In her new memoir, A Front Row Seat: An Intimate Look at Broadway, Hollywood and Glamour, Nancy Olson Livingston describes how as an acting student at UCLA, she is signed by Paramount and packs in a series of roles, some more appropriate to her age and ethnicity than others. Her work includes several films with William Holden as well as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, for which she receives an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. But Nancy, still in her early 20s in 1950, is frustrated with spending six days a week in dark sound studios and wants to experience a full life. She marries the renowned lyricist Alan J. Lerner who, along with his co-writer Fredrick “Fritz” Loewe, won fame for Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon. However, they had broken apart by the time we enter Nancy’s story here, as Alan is struggling creatively while she, a rising star who has turned her back on Hollywood, is trying to thrive as a supportive 1950’s wife raising two young daughters. – Cari Beauchamp
Alan and I decided to shake up our lives. In December of 1954, we left our country house and leased a townhouse on East Seventy-Fourth Street in New York City. We took our two baby girls, Liza and Jenny, with their nanny, a cook, and a maid and planned to stay for a year. By the time spring came, Alan was desperate. One Friday morning he sat on the edge of our bed and started to weep. He said his career was over. He had tried everything, but nothing was working. He said the rights of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion had become available, and he felt he knew exactly how to adapt this famous work into a musical. He said Fritz was the only composer who could do it, but of course Fritz was no longer talking to him.
I sat up in bed and handed Alan a Kleenex, put my arms around him, and said, “Don’t you understand that Fritz is sitting by his telephone waiting for your call?” Alan said that was nonsense; he doubted that Fritz would answer the phone. I said, “I’ll prove it to you.” I picked up the phone and dialed Fritz’s home. The minute he heard my voice, he said, “Nance!” (pronounced “Naahnce”). “How are you? How are the children?” I told him that we were going to the country the next morning and would love to see him. I explained that Alan had an idea for a new work and that there was only one person in the entire world who could compose the music, and that was him. Could he possibly join us for lunch tomorrow? He asked, “What time?” I answered, “One o’clock.” He said, “I’ll be there!”
I told our cook and nanny that we were going to the country for the weekend and expected a visitor for lunch. Fritz arrived at one o’clock, and the three of us sat in our small pine-paneled, early-American dining room chatting away, and it was obvious that Fritz was delighted to be there.
Alan explained that Dick Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein had tried for a year to conquer George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. They owned the rights but had decided to give them up and release them, stating that this work could never be transformed into a musical. Alan said they misunderstood how to approach the property. “They’re writing songs for Alfred Drake!” (Alfred Drake was a theater actor most famous for his long-running role as Jud in Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!) “They don’t get it. Higgins is the key. The lyrics and music have to be an extension of Shaw’s dialogue. A great Shavian actor like Rex Harrison should play Higgins. He doesn’t even have to sing that well!” Fritz looked stricken. What did Alan mean when he said, “He didn’t even have to sing well?” Alan smiled and said, “Don’t worry, Fritz. There will be a place for your melodies. Freddie, who is smitten with Eliza, will sing the love songs, and Eliza has to have a great voice to be able to sing about her feelings of being transformed into a duchess.”
Fritz was intrigued, and the two of them were so deeply engrossed with Alan’s ideas that I might as well have been invisible. They got up from the table, left the dining room, walked out the front door, and crossed the road to the studio without even glancing at me, much less thanking me for lunch. By five o’ clock that evening, Fritz had already rented the house at the top of our orchard, arranged for his mistress to join him, and for one year sat at our dining-room table every day for lunch and dinner.
Perhaps that year was the happiest Alan and I ever had together. The excitement ran high as he and Fritz plunged into the work. Both were at the top of their game, and they knew it. Alan was content and grateful for the loving atmosphere pervading our little house in the country with our two darling little girls. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night to see him seated in the chair and ottoman in the far corner of our bedroom, working on a lyric. He seemed delighted that I was awake so that he could read to me what he was writing. I was always an enthusiastic listener.
One particularly cold and stormy winter night I was awakened abruptly by Alan and Fritz shaking my bed, telling me I had to get up. I was alarmed, thinking perhaps the house was on fire, and where were my children?! They said the house and children were fine, but I had to get up and come to the studio to hear what they had just composed and written. Fritz handed me my galoshes, Alan helped me put on my winter coat and muffler, and the three of us went down the stairs and out into one of the worst blizzards I had ever experienced. We trudged our way through the snow, down the driveway, across the road to the studio, already ablaze with light.
I walked in and was told to sit in the armchair facing the piano and a small settee. Very much like children playing, they set the stage and scene for me. Alan said he was both Higgins and Eliza, and Fritz was Pickering. Alan was an exasperated Higgins, who told Eliza to repeat and repeat and repeat the phrase “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” Pickering told Higgins that perhaps they should go to bed and forget the whole exercise. Higgins was not about to give up, and suddenly Eliza said perfectly, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”
Fritz rushed to the piano, Alan said to Eliza to please say it again, which she did, and Fritz started quietly playing the phrase to music. Suddenly the two of them started singing and dancing and bullfighting, finally finishing by falling back on the settee in triumph.
I was stunned and speechless. Suddenly they were no longer Higgins and Pickering and Eliza and became Alan and Fritz looking at me with such expectation, both saying in chorus, “How do you like it?” I looked at them very seriously and said, “You have created one problem.” Fritz said in panic, “What is it, Nance?” I quietly said, “This number will stop the show. The actors will be unable to continue. There will be such a reaction from the audience that they may actually have to take a bow in the middle of the first act. Not just one bow, but many.” As the wind howled outside, the glow of hope and excitement lit up all of Rockland County.
Eventually, Pygmalion became My Fair Lady, and we moved into the city. We put our little girls in the Town School for preschool and kindergarten classes. It was time to start thinking of who should play Higgins, and Rex Harrison was everyone’s first choice. Alan, Fritz, and I flew to London to meet with him. We stayed at the Connaught Hotel and arranged for an extra room with a piano in it. There was a great deal of tension and anticipation. Alan was convinced that Rex could make My Fair Lady happen as well as be the key to creating the authenticity that he was searching for. Rex arrived one afternoon with his tweed hat in hand, already looking like Henry Higgins. He had played the role many times, so that was not an issue for him, but he had never sung a note on stage. Fritz said if he could sing “Happy Birthday” on key mildly well, he would be just fine.