horse race costumes on display at Warner Brothers in December. They were about to be taken down for restoration....it's somewhat doubtful they can all be restored. Audrey's dress was not there. I was very touched to read the story about how Cukor brought Audrey aside while rehearsing the "wouldn't it be loverly" on nov. 22, 1963 and asked her to inform the cast and crew about the jfk Assasination. So....Julie won her much deserved Oscar for creating a beloved icon. All came out fine.

March 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJimmy

Jimmy, I must respectfully take issue with your comment. Julie Andrews exudes elegance. I mean, yeah.

March 10, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Can Lauren Ambrose sing the part?!
And TWO different actresses in TWO different productions won the Olivier for Musical Best Actress in TWO consecutive years, 2002-03.

March 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterFadhil

Love Ambrose so, so much for her work on 6FU. I can definitely see her rocking the first part, not sure about the transformation but it feels foolish to underestimate her.

March 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

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