Original Broadway Production (1956)
Rehearsals began on January 3, 1956. In his memoir, The Street Where I Live, Alan Jay Lerner wrote that the title My Fair Lady was decided upon after rehearsals started, but research by Dominic McHugh, presented in his book Loverly: The Life and Times of My Fair Lady, reveals that the title was decided upon during the second half of December 1955. It was quite official by December 30, 1955, when producer Herman Levin sent record producer Goddard Lieberson an outline of the billing sheet for use on the cover of the original cast album, with the title My Fair Lady prominently stamped upon it.
On March 26, 1956, Tom Helmore was hired to be the standby for the role of Henry Higgins. This was 11 days after the production opened. Helmore received no playbill credit as standby. This is fairly common when established actors agree to be a standby.
Christopher Hewett, who was playing Zoltan Karpathy (and the minor role of A Bystander), was the understudy for Higgins when the production opened. He left the production almost immediately after the opening. In fact, on March 14, 1956, the day before the opening, it was reported in the New York Times that he would be directing the sketches for Ziegfeld Follies of 1956 and that it would be going into rehearsal on the following day. The Follies closed out of town.
According to an article in the August 19, 1956, edition of the New York Times, the performance on the previous evening (Saturday evening, August 18, 1956) was halted partway through Act One and the audience was sent home. Tom Helmore (Rex Harrison's standby), was playing Higgins at the performance. According to the article, he had contracted a throat infection that had been running through the cast and was in such audible (and sometimes inaudible) vocal distress that he could not continue. He had skipped "Why Can't the English?" altogether and had performed just one chorus of "I'm an Ordinary Man."
Earlier in the week, the infection had been affecting Julie Andrews, who had just returned to the role of Eliza on Friday evening, after having missed the first five performances that week. Harrison had been suffering from laryngitis himself because of the throat infection, but he had been waiting for her to return before he took some time off to recover (so that no audience would have to see substitutes in both roles).
Helmore played Higgins at the Friday evening performance and the Saturday matinee. An article in the Times on Monday, August 20, 1956, stated that Helmore was expected to return that evening. It also stated that prior to his first performance on the previous Friday, he had rehearsed constantly for two days, knowing that he would be going on. and that the combination of too much rehearsal followed by the performances had caused his vocal problems.
On April 17, 1956, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award unanimously chose My Fair Lady as the best musical of the 1955-1956 season. Such a unanimous vote by the group is an unusual occurrence; in fact, this may be the only time it has occurred in the organization's history. An important thing to remember, however, is that the competition was relatively weak that year. Other eligible musicals included Damn Yankees (which had opened too late during the 1954-1955 season to be eligible for that year's award) and Pipe Dream. The Most Happy Fella, which might have taken a few votes away from My Fair Lady did not open until May 3, 1956, too late for the 1955-1956 award. It would go on to win the 1956-1957 Best Musical award from the group.
The eligibility period for the 1956 Tony Awards ran from March 1, 1955, to February 29, 1956, so My Fair Lady was not eligible for the Tonys until the following year, at which time its competition included The Most Happy Fella, Candide, Bells Are Ringing and Li'l Abner. My Fair Lady received nominations in the following categories:
In addition to the Tony for Musical, Tonys were also won by Harrison, Hart, Smith, Beaton and Allers. There were no awards that season for Score and Book. The authors shared in the award for Musical.
Of note to collectors of playbills is that even though the production closed on September 29, 1962, there are a few copies floating around with a date of October 1, 1962. (At the time, playbills were dated weekly, with the date always being the Monday of the week.) It seems that the final week of the run was packed. An article about closing that was published in the New York Times on October 1 even noted that "Playbills were at a premium. 'I don't have any more,' an usher explained to a distressed woman."
One possible explanation for the existence of playbills dated the week after closing is that the producion had run out of playbills and needed to order more late in the week, by which time the Playbill company was already printing playbill for the following week.
By the time Edward Mulhare took over the role of Henry Higgins full times on December 2, 1957, he had subbed for Rex Harrison a great deal. He first played the role from February 4, 1957, through March 2, 1957, while Harrison took a month's vacation. Harrison took a month off again starting in early August 1957. Mulhare played the role from August 2 through August 31. This followed Mulhare subbing for Harrison at both Saturday performances from June 8 through July 27.
Cathleen Nesbitt, who created the role of Mrs. Higgins, stayed in the production only a six-and-a-half months on Broadway She left to play the Grand Duchess in the Broadway production of Terrence Rattigan's The Sleeping Prince.
Two years later, illness forced her successor, Viola Roache, to relinquish the role. Margery Maude, who had been playing the role on the national tour, replaced her and remained in the role through the end of the Broadway run — exactly four years (from September 29, 1958, through September 29, 1962).
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