New Year's Day and My Fair Lady Minus Hanya Holm
New Year's Day afforded me the opportunity to watch four hit Broadway musicals that had been adapted for the screen: My Fair Lady, Camelot, Funny Girl and Hello Dolly. My Fair Lady and Camelot had a number of things in common: same director, lyricist, composer, leading lady, supporting male actor and, most important for me, the same choreographer: Hanya Holm, the modern dancer from Dresden who came to the United states to open a school and stayed for the rest of her life, dying at the age of 99.
Hanya Holm appears to have been forgotten, which frequently happens when one's choreographic output is no longer performed and any Broadway work over 60 years old has been consigned to old newspapers reviews. But Holm had pedigree: she was one of the big four founders of American modern dance along with Charles Weidman, Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey. Along with her modern dance work she choreographed twelve Broadway musicals, including Kiss Me Kate, My Fair Lady, Camelot, as well as the connoisseur's musical, The Golden Apple. She was one of the few female choreographers working on Broadway along with Agnes De Mille, Onna White and Helen Tamiris. Her choreography for Kiss Me Kate was the first copyrighted dance work in the United States and her Metropolitan City was the first modern dance piece to be televised on NBC.
Since My Fair Lady is probably one of my favorite musicals, my attention was centered on the movie, particularly the choreography. The anecdotes and stories about My Fair Lady are too many and numerous to mention. So let's look at the way the choreography morphed to the screen and how critical responses changed over the years.
After My Fair Lady opened in 1956, the eminent New York Times dance critic, John Martin, dedicated a full page in the April 29 1956 edition to Holm's choreography and Moss Hart's direction. Like many others, Martin had initial doubts about the musicalization of Pygmalion. But the show changed his mind. He wrote, "The really first rate musical...is primarily a plastic form, molding music, movement, laughter, visual design to purposes of its own. A literary plot can serve as usefully only as a light thread for continuity and the intractability of intellectual ideas makes them a serious menace of lyric theatricality...it appears that Mr. Hart and Miss Holm have worked absolutely eye to eye, each yielding to the other's hands, in a common fascination with a creative challenge...It is just about as ideal a fusion of the literary element of the theatre with the chore-musical element as has been seen in our time...Since dancing is the fullest basic medium of the lyric theatre, it stands to reason that it is also the most potent antidote to the Shavian podium. That they enrich each other instead of cancelling each other out is why Miss Holm and Mr. Hart should be decorated." And in his closing words:" the whole thing, indeed, is a remarkable wedding of theatrical taste."
My parents bought the original cast album and even though I could not understand some of the lyrics due to the accents, I knew it was something special. I especially admired Rex Harrison's rendition of his songs but my fathe (who knew a great deal about the arts) told me that Rex Harrison had already sung in the movie Night Train to Munich and that Noel Coward had performed and perfected the art of Sprechstimme long before Harrison undertook his role as Professor Higgins. In fact, Coward had been offered the role and turned it down.
I was just 10 years old when I saw My Fair Lady, three weeks before it closed on Broadway, sitting somewhere in the last rows of the balcony in the cavernous Broadway Theatre. I remember not be being able to hear much and that the woman in front of me was wearing a huge hat which she refused to take off, prompting my mother to argue with the usher, informing her that either the hat went or else she was going to the house manager to demand her money back and write a letter of complaint to one of the local newspapers. To be succinct, the hat was taken off. But my first response to the live theatrical presentation was definitely negative. It did not live up to the Columbia recording.
When the musical came out on screen I was a bit older and better able to appreciate what I saw. Truth to be told, I found the movie very long and boring. I don't know what it was: Rex Harrison was adequate even if he seemed to be preening every time you saw him and Audrey Hepburn couldn't help but look glamorous, even in rags. But by this time I knew more about dance, having been taken numerous times to the New York City Ballet, for the simple reason that it was inexpensive. I had also read many books about dance and seen the original Camelot that Holm had choreographed, so her name was known to me. But when the film credits started rolling Hanya Holm's name didn't appear. Instead Hermes Pan, a choreographer known for his work with Fred Astaire, was credited for the choreography, but if he did choreograph anything it was not acknowledged in the film's review, nor did any critic devote any space to it. So was it a reproduction of the original choreography or just a quick job for the money?