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
According to Lerner’s 1978 memoir, when Harrison got to the “A Hymn to Him” number, he stopped the rehearsal.
“Mossie! Mossie!,” he cried out to the director in the darkened orchestra, stepping into the footlights. “We’re not going to open tonight — and I may never open.”
Among the backstage witnesses to that piece of theater history: Jerry Adler, now 87, who was an assistant stage manager. “He flung his hat into the orchestra and stormed off to his dressing room, slamming the door behind him,” Mr. Adler recalled recently.
“He was terrified,” added Mr. Adler, now best known as a late-in-life actor (“The Good Wife,” “The Sopranos”). “We were opening that night and we hadn’t been through the second act yet.”
As Mr. Adler remembers it, Harrison’s British valet emerged from his dressing room to make a formal announcement: “Mr. Harrison would like to see Mr. Hart.”
Mr. Adler went on: “The rest of us were all standing around, like, what do we do now? So we did a little rehearsal of the next scene, which was ‘A Little Bit of Luck’ with Stanley Holloway.
“Everything was fine and great with that number,” he added. “Finally, Moss came out and told us to release the cast for the day.”
The creative team scurried in and out of Harrison’s dressing room to urge the star to change his mind.
Finally, an emergency telephone call was placed to Maurice H. Bailey, who ran the Shubert and was playing bridge at the local country club, according to Edith Goodmaster, his executive secretary at the time.
Mr. Bailey rushed to the theater, remembered Ms. Goodmaster, 87, and told Harrison that if he didn’t perform that night, Mr. Bailey would go onstage and tell the audience of the actor’s refusal.
Harrison’s manager “turned white,” Ms. Goodmaster said, adding: “Mr. Bailey later told me that he would never have gone through with the threat. He was bluffing.”
It’s not clear whether Mr. Bailey’s warning — or the failure-to-perform lawsuits that were then being discussed with Harrison’s lawyer and agent — had an impact, but the actor relented, appeased by the promise that Hart would advise the theatergoers of the production’s tenuous state before the curtain rose.
“Moss told Rex that we would explain to them that there are technical problems, and that it’s more like a rehearsal,” Mr. Adler said. “He said, ‘They won’t mind at all, because audiences love things like that.’”
Around 6 o’clock, Hart came out of Harrison’s dressing room. “I’ll never forget what he said,” Mr. Adler recalled. “He said, grandly: ‘Gather the players! We’re opening tonight!’”
Word of the performance’s cancellation, which had been broadcast on the radio, was rescinded, and crowds started forming at the theater: Yale students, local fans and trainloads of theater folk from Manhattan.
Meanwhile, Mr. Adler and another assistant stage manager crisscrossed New Haven, rounding up the actors from Kaysey’s (a theater hangout) and the nearby Taft Hotel, where most of the cast was housed.
“I went across the street to the Loew’s Poli,” said Mr. Adler, referring to the movie theater opposite the Shubert, “and in the middle of the movie, I yelled out: ‘Anyone here from ‘My Fair Lady’ cast? The show is back on tonight!’ We got everyone but one — Rosemary Gaines, who had an attack of appendicitis and was in the hospital.” (She was an ensemble member who played a servant.)
As promised, Hart stepped before the curtain around 8:45 p.m. — openings were later in that era — and addressed the audience with his famous elegant charm.
“It was one of the great opening night speeches,” said Mr. Adler, who watched from the wings. “He finished by quoting Blanche DuBois: ‘We have always depended on the kindness of strangers.’ The audience loved it.”
The orchestra started its overture as lights on the scrim revealed a tableau at Covent Garden. The first scene began with Harrison’s revealing himself from behind a pillar. He was holding a notebook. “I could see that he was shaking,” Mr. Adler said.
The welcoming applause helped calm him, and he got through his opening number: “Why Can’t the English?”
“That gave him confidence,” Mr. Adler said. “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” which showcased Ms. Andrews’s soprano, was welcomed even more warmly. By the time the old music hall pro Holloway performed “With a Little Bit of Luck,” it was clear that the audience was loving the show.
But the night’s high point, according to those who were there, was at the end of “The Rain in Spain,” when Ms. Andrews, Harrison and Robert Coote — who played Colonel Pickering — joyously collapsed on a sofa after Eliza’s linguistic breakthrough.
“The audience just went berserk, leapt to their feet and refused to stop applauding,” Mr. Adler said.
Harrison and Coote didn’t know what to do.
“It was little Julie — a veteran of England’s music halls — who took command,” Mr. Adler said. “She grabbed their hands and led them in taking a small bow, acknowledging the audience’s applause so they could go on with the show. It never happened quite like that again.”
At intermission, Ms. Goodmaster remembered, members of the audience were rushing to the box office to snap up remaining tickets for the run.
That’s not to say the show was perfect. With technical delays and an overstuffed score, “My Fair Lady” ran past midnight. Three numbers were later cut. And the problematic turntables proved problematic throughout.
“They never worked perfectly,” Mr. Adler said. “Not even on opening night in New York.”
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