Ordinary man: An interview with Jerry Adler on the original ‘My Fair Lady’

man poking head out between blue theater curtains

Last winter, Lincoln Center Theater sat down with acclaimed theater director and actor Jerry Adler, recognized for his roles as Herman Rabkin in The Sopranos and as Howard Lyman in The Good Wife.

He began his career in 1951, working as a stage manager on many notable shows, including the original production of My Fair Ladycoming to TPAC Feb. 4-9.

LINCOLN CENTER: Your father, Phil Adler, was the business manager of the Group Theatre. You grew up with Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets, and all those people. Did you want to be an actor or a playwright?

JERRY ADLER: I grew up at the Group. I was a seven-year-old kid. For a while, they were in terrible financial trouble. The first hit they had was Men in White, by Sidney Kingsley; it really pulled them out. I loved the theater, but I never thought of being an actor. Never had any training as an actor. I started acting in my Social Security years.

LC: But you wanted to work backstage?

JA: Well, my first job was as a stage manager on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and I always wanted to be a Broadway director.

LC: How did you get the job as the stage manager on My Fair Lady?

JA: I was in my early twenties, and I was on the road doing Lunatics and Lovers, by Sidney Kingsley, with Zero Mostel when Herman Levin, the producer, sent me a telegram saying that he was going to do a musical of Pygmalion and they needed a stage manager, and that Biff Liff, the production stage manager, had recommended me. At the time, I had this marvelous house in California on the beach. And I kept thinking, a musical version of Pygmalion doesn’t sound like something that’s going to run very long.

Jerry Adler

Jerry Adler

LC: What brought you to California?

JA: I was on the road with Zero doing Lunatics and Lovers. We had a lot of problems, because the House Un-American Activities Committee was after Zero. Every night we would have to disguise him to come out the stage door, because the FBI was after him. So we would put different hats on him, we’d dress him as a woman or a janitor.

LC: They never issued him a subpoena onstage?

JA: They never caught him.

LC: What were the rehearsals for My Fair Lady like?

JA: Just before we went into rehearsal, Moss Hart took Alan Lerner away for a weekend in Atlantic City and redid the whole script, and then we started rehearsing in December 1955.

LC: Was Rex Harrison really mean to Julie Andrews?

JA: I wouldn’t say that Rex was mean to her, but he was difficult. He wanted more of Shaw in the play. He kept a copy of the Penguin edition of Pygmalion. And he kept saying, “Mossy, Mossy, let’s hear what the old man has to say.” He had never done Pygmalion. He had never done a musical. He was a nervous wreck, to begin with, and he took it out on everybody else. And even though she was a professional, the fact that he was concerned that she was too lightweight kind of worried Julie. We were in rehearsal for about ten days, and Julie was worried. “Am I good enough? Is this strong enough? Is this correct? Is the accent right?” Every day was a problem for her. And Rex kept putting her in the background, and he kept saying, “Henry Higgins is the show.” Moss thought that, unless Julie felt that she was the star of the show, the chemistry wasn’t going to work.

LC: Was Moss kind to her?

JA: Extraordinarily. Moss had a great instinct for those kinds of things. He dealt with her in a beautiful way. And he dealt with Rex in a very interesting way. He was cooperative but firm, and he tried to keep Lerner in the mix. And I think the result of Rex trying to add more of Higgins improved the narrative of the play. There is a great deal of Shaw’s dialogue in the musical, especially the scene returning from the ball.

LC: I learned that Moss took Julie away for a weekend, and she came back the Julie Andrews. You were one of the few witnesses to that. What happened that weekend?

Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in a scene from the musical 'My Fair Lady'

Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in a scene from the musical ‘My Fair Lady’

JA: It was Christmas. Moss let the company go for the holiday but kept Julie on, and they met Biff Liff, the pianist, and myself at the rehearsal hall of the New Amsterdam—home of the Ziegfeld Follies, but at the time it was a rat-infested, unbelievably hideous place. It was a psychological weekend.

Biff Liff was Henry Higgins, and I was Pickering—a lousy Pickering. But we didn’t do too many scenes. It was more self-confidence-building. What Moss was instilling in her was: “You’re the star. There is no show without you.”

But I didn’t know his words had landed until our first day back at rehearsal, when she interrupted Rex while he was talking to Moss about Shaw. At that moment, everybody knew that something had changed.

LC: Did Rex listen to her?

JA: Moss and Rex both listened.

LC: Did Rex know that Moss had taken Julie away for the weekend?

JA: Absolutely. Rex encouraged it, because he felt that she wasn’t up to par. He thought that Moss was going to give her line readings and give her a performance in terms of stature and style, and that she was going to copy what Moss told her. He didn’t realize that Moss was going to encourage her and give her stature.

LC: That kind of mirrors the show itself.

JA: Exactly. Another problem that Julie had was that Cecil Beaton was mistreating her. He didn’t feel that she had any kind of stature. He was a very snobby man, and it didn’t help that she was having trouble onstage. We sent her over to costumes, and Cecil would treat her as a secondary. He didn’t like her figure, didn’t like her style, didn’t feel that she carried herself well, and she used to come back in tears.

LC: What was the first performance like?

Jerry Adler

Jerry Adler

JA: We got to New Haven and there was an orchestra rehearsal at the Jewish Community Center. It was the first time that Rex had heard the orchestra. He had never sung with an orchestra before, and it was a major blow to him. It was such a loud sound that he began to worry about whether his voice was big enough to be heard over the orchestra. He was terribly nervous.

During our tech rehearsal we got as far as “The Rain in Spain,” and Rex walked to the footlights and he said, “Mossy, I’m not opening in this play tonight. As a matter of fact, I may never open in this,” and he walked off the stage and into his dressing room.

Moss went into Rex’s dressing room and then came out and said, “Have everybody meet us back at the Jewish Community Center. We’ll have another rehearsal there.” Then he went back in, and I could hear Rex screaming.

We were supposed to open that night, but instead everyone else was given the evening off and we were all going to meet the next day at the Jewish Community Center. Herman [Levin] came. He was ready to sue Rex, so the lawyers were there. Everybody was in the dressing room — it was a great to-do. The house manager went into the meeting and told them that he was going to go on the radio and tell everybody not to come to the opening, and that the reason they shouldn’t was that Rex Harrison wasn’t man enough to do the show.

While Biff and I were onstage waiting to hear the outcome, all this secret stuff was going on. Eventually, Moss came out and said, “Gather the players,” in his really marvelous way. “We’re opening.”

It was decided that we were going ahead with the first performance, even though we had never done half of the show. And, on top of that, we had to go out and try and find the cast. It was a terrible night. There was a blizzard. I was in movie theaters making announcements. Biff was going into restaurants and calling everyone. We gathered everybody together except one woman, a singer.

LC: What happened to her?

JA: I’ll never forget her name. Rosemary Gaines was never found. We learned later that she had appendicitis and had gone to the hospital. We went into that night with an audience without ever having done the whole show. And Moss got up in front of that audience and made one of the great speeches of all time. It was a warm thing about the theater and how great it is, and how hard we had worked. He explained that we had never had the chance to rehearse because we had gotten to New Haven too late, and the snow had held up the scenery. And then he ended by saying, “But we depend upon the kindness of strangers.” And we started.

Julie Andrews and other cast members during a scene from the play 'My Fair Lady.'

Julie Andrews and other cast members during a scene from the play ‘My Fair Lady.’

LC: So the show went off okay?

JA: It was four and a half hours. But the audience never stopped laughing and applauding and screaming. When we did “The Rain in Spain,” it was a showstopper. The audience wouldn’t stop cheering. Rex and Bobby Coote were sitting there, not knowing what the hell to do, and Julie grabbed both of them and said, “Okay, guys, let’s take a bow.”

LC: What was happening backstage?

JA: It was one of the great madhouses of all time. Nobody knew where anything was. We didn’t even know where the costumes were. People were running around. It was wild. It was incredible. We had twin turntables, which met in the middle of the stage; this had never been done before. They were turned by a system of cables, run by a man using a winch. But, once he turned the winch off, the tables drifted a little bit. We never figured out the drift. So every time he used the turntables we’d sort of have to jack them back into place; it was endless. But it didn’t matter. The audience was enraptured.

LC: What did Rex Harrison say at the end?

JA: Rex got through. He was a bit of a zombie. (Laughs) At the end of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” he was up on the little unit that looked like the house where Henry lived, standing in front of the door. And Rex finished the number and the audience was screaming. The lights went down, and he was left in the dark. He was just standing there, and I opened the door from behind him and grabbed his jacket. He had no idea what to do next. He went, “What the . . . ?” And I said, “Come on.” He said, “Take me somewhere.” I took him to the last scene.

We did a lot of that. All night long we were running onstage pushing things around, because nothing was matching. There were a million things going on. At one point, Rex was walking upstage going into the ballroom, and the ballroom set came down and almost took his head off. I thought people were going to get killed! Lights would go out, we were in the dark, the turntables started turning, nobody knew where to go. It was panic. It was a nightmare. But we got through it. The day after the opening, we finally had a tech rehearsal.

LC: Did Moss thank you for getting through that first performance?

JA: He came in to see Rex, but he didn’t come by to say hello to everybody and congratulate us. The next day we had tech, though, and he told everybody how virtuous and extraordinary they were.

LC: That was a time when things were less democratic. When there was just the star.

JA: The stage managers really took care of everybody. We had meetings. It was very communal. When we got through that first performance, we said, “Hey, we’re alive. Nobody got hurt.” And I thought, “If this thing can run four and a half hours and the audience can go berserk for four and a half hours, sitting there in snow clothing, this is a smash.” (Laughs)

Julie Andrews as Eliza, Rex Harrison as Higgins, Robert Coote as Pickering in 'The Rain in Spain' segment.

Julie Andrews as Eliza, Rex Harrison as Higgins, Robert Coote as Pickering in ‘The Rain in Spain’ segment.

LC: How were Rex and Julie the day after opening?

JA: Julie knew she was the star of the show, and Rex knew he could get through it alive.

LC: Did the show change much after that first performance?

JA: The only change that was ever made after that night was cutting a dance sequence called “Say a  Prayer for Me Tonight.”

LC: Which ended up in Gigi.

LC: How long were you in New Haven?

JA We were there for a week, then we went to Philadelphia for two weeks, and then New York. But before we left New Haven I delivered a baby in the theater.

LC: What do you mean?

JA: It was the Friday night before we went to Philadelphia, and I was alone in the theater after the show, when I heard moaning out in the audience. So I went through the pass door. Everyone was gone. But in the box on the side there was this woman. She said, “I’m having a baby.” Her husband had run out to get a taxi and we were, the two of us, all alone in the theater. She was lying on the floor. I took off my jacket and put it under her, because the baby was beginning to come out. And I delivered the baby. It was a boy. In those days, we had tie clasps that had a little razor thing on the back. And I used that to cut the umbilical cord.

Everybody was great. Her husband came back and took her away. I never got my jacket back.

LC: What was the response to the other first performances like?

JA: Extraordinary. When we got to Philadelphia, people were standing in the lobby. My father was the general manager of the show. And I had come out to give him something, and the overture was on, and I said, “I have to run back, Dad.” But, listening to the orchestra, I said, “Listen to that. That’s music.” The box office was going mad. People were throwing money at the box office, and my father said, “Oh, that’s not music— that’s music.” (Laughter)

LC: Were you the stage manager for the whole New York run, or did you leave at some point?

JA: Biff and I would take turns doing other shows. Of course, the thing ran for seven years.

LC: Was it a happy run?

JA: It was a great run. Stanley Holloway was one of the greats. He was late one night for the second “Little Bit of Luck.” The scene was coming, and he wasn’t in place. He was usually in place, so I knew there was something wrong. His dressing room was on the second floor, so I ran to get him, and I said, “Stanley, Stanley, you’re on.” He said, “How am I doing?” (Laughter)

LC: What about Rex—did he behave?


JA: One night, I came out of the stage door and this couple was walking by. At the Hellinger Theatre there were big pictures of Rex and Julie and Stanley Holloway. The woman said to her husband, “Do you think that Rex Harrison is his real name?” And he said, “Do I think Rex Harrison is whose real name?” (Laughter)

LC: Did Rex and Julie get along eventually?

JA: Not really. There was chemistry onstage, but they were never close offstage. Rex’s wife, Kay Kendall, who we all called Kitty, was such a sweet lady. She was very ill at the time. She was dying, and he was taking care of her. He would bring her to the dressing room every night, and she would sit there and sleep. She died during the run.

LC: Jerry, do you have a favorite moment from working on My Fair Lady?

JA: There were many great moments. I did an understudy rehearsal and played Doolittle, which I can. I always played Doolittle in rehearsals. And I always enjoyed doing that. (Laughs) I copied Stanley’s performance as much as I could.

Once Julie did a marvelous thing for me. There was a luncheon at Sardi’s for the nominees of the Tony Awards and she was at the theater, and she asked me to come with her because she didn’t want to go there alone. It was very nice of her to single me out. I’d accidentally walked in on her one night in her dressing room when she was stark naked, reading the newspaper. (Later, I heard she did that every night.) I closed the door right away. She came out with her robe on. She said, “What did you see?” I said, “Only the headlines, honey.” (Laughter)

LC: What was opening night in New York like?

JA: Well, by the time we opened here word was already out. The songs were already being played on the radio. So it was a fabulous opening-night party. It was in a private club, and we took over the whole building.

LC: Did someone come in and read the reviews at the party?

JA: Yeah, Phil Adler. The first one was from Brooks Atkinson: “Musical of the century.”

LC: Not bad.

From Lincoln Center Theater that brought you The King & I and South Pacific, Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady graces TPAC’s Jackson Hall Feb. 4-9.

Connect with Michael Aldrich on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @michaelwaldrich.

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