Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, September 7, 2001

The Army Community Theatre's "My Fair Lady" stars
Valerie Vedder as Eliza Doolitte, a character made
famous on stage by a young, green Julie Andrews.

My bare-ly lady

By Scott Vogel

"If this bitch is here on Monday, I'm quitting the show."

So said Rex Harrison, speaking of Julie Andrews -- of all people! -- during the tumultuous rehearsal period that preceded the opening night of what is arguably the greatest achievement in the history of the musical theater.

Hard as it is to believe, there was a time before Andrews was a star, before she created the role with which she would forever be associated, that of Eliza Doolittle in Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's "My Fair Lady." During this briefest of pupal stages, Andrews was a mere girl of 19, blessed with a lush singing voice but very little acting talent. She also had a nasty habit of laughing in Harrison's face during the celebrated thespian's dramatic moments.

Vedder must rapidly take her character
from guttersnipe to grace.

"It was a form of nerves, I think," recalled Harrison in Gene Lees' book "Inventing Champagne," a biography of Lerner and Loewe. "She was really only a kid at the time, and it must have been a frightening experience for her. I always asked her why she laughed, and she never did tell me."

Andrews certainly had reason to be nervous. Just days before the musical's pre-Broadway tryout, in 1956, she was still having trouble with the peculiar combination of guttersnipe and grace that is Eliza, and especially with the rapid transformation from one to the other that Shaw's "Pygmalion" (on which "My Fair Lady" is based) required.

And so, just as Professor Henry Higgins schools Eliza in diction and comportment, director Moss Hart drilled young Andrews during a weekend that has become famous in the annals of musical theater history, a weekend recounted fully in Hart's autobiography, "Act One."

After giving the rest of the company two days off, the director spent the entire weekend rehearsing with Andrews on the stage of the New Amsterdam Theater. (Speaking of "Pygmalion"-like transformations, the New Amsterdam recently experienced one of its own. After years of falling into disrepair and barely dodging the wrecking ball, the glitteringly restored theater reopened in 1997, just in time to host Disney's smash hit "The Lion King.")

Telling her this was no time for pleasantries, Hart immediately went to work on Andrews' performance, explaining every joke, every nuance -- going through the play line by line. What exactly went on that weekend is still shrouded in mystery, though one witness, musical historian Miles Krueger, offers this tantalizing bit: "I watched him, before my very eyes, create a performer named Julie Andrews."

Whatever Hart's methods, the results were stellar. By opening night, Andrews was navigating that rocky road from Cockney to Coventry with ease, and the Broadway critics were uniformly rapturous. Walter Kerr wrote that "Miss Andrews descended a staircase looking like all the glamour of the theater summed up in an instant," and pronounced the show "a miraculous musical." Audrey Hepburn, who incidentally would have her own problems with Eliza's fiendish transition, took the role in the film version, which garnered eight Oscars, including best picture.

Constantly revived and a perpetual audience favorite, "My Fair Lady" is perhaps the ultimate test for a musical comedienne. Rising to the challenge locally is newcomer Valerie Vedder, who stars in the Army Community Theatre production, which opened last night under Glenn Cannon's direction.

Last we heard, no weekend-long drill sessions were required.

My Fair Lady"

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through Sept 22.
Where: Richardson Theatre, Fort Shafter
Cost: $12 to $15
Call: 438-4480

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