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The Diehl on My Fair Lady

Filichia talks about My Fair Lady with Crandall Diehl, the show's original dance captain and "keeper of the flame." logo
Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison
in My Fair Lady on Broadway
The day that supposedly would never come came 41 years ago today: On September 29, 1962, My Fair Lady closed after 2,717 performances. Back then, that total was enough to make the show the longest running Broadway musical of all time. Now 13 musicals have passed it by and, in a few months, The Lion King will, too.

I took the occasion to talk to Crandall Diehl, who has been involved with more than two dozen productions of the Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe masterpiece, starting with the original as a dancer and dance captain. He did the musical staging and choreography for the first two Broadway revivals, too. Though the dapper septuagenarian Diehl says that his memory is not what it was -- "I keep forgetting the exact sequence of Alan's eight wives," he moans -- he does well enough in remembering the musical version of Pygmalion.

He sure didn't expect that he'd be so busy with Fair Lady when he read the first announcement of the show in the Times. "I was on break from dancing in a TV version of Pinocchio when I saw the announcement," says Diehl. "I'd loved the Leslie Howard-Wendy Hiller Pygmalion film, and couldn't see it as a musical. I turned to our choreographer and said, 'Can you imagine anything more ridiculous than a musical version of Pgymalion?' And she said, 'Oh, do you think so?' And the very next day, I found out why she answered my question with a question."

For the Pinocchio choreographer was Hanya Holm, who, the very next day, got the job of choreographing My Fair Lady. Despite Diehl's reservations, she hired him to be in it. This would be his sixth Broadway musical, after stints in Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Call Me Madam, Of Thee I Sing, The Golden Apple, and Plain and Fancy. Of the last-named show, he says, "We spent almost the entire rehearsal period working on a ballet which was very modern dance, quite sturm und drang, and we performed it one night in New Haven and that was it."

That would happen, too, in Fair Lady. A ballet was performed on February 4, 1956 and cut on February 5, 1956. "It was a piece where we all prepared Eliza for the ball," he remembers. "A Spanish dancing master came in to teach her movement. A Swedish masseuse came in and pounded her. I was one of three cosmeticians who painted and coiffed her. All of these elements were done in the study set, which didn't allow much room for dancing, what with all the furniture and stairs. When I heard they were dropping two songs -- Higgins's 'Come to the Ball' and Eliza's 'Say a Prayer for Me Tonight,' which, of course, wound up in Gigi -- I wasn't sure they were doing the right thing. But I knew dropping the ballet was absolutely correct. And how poor Hanya struggled with it!"

One of the famous stories on the show is that Julie Andrews wasn't working out as Eliza and that director Moss Hart had to take her away for two days to work exclusively with her, which turned her performance around. "You could absolutely, no question about it, see the difference the minute she returned," insists Diehl. "I never felt they'd replace her, and I was enchanted by her from the first day. But the difference in her performance was palpable."

The next stop was Philadelphia, where, Diehl reports, he was very nervous. "I was grousing around in the dressing room: 'We're not rehearsing! This is the first time I've been in Philadelphia with a show where no work is being done! I've never had time before to go see the Liberty Bell!' But at our first New York preview, when I heard the laughs build and build, I suddenly became aware of how well constructed the show was. We joked that we were worried about opening on the Ides of March, but it certainly didn't wind up hurting us."

Harrison with Audrey Hepburn in the MFL film
The show that debuted on March 15 at the Hellinger got unanimous raves on March 16. Diehl danced in the show for much of the six-year run and also dropped in and out when he was needed to recreate what Holm did for the first national and first British companies -- and for the Mexican production, which had a young Plaçido Domingo in it cast. "Everyone assumes that with his voice, he must have played Freddie Eynsford-Hill," says Diehl, referring to the role of Eliza's would-be boyfriend, "but he was just in the chorus."

The show was translated into Spanish. That posed a problem for "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain," for the words didn't rhyme in the new language. So the translators instead opted for a childhood nursery rhyme that every Mexican knew: "The king who was in Madrid went to Aranjuez," a major city in Spain. But according to Diehl, this production didn't center on Eliza's pronunciation as much as her slang, her bad grammar, and her malapropisms. For the famous "Come on, Dover! Move yer bloomin' arse!" moment, the Mexican production used a comparable expression. "But when we did it in Buenos Aires," says Diehl, "we went in another direction. The word that means 'neck' is very close in pronunciation to the word for, you should pardon the expression, 'asshole.' So Eliza came out with a sound that made it appear she was about to say a very, very offensive word -- before saying the word for 'neck.' Everyone in the theater always got the joke and roared."

When original producer Herman Levin produced the 1976 Broadway revival, he hired Diehl to recreate the choreography. "But," says Diehl, "he told me he was giving me, Hanya, and Kitty -- Moss Hart's widow -- a one-half of one-percent royalty 'out of the goodness of my heart.' I thought that was rubbish, that he had to pay us that royalty -- but then I found out that both Hanya and Moss had inadvertently signed contracts that signed over their work to him! He owned the choreography! He owned the stage directions, even! We went to the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers and found out it was true. So, legally speaking, he was giving us the money 'out of the goodness of his heart.'"

There wasn't all that much goodness in Rex Harrison's heart, either, according to Diehl, who did the musical staging and choreography for the 25th anniversary production in 1981. "Rex was piggish at the press conference when he said to the press, 'Julie didn't know how to play Eliza and never did, and Audrey was too scared to play it. Now you're going to see the real Eliza.' But the actress he insisted on doing it couldn't do it at all, and eventually he agreed and let her go."

Before that, Harrison was difficult in rehearsals for the revival. Recalls Diehl, "He'd say to me, 'Crandall, what did I originally do here?' and when I'd tell him, he'd say, 'Oh, no, I never did that. It must have been one of the chaps who followed me.' This after he'd asked! Then he wanted to cut the dance after 'Get Me to the Church on Time.' When he said that, I thought he was joking. It's not that it's great choreography, but it's joyous and the audience needs it at that point in the show. And why did he want it cut? Because in New Haven, in 1956, Roddy McDowall went backstage and told him it wasn't any good, that Rex had to carry the show on his shoulders. Rex, with his good healthy actor's ego, bought it. And here we were 25 years later, and he hadn't forgotten it. Our director, Patrick Garland, agreed with me, so we both worked on Rex's wife to keep the dance. The best he'd compromise was that only a third of it could be kept, and that's what we did."

Crandall Diehl as the Old Man in
Brooklyn College's Fool For Love
The strife continued right through the curtain calls. "I staged the bows the way we always had done them, accentuating the fact that it's a show with two co-starring roles," says Diehl. "The lady comes out next to last, bows, steps back. He comes forward, bows, then offers her hand, brings her forward, and kisses her hand. They take a bow together and then they step back in the line. It's choreography! Rex wouldn't come to that rehearsal. Opening night, he came forward for his bow and gave a gesture like a minister saying 'Let us all stand,' and the audience stood. And he never brought her forward."

There have been road companies, bus-and-truck tours, and local productions of the show for Diehl, the most recent an acclaimed one in Waltham, Massachusetts this past summer. There's an occasional acting job, too, such as his stint as the Old Man in a Brooklyn College production of Fool for Love. But it's mostly been Fair Lady. "Someone once wrote that I was the keeper of the flame -- much to my distress," Diehl says. "I bridled at the label. But then, one night, I staged a Lincoln Center hommage to Alan and I was seated near Julie, who grabbed both my hands in hers, looked me in the eye, and said to me, 'You really have kept our original alive.' Her feeling that way made me realize that it's not so bad being the keeper of My Fair Lady."


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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