Los Angeles Theater Preview: MY FAIR LADY (Musical Theatre West in Long Beach)

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by Tony Frankel on October 19, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles


I’m rather certain one cannot visit enough productions of My Fair Lady. The 1956 musical, based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, tells the tale of Professor Henry Higgins, a puffed-up upper-class grammarian, and Eliza Doolittle, his lower-class, flower girl protégé whom Higgins turns into a lady by changing her speech. With one of the most glittering scores in American musical history, and the most witty, sophisticated, character-driven book, the Lerner & Loewe show is a celebration of talent, originality, and storytelling. And in our modern world in which communication is relegated to 140 characters—and even The New York Times has typos—My Fair Lady is a reminder of the glorious mysticism and power of human speech. In my mind, this makes it a perfect show for teens and young adults who, even if they don’t use speech properly, know immediately how exciting great literature is.

Musical Theatre West's MY FAIR LADY

Add solid production values to this amazing, timeless classic, and you are guaranteed a winner. This is why I can recommend in advance Musical Theatre West’s revival, which opens this weekend and plays through November 8, 2015, at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center. MTW is well-known for its Broadway-caliber design and talent and a massive orchestra, and this is why it sells out season after season. Broadway veteran Martin Kildare (who studied acting with Mark Rylance at Shakespeare’s Globe in London—what else do you need to know?) stars as Henry Higgins. Also in the cast are Katharine McDonough (Eliza), Richard Gould (Colonel Pickering), Matthew Henderson (Alfred P. Doolittle), Eric Michael Parker (Freddy Eynsford-Hill), the great Mary Gordon Murray (Mrs. Higgins), and Debra Cardona (Mrs. Pearce). Daniel Pelzig serves as director/choreographer, with musical direction under the helm of Julie Lamoureux.

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Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Fredrick Loewe (music) began their collaboration in the early ‘40s, but while Life of the Party (1942)—which ran nine weeks—and What’s Up? (1943)—about an Indian potentate whose plane is forced to land at an all-girls’ school!—were both flops, some critics suspected this team could be the next hot property. Their next show, the enchanting Brigadoon (1947), may have been imperfect, but its freshness of setting and eternal story of faith and love (not to mention commercial hit songs “Almost Like Being in Love” and “The Heather on the Hill”) confirmed their mutual genius and gave the boys their first hit. But their next musical, Paint Your Wagon (1951), lavish with outstanding numbers, dances, and colorful atmosphere, suffered from an incessant grimness. While the show was a modest success (it lost money but ran 289 performances), Lerner & Loewe failed to become Broadway legends.

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In 1952, Lerner was in Hollywood writing the screenplay for Brigadoon when he got a call from Gabriel Pascal to have lunch. Pascal, the first film producer to successfully bring the plays of George Bernard Shaw to the screen—including the Academy Award-nominated Pygmalion (1938)—had the idea to musicalize the 1913 play. The property had previously been offered to a number of eminent composers, including Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, Cole Porter, E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy, and Rodgers & Hammerstein, all of whom ultimately declined because they believed it had insoluble problems. (Hammerstein actually told Lerner, “It can’t be done. Dick and I worked on it for over a year and gave it up.”)

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While R&H believed that the drawing-room ambience of the original text, and its deliberate non-romanticism, were drawbacks to the musical form, L&L felt that the strong period setting and the conflicts between Henry and Eliza were perfect material for Loewe’s musical composition style, and the Shavian dialogue—witty, precise, pointed, given to arias and duets—provoked Lerner’s sensitivity to language and to English style.

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Yet early on, both men were on the verge of admitting defeat. No matter how hard they tried, according to Lerner, they “did not seem to be able to tear down the walls of the drawing room atmosphere that suggested music.” The play seemed incapable of obeying certain rules for the construction of a musical. And where would the ensemble come from? The men thought of setting the play at Oxford, where Higgins would be a professor of phonetics—then the ensemble would be undergraduates. And what about a sub-plot? Pygmalion had only one story, and what characters or storyline could be invented to match Shaw? Most important was the non-love story—how could the team write “non-love songs”?

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It was problematic enough to give up on for two years, during which time the team separated and Lerner worked on and then abandoned Li’l Abner (with Arthur Schwartz, and later Burton Lane, both of whom also moved on). In that time, Lerner and Loewe realized that the problems in musicalizing Pygmalion turned out to be assets, especially given that the rules of musicals were changing, and that an accent on emotional reality cancelled a traditional need for a sub-plot or a singing chorus as an integral personality to characterize locale. They followed the screenplay more than the stage version, and added business that occurred between acts, such as the scene between Eliza and her dustman father; this established his character in a song (“With a Little Bit o’ Luck”), which leads right into Eliza’s first appearance at Higgins’ home.

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In Shaw’s original play, which he insisted was not a love story, the professor of phonetics and the renovated Cockney girl do not end up together, yet Lerner & Loewe instinctively knew that’s not what audiences would want—and they were right. What amazes is how they do it while avoiding sentimentality.

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Reams have and will continue to be written about other aspects that made My Fair Lady one of the most successful musicals in history, but nothing compares with being enveloped by the sheer genius of it all.

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MTW production photos by Caught in the Moment Photography

My Fair Lady
Musical Theatre West
Carpenter Performing Arts Center
6200 E. Atherton in Long Beach
ends on November 8, 2015
for tickets, call 562.856.1999×4 or visit Musical.org

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