A Broadway Footnote: The American in ‘My Fair Lady’

A Broadway Footnote: The American in ‘My Fair Lady’

Ms. Moser had been an understudy and had been in the chorus. “It was always in our mind that she would take over when Pamela Charles left the show,” said Jerry Adler, who was a stage manager on “My Fair Lady.” “It was done so often in show business, coming out of the chorus, rehearsing and taking over.”

For some, permitting an American to play Eliza Doolittle was too much. Twenty-five years later, when Mr. Harrison had artistic control over a revival of “My Fair Lady,” he was adamant about casting a British-born actress for the part — Cheryl Kennedy. He tangled with Actors’ Equity, getting applause when he appeared on her behalf at a hearing about whether she should be permitted to go on, but Equity said no. The case went to arbitration, and the decision was reversed.

But she missed opening night because of laryngitis.

So for all Mr. Harrison’s arguments, the role went to the understudy — Nancy Ringham, who, like Ms. Moser, was an American.


Actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Henry Higgins and Ms. Moser as Eliza Doolittle in the Municipal Opera Association’s 1968 production of “My Fair Lady,” in St. Louis, Mo.

Hulton Archive, via Getty Images

As for Ms. Moser’s first performance, she could have danced all night, but she did not. She went out with friends after the show, but in many ways, it was just another night. “I just remember going through it,” she said, sitting in her apartment on the Upper West Side.

Like “The Phantom of the Opera” or “Chicago” or other long-running shows of a later generation, “My Fair Lady” was a phenomenon by then, and cast changes did not seem to matter. But the producers would not have wanted to call too much attention to this one. She was not the name her predecessors had been. “They wanted everyone to believe the English aura was continuing,” she said.

Ms. Moser remembered a backstage moment with Biff Liff, the production stage manager. “He said, ‘Your first word is ‘Ow!’” — the actor playing Freddy bumps into her, knocking her flowers to the ground — “‘and after that you’re on your own,’” she recalled.

“I’d been in the show,” she said. “There was no doubt I could do the lines.”

The closing night was different. There was a party, paid for by the cast, she said. It took place downstairs in what was then the Mark Hellinger Theater. (In 1991, the building was sold to the Times Square Church, a nondenominational Protestant church that conducts gospel-influenced services from the stage.)

“I wanted some souvenirs,” Ms. Moser said. “I couldn’t take the clothes.”

She took the coat hangers the costumes had been hung on. And she walked off with the shoes she had worn as a scruffy flower vendor, before the transformation at the hands of Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering.

“Putting clothes on helps you feel you’re in character,” she said. “Those were so foreign to anything in my life, but they transported me into that first scene. I’d put on the shoes and think, ‘Yes, that’s Eliza.’ ”

Ms. Moser had come to New York from Pennsylvania in 1946 to attend the Juilliard School, an intimidating experience. “All the men were coming back from the war,” she said. “They were older. They were knowledgeable. They were so far ahead of me in their musical education.”

As spring break approached in 1947, she did not want to go home to Harrisburg. “A friend said, ‘I heard you could write a letter to the Theater Guild and get an audition,’” Ms. Moser recalled.


Sheet music Ms. Moser used while playing Eliza Doolittle in the Broadway production of “My Fair Lady.”

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

She wrote the letter. Back came instructions on when and where to appear for the audition. “When I got finished, they asked if I’d like to go to London,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, yes.’ I didn’t even know that ‘Oklahoma!’ was going to London.”

But that is getting ahead of the story. She did not know that the play she was auditioning for was “Oklahoma!” either.

She heard nothing for weeks, until a telegram arrived. It said to go to the St. James Theater for what turned out to be a second audition.

And then she was off to England, arriving in Manchester and going onstage the same night. Later, in London, the show received 14 curtain calls.

Back in New York, where “Oklahoma!” was still running, she was called in to play giggling Gertie. Ms. Moser later played Carrie in the 1949 revival of “Carousel,” first on the road and later at the Majestic Theater.

She married — “huge mistake” — and moved to England. When “Carousel” went to London, “I was Carrie again.”

To play Eliza Doolittle, she was sent to a speech teacher for elocution lessons more intense than what she went through onstage with Henry Higgins teaching her to pronounce vowels and H’s the upper-crust way. “Cecil Beaton” — who had designed the costumes for “My Fair Lady” and was British — “came to the show and thought I was English,” she said. “Obviously, I didn’t screw up a single vowel. We say very flat vowels. In London, you don’t say ‘I could have da-a-a-anced all night,’ you say, ‘I could have dahnced all night.”

If “My Fair Lady” went smoothly, an appearance in 1968 at the San Francisco Opera did not.

She was cast as Musetta in “La Bohème.” Luciano Pavarotti was Rodolfo. For her entrance in the second act, she was supposed to run down a ramp. There had been no rehearsal on the stage, but she managed. The real trouble came later.

“We had an earthquake in the third act,” she said. “I heard the curtains clanking. People in the audience must have felt the seats move. They were getting up and standing in the doorways. You know how earthquakes shake you up, and this one wasn’t even centered on San Francisco. It was up in Sonoma.”

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