Authors: Dominic McHugh
Tags: #The Life And Times Of My Fair Lady
Levin also acceded to the proposed terms of Harrison’s record contract, while commenting grumpily that “this is the rate usually paid stars who are record personalities.” He added, with an air of condescension: “Perhaps I will be given credit for what in my view is generosity.”
Five days later, Evans replied that the proposed deal with Beaumont was poorly conceived, because even if Harrison continued in the play when the gross dropped to £1,750, the show would have to close because the operating cost was the same amount. The letter also dealt with the issue of Holloway’s proposed co-star billing. Harrison was “completely unwilling” to allow this, wrote Evans: “Rex feels that Holloway’s name does not mean anything to Broadway audiences and, additionally, that the part of Doolittle should automatically get feature billing.” Throughout their association, there was no love lost between the two actors, and Holloway made his opinion of Harrison well known in the press, even when they were still working together.
For a few weeks, the news from London was brighter. In a letter of May 2, Evans told Levin that the box office takings for the play were down to £2,700 ($7,563). Levin replied on May 6 and promised Harrison’s contract the following week.
Evans wrote yet again on May 9 and mentioned that the gross had dropped to £2,600 ($7,282);
Levin found this letter “encouraging” but mentioned that “this whole thing makes me feel a little like a fellow who is waiting around for someone to die. It’s the first time I’ve ever had any reason to want a show to close rather than run forever.”
At this point, he also admitted, “It may be that we should resign ourselves to going into rehearsal about December 5th.” Again on May 18, Evans mentioned that “business at the Phoenix is slowly going down” and that “Lilli has been ill and was unable to play for five nights,” the latter a reference to Harrison’s wife, who was co-starring with him in
but with whom relations had broken down.
But five days later, Levin’s worst fears were realized. Evans wrote to the producer again to inform him that “Business has gone right up again at the Phoenix and last week they played to over £3,000 [$8,403]!” He reported a
conversation between Harrison, Beaumont, and himself in which Beaumont predicted that the play would run until the end of October and advised Levin to “forego any idea of rehearsing before the end of November or even early December.”
The producer was depressed at the news and offered to pay Beaumont $2,500 in return for Harrison’s release on October 1.
In the meantime, negotiations with Cecil Beaton had gone through—one of the few jobs Levin managed to complete with total success during this frustrating time. Beaton had written to Levin on April 6 to inform him that he was represented by Arnold Weissberger.
Some time during the ensuing weeks, Levin made a deal with Weissberger, who wrote to him on May 13 to clarify Levin’s offer to Beaton. The costume designer was to receive his round-trip fare from England and a fee of $5,000; $150 a week for the run of the original company in New York and on the road; for each touring company, he was to receive a fee of $2,500 and $100 a week, provided that he supervised the execution of the costumes himself (if he did not, he had to pay the fee of someone else and receive only $75 a week); and for the London company, he was to receive a fee of $2,500 and $75 a week.
These terms were agreed, and a week later Weissberger sent Levin three copies by hand, promising to take them with him to England for Beaton to sign.
By June 13, Weissberger had returned to New York with the contract, and Beaton became the second member (after Oliver Smith) of the production team to officially join the show; Levin received the contracts on June 16.
Although Julie Andrews had signed an agreement to play the role of Eliza as early as March 31, Levin faced a problem regarding her employment in
The Boy Friend
. According to the terms of the American Actors’ Equity Association, foreign actors had to wait six months between engagements. Since at the time of drawing up Andrews’s initial agreement Levin still hoped to begin rehearsals between October 1 and November 1, and Andrews was contracted to be in
The Boy Friend
until the end of September, Levin required a waiver from Equity. Therefore, on April 21 he wrote a persuasive letter to them, submitting six points in favor of their granting the waiver: that the “importance of the role of Eliza is self-evident” hence they had “selected Miss Andrews only because no other actress has, in our opinion, the ideal combination of acting talent, voice, skill, appearance, background and prior acceptance by the critics and public, possessed by Miss Andrews”; that Andrews was to be
co-starred as additional evidence of the importance of the role; that the employment of American Equity members would not be increased even if someone else were hired for the role because they would still be using an English actress; that when Andrews left
The Boy Friend
, an American Equity member would replace her, therefore creating an employment opportunity; and that the production’s importance was proven by its budget of $360,000 and its cast and crew of “fifty to sixty actors, about thirty musicians and about thirty stagehands.”
The council met on April 26 and the following day agreed to Levin’s request, provided that at the conclusion of the
musical, Andrews would add the unexpired time between the two engagements to the six months’ waiting period at that time (i.e., a total of one year).
This accepted, Levin now had basic agreements from his three stars, but the problem with Harrison’s play continued to plague the entire production. On May 14, Oliver Smith wrote to Levin to say that “it was exciting to hear the show and some of the songs, which sounded very good” to him, and asked the perennial question: “What are your dates at present?”
Poor Levin had to give his standard response—“The date situation is confused”—but mentioned November 1 or December 1 as the likely rehearsal starting point.
Smith in return promised to hold himself “in a state of cosmic flux.” Then on June 2 Levin moved his dates slightly to “somewhere between November 1st and December 10th,” adding, “I don’t know who’s going to direct. That will be the next problem we must solve.”
Aside from finding the director, another issue to be addressed was the question of financing the show. Lerner’s autobiography explains how the peculiarities of the Shaw estate—the rights to his plays were only to be given to any one person for a maximum of five years—meant that it would be difficult to find conventional backers (who were used to participating in profits for many years) for the show, and that it could not be made into a motion picture. If the production were to fail, the stakes would be too high.
Therefore the team turned to CBS, because a television company could still broadcast either the musical or the play version of
even if the show flopped, and therefore it would still be worth investing in the play for the fixed period of five years. On May 23, Levin drew up a suggested deal with CBS, whereby they would put up $300,000 plus an overcall of 20 percent ($60,000); CBS would get the rights to televise the show, while the stage version would get television and radio publicity, with the possibility of television coverage of the
The television company followed up on its position on June 15: it was adamant that it would not pay any of the profits due to the Pascal Estate (which owned the screen rights to Shaw’s plays), that it wanted the right to take control of the musical if Levin abandoned it, and that it wanted an allocation of house seats.
Negotiations continued until July 18, when Levin entered into a final agreement with them.
The month of June was significant primarily for the signing of Moss Hart to the musical. On June 13, Levin wrote to Laurie Evans and mentioned that a deal had been struck. “You probably don’t know it,” he continued, “but he has been my personal first choice all along.” Levin felt he was “the best possible director we could get” and reported that “he has been enormously and excitingly helpful,” concluding, “I know that Rex, when they begin to work together, will feel as I do and as the authors do.”
(Levin also mentioned that Lerner and Loewe had “written some new stuff which I think is just great.”) Finally, after seven months of searching, the show had a director.
Cecil Beaton was pleased at the news: “I am
Moss Hart will direct,” he told Levin on June 24. “I have never worked with him before but always had real admiration for his sense of the theatre.”
This letter also reveals several interesting aspects about Beaton’s ideas for the show. He insisted that Levin tell Hart and Smith “how strongly I trust that the production will be set at the time it was written,” going on to say how the fashions before the First World War “can be so nostalgic and charming, and will be a great challenge.” Beaton went into specifics about the costumes and continued: “I am sure Oliver will argue that the furnishing can be made so much more amusing in the manner of the Early Vogue Covers,” adding that the style of 1890–1900 “has really been done to death” and that “that lemon has been squeezed of its last drop!” As well as mentioning his forthcoming arrival in New York to design Irene Selznick’s show—“a full time job: I’m liable to be called at any given moment of day or night so cannot promise that you will have much of my time for the first few weeks”—the designer requested that Beaton ask Smith “if he thinks that muted colors might be a bit of a change and yet have their own gaiety. We’re all a bit exhausted by orange, scarlet and magenta musicals—and like old Litmus paper refusing to react any more. Do let me have the rough scenic layout as soon as possible.”
While dealing with these sorts of requests about the production, Levin also began to think more about casting the smaller roles. During his visit to
London, he had auditioned a young actor by the name of Frank Lawless for the role of Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and Levin requested photographs of Lawless from his agent, Basil Geoffrey, on June 12. It seems negotiations fell apart after Levin’s trip to England in the summer of 1955, perhaps because Geoffrey demanded a fairly hefty $250 per week for Lawless from the very start.
Levin also received a letter from Lou Wilson, Julie Andrews’s representative, remind him of the actress’s “whistling prowess,” which he suggested could be of use to Lerner and Loewe in the cockney scenes.
Eventually, of course, the fruits of this suggestion came to bear in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”
But still the trouble remained that Rex Harrison could not leave
Bell, Book and Candle
and therefore the musical could not proceed. On June 28, Levin, Loewe, Lerner, and Louis Dreyfus met to discuss the situation and decided to approach Beaumont with the idea of releasing Harrison from his contract in return for a cash payment. It was put to Beaumont that Levin could not “arrange theatre bookings in America, may lose his director, choreographer, as well as other important production personnel. It is further complicated because Harrison is so anxious for a holiday during August that there is some danger that he will agree to continue in the show from September on if [you] will give him the holiday he seeks.”
Just over a week later, Levin spoke to Laurie Evans on the phone and clarified his position in a letter written immediately afterwards: “Here it is: I am perfectly willing to fly to London if there is a reasonable chance of coming to a deal with Beaumont … I am willing to take part in any Byzantine charade whatever, if a satisfactory solution can be found … I assure you that if the amount can be agreed upon, I will recompense Rex’s company for the payment to Beaumont. I think Beaumont is entitled to receive what can reasonably be anticipated as the loss occasioned by closing. If, after your talk with him and with Rex, it makes sense for me to come over, I’ll do so at once.”
Evidently, Levin was optimistic about the outcome of this deal, for the very same day he wrote to Beaton: “It looks to me as if everything will work out on the rehearsal date—the middle of November—so the time element and conflicts should all be smoothed out.”
Levin also reported that “Alan and Fritz will certainly be in London in about a month” and that “Alan is preparing a rough scenic layout and I am sure we will send it out within the week.”
Yet the frenzy was far from over, as a series of telegrams between Levin and Evans on July 12 and 13 prove. First Levin asked Evans desperately: “
HAVE YOU ANY NEWS? LAST WORD I HAVE IS THAT BEAUMONT WILL DO NOTHING. CAN YOU GIVE US ANY HOPE
?” Evans replied that the situation was unchanged but that he was hopeful of a satisfactory outcome that week. The
next day Levin replied that he would come to London when the moment was propitious, and that Lerner would come in a couple of weeks’ time if Evans thought it helpful. Later on July 13, Evans wired back to say that Beaumont would not discuss a closing date but that he was negotiating for Harrison to have the right to give notice after the gross of the play had dropped below £1,700 for two consecutive weeks. On July 15, Levin wrote to Evans to agree to this, “though, of course, it does not solve our problem. Nothing is a final solution except the fixing of a date when Rex can leave
Bell, Book and Candle.
Levin also enclosed a letter that he had written to Beaumont to say that he intended to come to London between August 12 and 15 in the hope of meeting him; the timing was important because while starring in
, Harrison was also directing a play called
, which was due to open early in August (though it was eventually brought forward to July 27).
Levin wrote another letter to Evans the same day, reiterating his intention expressed to Beaumont that it would be better to arrive after
had opened and requesting that Evans book hotel rooms for him, Lerner, and Loewe.
On July 18, the producer answered Evans’s letter, stating that since
was opening on July 27, the team might as well come to London on August 5 as planned since “Time is important to all of us.” Levin asked him again to call Lillian Aza and calm her down. “She is concerned about a starting date for Holloway, and I must say, with some justification. She should have a signed contract by now, but how can I give her one?”
Aza herself received a letter from Levin sent on July 18, in which he stated his plan to come to London on August 5 and bring Holloway’s contract with him: “I know this is difficult for you—it is difficult for me also,” he said. “I don’t know what else I possibly can do.”