Over the past month or two, much of the media attention surrounding My Fair Lady has understandably involved cast departures (Lauren Ambrose, Diana Rigg) and arrivals (Laura Benanti, Rosemary Harris). Those who take over roles after a production opens are known as replacements.
In Broadway’s early days, a name actor replacing another name actor was almost unknown. Runs were shorter. A star who opened a show generally stayed for the duration, and, afterwards, toured it throughout the country. Netflix and Amazon did not beckon with offers of more lucrative work.
No musical ushered in the phenomenon of stars replacing stars more conspicuously than Hello, Dolly! During its initial run, from January 16, 1964 to December 27, 1970, the roster of replacements wearing the title character’s red dress included Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller, and Ethel Merman. For the most recent revival of Hello, Dolly! the production’s original star, Bette Midler, was replaced by Bernadette Peters, who, along with Elaine Stritch, had been memorable replacements in the 2010 Broadway production of A Little Night Music. In our own era, the replacement industry has been taken to even greater heights by the revival of Chicago, which throughout its 22-year run has showcased almost as many TV and pop stars as there are residents in its title city.
Though the original production of My Fair Lady ran from March 15, 1956 to September 29, 1962, a record run at that time for a musical, it did not, after its stars departed (Rex Harrison on December 23, 1957, Julie Andrews on February 1, 1958), tend to feature performers known to American audiences from work on stage or screen. In saying this I mean no disrespect whatsoever to Michael Allison, Bramwell Fletcher, or Edward Mulhare, all of whom played Henry Higgins.
Perhaps the highest profile replacement in the original My Fair Lady was Sally Ann Howes, who took over from Andrews in February, 1958 for a year’s run and who is still alive at age 88. We tend to think of Andrews as a star since birth but in the mid-1950s Howes was better-known. She had been a child actor in British films and had starred in the original London production of Paint Your Wagon, which had brought her to the attention of Lerner and Loewe, creators of My Fair Lady.
Howes had twice turned down offers to play Eliza. She made a hit of the role on Broadway, confirming Lerner and Loewe’s persistent desire to enlist her talents. Howe was praised by critics by how marvelously she conveyed Eliza’s ability to triumph over difficult circumstances. I’d like to think that a little bit of that pluck wafts throughout the halls backstage at the Beaumont, inspiring Benanti and all future Elizas in the LCT production.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com