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?
I wrote a letter to Ms. Holm and asked her if she had contributed anything to the movie. She replied and thanked me for my letter but did not say much else. Was she trying to hide something? I wish I could relate more.
Even though I found the stage performance and the movie wanting in so many areas, the more I listened to the original cast album to figure out just what it was that excited my initial enthusiastic response when I was a youngster. I was especially fond of Get Me to the Church on Time, Stanley Holloway's ode not only to impending marital discord but to the British music hall. I honestly did not remember much from the stage production nor did the movie version ignite my imagination. But John Martin wrote that it was a "large and hilarious celebration, which is virtually a coster can-can. It is full of invention, of brilliant choreographic action, of atmosphere and of irresistible theatrical appeal." But not for me!
Maybe one had to be at the theatre to witness the original cast and production. Perhaps one's age has something to do with it. After all when you see My Fair Lady as a young child a great deal escapes you.
So what is it about the movie's choreography that still fails to impress me today? What did John Martin see that eluded me? I think it has to do with the confines of the theater. Stage choreography, be it Broadway, ballet or modern dance most often does not transfer well to the screen. The creation of a dance imposes limits on choreographers: they must create within a confined area and cannot let their imagination wander beyond the limits of that space. They are reined in, but that is when their judgment and skill are put to the test. If their imagination runs in too many directions, you will wind up with chaos. Order must be imposed on the imagination; without it you can't create. Within the confines of the theatrical space the dance has to possess intelligence and sense. You can't have your eye wander. It must be directed to the area of performance. Movies are spatial;cameras can shoot from all directions and allow choreographers to create overwhelming amounts of dance, much of it not focused because we are so busy looking at the images changing all the time. Perhaps this is why the greatest dance musical I ever saw as a youngster, Bob Fosse's Redhead with Gwen Verdon, was never transferred to the screen. The stage was the only place where the dancing made sense. Verdon could turn cartwheels but only from stage right to stage left, nowhere else. There was no other room in which to perform.
Since my initial encounter with My Fair Lady at age 10 I have seen a number of excellent productions including community theatre presentations and one in Germany! I've learned not to be overly critical of the choreography-or the lack of it. I missed the 1976 revival that stated that the choreography and musical direction were "based on the original by Hanya Holm" in parentheses and very small print. I've read that there is a new film of My Fair Lady in the making. I can't wait to see it. I'm wondering what they will alter or introduce. I doubt if we will see a reproduction of Holm's choreography. It might not fit the film's new concept and approach.
I'm glad that New Year's Day got me thinking about Hanya Holm. I had not done so in a very long time. I've read so much about her dance contributions but have seen so little of them. Was it because they spoke to their generation and have nothing left to tell us? I hope that someday I will get an inkling of what she contributed to the American dance scene. After all, I like history. And many times history can enlighten us on how we got from there to here.