50 years ago
Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady, 1956.
On March 15, 1956—50 years ago today—Broadway had the kind of night that makes up for all the others.
At 8:30 at the Mark Hellinger Theater, at Broadway and 51st Street in New York City, My Fair Lady opened with so much excitement that it took six years for the street to calm down and the house lights to go off. The play, billed as “a musical comedy adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion,” didn’t exactly sneak into town. During the weeks leading up to the opening, everyone around seemed to know that it was destiny’s boffo—everyone except Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote the book and lyrics.
The idea for the show came from a movie producer named Gabriel Pascal, who was Hungarian by birth. In the 1930s he had gone to Ireland and approached George Bernard Shaw with the idea of making a movie of Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion. Shaw had never sold film rights for his works before. In Pascal’s case, he relented. “I talked dramatic art with him,” Pascal explained to The New York Times, “I spoke his spirit.”
Opening night tickets were hard to get—Marlene Dietrich had one—and the audience was just a bit wary at first. But Stanley Holloway’s worldly rendition of “With a Little Bit of Luck” lifted the place up. The audience would have been happy if that song had been reprised over and over again for another two hours. It was a showstopper. Other numbers were queued and ready to try to top it, though. And they did. Wolcott Gibbs, writing in The New Yorker, couldn’t get over “The Rain in Spain.” He called it “a moment that had everything—charm, style, wit gaiety—and I will cherish it as long as I live.” The reviewer from Time was among the many who fell in love with Julie Andrews during “I Could Have Danced All Night.”
At the end of the show, the audience didn’t just clap. They didn’t just stand up either, lumbering to their feet in what sometimes passes for a standing ovation. No, in a night like no other, they jumped up as one at the final curtain, hollering all the while. Even that wasn’t enough. They rushed into the aisles toward the stage, not wanting to leave My Fair Lady or ever let it get away. In the 50 years since the songs were first sung, it never has.
—Julie M. Fenster (link) is the author with Douglas Brinkley of Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism(Morrow, 2006).