At First Performance of ‘My Fair Lady’ In New Haven, Drama Was Offstage

The snow was coming down. The turntables didn’t turn. The star refused to perform. The cast was dismissed, thinking that that night’s show would not go on.

Yet “My Fair Lady” opened improbably, triumphantly, to its first paying audience on that Saturday, Feb. 4, 1956, at the Shubert Theater here, making the night the stuff of theater legend.

The out-of-town circuit for shows destined for Broadway — and its pressure cooker atmosphere — has largely been replaced with the more measured pace of readings, workshops and developmental productions at regional theaters and presenting houses. The latest, highly anticipated revival of “My Fair Lady,” which opens Thursday at Lincoln Center Theater, was developed in-house. The weather forecast is expected to be more kind.

But in 1956, signs of trouble for the new musical, based on George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion,” came early. In the days before opening, the production’s turntables, a new kind of cable-driven stage device, failed to work properly.Tensions, too, were rising a few blocks away, inside the rehearsal hall at the Jewish Community Center.

Rex Harrison, the show’s Henry Higgins and marquee star, was looking increasingly nervous, as the 20-year-old Julie Andrews, who was to play Eliza Doolittle, was keeping her cool. In an era before microphones could supersize voices, actors had only their own vocal cords to project to the back of the theater, and Harrison — a novice to the Broadway musical, though he had sung in London shows decades before — was feeling insecure.

The show’s director, Moss Hart; its librettist and lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner; and its composer, Frederick Loewe, tried to reassure the temperamental actor, but when he faced an orchestra of 32 musicians in the 1,600-seat, two-balconied theater in a final rehearsal for that first public performance, he became overwhelmed.

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