There is little argument than within the lexicon of American theatre the musical stage play known as My Fair Lady occupies a special register for audiences of all ages. With the classic metamorphosis that transpires between its central character Eliza Doolittle and the skeptical professor Henry Higgins (memorably performed on film by the late Audrey Hepburn & Rex Harrison) coupled with the memorable musical score by Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Lowe, the magical chemistry woven into the carefully crafted script of this production makes the colorful nuances and rich complexities of this classic tale an ideal musical to present for the Spring Season.
Consequently, to close out their 99th season, Bay City Players is busily engaged in rehearsals for their own contemporary take on My Fair Lady, which will run from May 11-13 & 18-21st and has assembled an incredibly gifted creative ‘Dream Team’ comprised of world renowned concert pianist Kevin Cole as musical director, along with co-director Leeds Bird, who has been affiliated with Players since 1954; and co-director Debbie Lake, who has equally been involved off-and-on with Bay City Players for 30 years.
In 1956 My Fair Lady set records for the longest run of any show on Broadway up to that time and frequently has been labeled by critics as ‘the perfect musical’, yet its genesis as a musical production was fraught with skepticism. In the mid-1930s, film producer Gabriel Pascal acquired the rights to produce film versions of several of gifted playwright George Bernard Shaw's plays, Pygmalion among them. However, Shaw, having had a bad experience with a Viennese operetta based on his play Arms and the Man, refused permission for Pygmalion to be adapted into a musical.
After Shaw died in 1950, Pascal asked lyricist Alan Jay Lerner to write the musical adaptation. Lerner agreed, and he and his partner Frederick Loewe began work. They quickly realized, however, that the play violated several key rules for constructing a musical: the main story was not a love story, there was no subplot or secondary love story, and there was no place for an ensemble. Many people, including Oscar Hammerstein II, who, with Richard Rodgers, had also tried his hand at adapting Pygmalion into a musical and had given up, told Lerner that converting the play to a musical was impossible, so he and Loewe abandoned the project for nearly two years.
Given the broad experience of Leeds, Kevin, and Debbie with directing various musicals over the years, coupled with their involvement in this current production, what are the qualities that make is such a singular experience in the lexicon of American theatre? As referenced earlier, can it be viewed as ‘the perfect musical’?
“Years ago I had a discussion with somebody who asked me if I had to pick the top five musicals from the American theatre, what would be in that group,” responds Cole. “My favorites that I selected were Showboat, The Music Man, A Chorus Line, The King and I, and My Fair Lady, because these are all musicals that made an impact not only on the audiences, but the actual form of how American musicals are written.”
“One of the reasons My Fair Lady works so well is because there’s a play in the middle of this musical,” points out Kevin. “I don’t know of another show that can take a serious work by a writer like Shaw and keep so many things from his work intact. For this musical to be written and be so true to the original play is remarkable. With all the hub-bub today about Hamilton, which is well-deserved; to me My Fair Lady was the Hamilton of its day. Tickets were sold 18 months in advance, the soundtrack album went number one for months, which was the first time that happened; and for me I grew up listening to that soundtrack because my parents had it in their collection. The music is beautiful the lyrics are perfect and its written by very smart people.”
“It belongs in the pantheon of great American theatre from the Golden Age of American musicals,” states Leeds. “Apart from being based on one of the most popular comedies written by one of the greatest playwrights in the English language: PYGMALION by George Bernard Shaw; a major impression coming from working on the show is the huge scope of production it was given in 1956 and in the movie. Everything was treated for the grandiose—settings, costumes, properties, orchestration. These things were reason enough to go to a show in the middle of the 20th century. Add a mega-star like Rex Harrison and a superb score by Lerner and Loewe and the result is gigantic.”
As the directorial team dissect the script & flow of the production, why do they feel My Fair Lady works so well as a musical theatrical work; and are there any particular challenges posed to them as co-directors with this latest production?
“Personally, I think there are really two parts to My Fair Lady,” reflects Leeds. “There is a play with music following strongly Shaw’s play. Secondly, there is the “American musical” element added through Eliza’s father. His scenes are broadly comic with rousing songs and dances. I see that as solving the problem of turning the play into a regular musical. Without Doolittle in the show, it would be more a chamber musical with most of the songs being soliloquies or sung dialogue.”
“The addition of Lerner and Loewe turn all the elements into a delightful show,” he continues. “Loewe’s background was very European and very much from operetta. This feeling is in his music and totally fits the 1912-time period, but he does not sound old fashioned. His dance numbers have the robust feeling of music halls while his love songs have the grand sweep of a time gone by—which it is for contemporary audiences watching a show set in 1912. Lerner was a savvy cosmopolitan in real life and that carries over easily into this musical dealing with class distinctions.”
“There is also a definite lean toward a romantic aspect built into the script, even though it isn’t traditional,” he adds. “It can be found in occasional words and sentences, but never are there love scenes. But if one thinks about it, there are none in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, either. The conflicts were the love scenes. Shaw insisted Henry and Eliza were not romantically drawn to each other. The final song and scene can be construed by the romantics in the audience to indicate otherwise, but it is an individual’s choice”
In terms of casting & auditions for Player’s production of My Fair Lady, Debbie says the auditions were excellent. “We were fortunate to get some wonderfully talented actors; and had determined the number of people we needed to use in order not to overload the show. Because of the size of the show, rehearsals are always deeply involved, but it is made a little easier since the people in Doolittle scenes are not generally in Higgins scenes. So two elements can rehearse at once very often”.
With key roles being filled by Madalyn McHugh as Eliza, Dale Bills as Henry Higgins, Jake Monroe as Colonel Pickering, and Cathy Gibboney as Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, and close to two-dozen characters, Kevin Cole echoes Debbie’s sentiments. “The cast has been exemplary and are one of the most musically educated casts I’ve worked with,” commends Kevin. “They’re some of the best voices I’ve had the pleasure to work with.”
Are there any themes or sub-texts within the play that the co-directors are trying to emphasize?
“We are making a concerted effort to bring My Fair Lady into the 21st Century,” Leeds emphatically states. “The1950s production was so opulent, so grand, that the substance of Shaw’s original play seemed to receive less attention. That production stopped dead for the costumes at Ascot. Over 15 scene changes and all to complete settings was time consuming. And yet in the 1950s, audiences were delighted by that.”
“But today the visual is not enough,” he continues. “Plays like WICKED and The Lion King make audiences expect a visual treat. Stephen Sondheim has set an expectation for substance within a show. In other words, the audience of 1956 is totally different from the audience of 2017. The script shows Eliza as intelligent, independent, and a very aware woman, so one thing we’ve decided upon is search the play to bring this forward in as many respects as possible. Doing this has an interesting result - it starts to turn Henry Higgins into a more modern man as he watches his teaching take effect and transform a person before his eyes.”
Keeping the rendering of My Fair Lady into more of a contemporary context, the creative team made a concerted decision with their latest production not to portray the character of Eliza Doolittle as anything less than the character of Henry Higgins.
“Seeing as its only this command of language that separates the two characters, traditionally Eliza has always been portrayed as kind of whiney and more like Lucy Ricardo in some ways,” explains Kevin. “She certainly wasn’t dumb and knew if she acted in certain ways she could get things accomplished, so we decided to place her on equal footing with Higgins. In scenes where he’s taking her to task she doesn’t back down and Higgins hasn’t met a force like that before, so when she does get the language down, he doesn’t know what to do because he hasn’t met a woman with the experience to match his own.”
“The elements of our production are not the substance of the musical,” adds Debbie. “The play’s the thing and this time around we transform Eliza into a woman of the 21st century. That’s our fair lady.”
Interestingly enough, My Fair Lady is also receiving fresh attention within the national climate, slated for a revival production on Broadway in 2018; and has not appeared on Broadway in over 25 years. How do the co-directors feel My Fair Lady holds up over time and is it still relevant to contemporary audiences?
“With Shaw’s perception of human behavior and music that can stand alone for its brilliance, the opportunity to laugh, to wonder, and to join real people in pursuit of goals is still important to people like those in the audience, which indeed makes it timeless,” responds Debbie.
“I think the reason it works so well is because it’s the classic tale of watching someone change because of an event,” states Kevin. “To me Higgins sets it up early in the show when he says its not because of clothes or where a person’s born that makes a difference, it’s language. Once you elevate your language people think you are different. It’s how you speak that people judge you and language is the way to transcend class, regardless of what one’s bank account shows. Higgins can be a fuss-budget and rude and kind of mean, but education makes the difference regardless of where you live or originate from.”
Another interesting twist to this upcoming Bay City Players production is that back in 1984 Kevin Cole acted once before as the musical director for My Fair Lady; and now 33 years later, he’s doing it again. “Back then Leeds also starred as Henry Higgins and Holly Bills also did he choreography and initially they were having difficulty finding a musical director for this production, so asked if I would be interested,” he explains. “But what I was not interested in doing was the same show with the orchestra that I did before back in 1984.”
Consequently, with this 2017 production Kevin says that he knew of a two-piano arrangement to the score that was rendered originally by Trudy Whitman back in 1958, so approached award-winning internationally acclaimed pianist Katherine McMichael to accompany him as the other pianist for this current production.
“This puts an entirely different spin on the production sonically,” explains Kevin, “I saw it performed at the Court Theatre in Chicago a few years ago with this two-piano arrangement, so we’ve pared down the cast a bit in order to accommodate two Steinway grand pianos into the theatre and also updated the attitude of the show. By using one set and projectors and other approaches, we’ve managed to morph My Fair Lady into something more vital and not the old 3-hour long warhorse that people may associate with it traditionally. The two grand pianos are set 27 feet apart and sonically it’s an amazing transition. Katherine is a ferocious pianist and the two pianos sound so good and full in the theatre that I feel we’ve managed to create something truly exceptional.”
“Frankly, that was my biggest challenge and we’ve managed to achieve it,” concludes Kevin. “With the pianos set 27 feet apart I was worried initially about time delays and problems with keeping things in sync, seeing as the pianists are not eyeball to eyeball. But we have a really good sound engineer and each of us have monitor headsets and I’m amazed at how well this is working. Both Catherine and I are of an age where we know these songs so we’re not learning them from scratch; and we both have the same attitude when it comes to our musical expression, which helps a lot.”
“I also truly feel privileged to be doing this last show of our 99th season and also being selected to be the musical director for the first show of our upcoming 100th season, which will be the first Gershwin musical we’ve presented in this area that is a new production from a few years ago.”
For tickets to Bay City Players production of ‘My Fair Lady, please visit BayCItyPLayers.com or phone 989.893.5555.