– This is a two part look at the new production of Lerner and Loewe’s masterpiece musical My Fair Lady at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. –
It was only a matter of time before Molly Smith got to My Fair Lady.
In recent years, Smith’s productions of classic, American musicals have brought full houses and critical acclaim to Arena Stage, where she is the artistic director. The renovated Fichandler Stage at the Mead Center for the American Theater reopened with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Last season, her production of The Music Man had no trouble filling the seats.
Now, Smith and her talented production team turn their attention to My Fair Lady, the 1956 musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.
My Fair Lady reigned as Broadway’s longest musical for many years. The story of a simple flower girl’s transformation into a refined lady due to a gentlemen’s wager grabbed the public’s interest. The score and adaptation by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner seamlessly enhanced Shaw’s play with wit, romance and songs that were instant classics. “Wouldn’t It be Loverly?,” “On the Street Where You Live,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” are now imbedded in our culture.
Now, My Fair Lady, in all her loverliness sets up shop at Arena Stage through January 6, 2013.
Smith said producing the legendary musical was a simple decision. “I think My Fair Lady is an extraordinary musical.”
The director returns to the show after her production for Canada’s Shaw Festival two seasons ago. Smith is joined by members of her production team from the 2011 Shaw Fest mounting: Daniel Pelzig (choreographer), Paul Sportelli (music director), Judith Bowden (costume designer), and Jock Munro (lighting designer). Joining them is set designer Donald Eastman.
Smith said they have been able to build on their previous work, while taking a fresh approach to the new production. “It’s always from the ground up, especially for the Fichandler.”
“At the Shaw Festival, we learned about the glory of the book scenes. They are fantastic and virtually unchanged from what Shaw wrote, which is a testament to Lerner and Loewe’s brilliance” allowing the original to speak for itself.
“Along with the book, we have this great story and some of the most glorious music around.”
And, Smith said, timing is everything. “When we begin creating a new production, we have to ask, ‘Why now?’ ‘Why this piece?’
“A decade ago, if you had asked someone if we had a clash between classes in America, the answer would have probably been, ‘no.’ But now, with the 1 percent, the 99 percent, the 47 percent, and the Occupy Movement, I think people would say yes, we do have a class system.”
In My Fair Lady, three distinct social classes of late-Victorian British society are on display.
The lower classes are represented by Eliza Doolittle, the rough-talking flower seller, and her ne’er-do-well father, Alfred. The servants – butlers and domestics – represent the middle class. The aristocrats take up the top rung of the ladder, which is not easy to climb.
Smith said Eliza’s journey across the lines of class is the crux of the show. “Professor Higgins is moving Eliza from the lower class past the middle to the upper class. He helps to change her carriage, her responses, and her language, which shows the audience in an active way how difficult it is to move from one class to another.”
Smith’s from-scratch approach to My Fair Lady extended to casting, which crosses cultural and racial lines. “I began thinking about casting a person of color for Eliza,” she said. Arena’s literary department looked into the ethnic composition in London at that time. “We discovered the city was a real melting pot, with communities made up of people from Malay, China and many other cultures.”
“I decided to concentrate on casting Asian actors as Eliza and Alfred.”
Manna Nichols makes her Arena Stage debut in the title role. As her father, James Saito returns to Arena for the first time since appearing in Lisa Loomer’s The Waiting Room, sixteen years ago.
Casting Asian-Americans, Smith said, “will allow people to look at these characters – and this musical – in a new way. Anytime casting is done in a different way, it confronts the audience. We want theatre to grab us and make us question our preconceptions.”
But casting also works to serve the piece and Smith said this Eliza is indeed a fair lady. “Manna is lovely, smart as a whip, and has a voice that is God-sent. She is really able to create her character through the voice.”
“It’s amazing to see this girl, who is a wild animal, emerge into this cultivated young woman.”
Beyond Saito and Nichols, Smith has cast a number of performers who Washington audiences will recognize from their appearances at Arena Stage, Signature Theatre and other venues: Nicholas Rodriguez, Sherri L. Edelen, Rayanne Gonzales, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Erin Driscoll, and Catherine Flye.
Coming to Arena Stage for the first time is Benedict Campbell who plays Professor Henry Higgins, the role he played in Smith’s 2011 Shaw Fest production. Campbell’s distinguished career is highlighted by training in Great Britain, and many years acting in his native Canada for the Stratford Festival, and, for more than a decade, the Shaw Festival.
Praising her Higgins, Smith said, “Ben Campbell is a Shaw expert. He understands the specificity of the language so well. He also has a dynamic stage presence and is a complicated actor on stage, which is what you want from a character like Henry Higgins.”
“I am a big believer in process,” Smith said of the journey of building a newly minted My Fair Lady for Arena Stage. Her methods do not, she said, begin with the cast immediately learning dance combinations and voice parts.
“One can do a great deal of deep playing with the cast in the first week of rehearsal, where the actors work through everything.”
Closes January 6, 2013
Arena Stage at the Mead Center
for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
Tickets: $45 – $94
Some performances are sold out.
Tuesdays thru Sundays
“The first week is more like a think tank. The next week we move into table work,” where all the performers work through the text. “Anyone can ask questions to help them understand and find their way.”
Smith said musical theatre often begins with dancing and music, but she finds her approach deepens the collective process of the actors. “I find that if we can answer all the questions in those first weeks, when we get the show up on its feet, the characters are so much in their bodies. And we can build the structure from that point.”
Going from improvised character back stories to Lerner and Loewe’s book and score helps build the structure on which detail can be added. “We work in an imaginative art form. When one does that early work of playing, it deepens the experience for the performers, and each actor can see the others as human beings.”
And the ultimate end, of course goes beyond the performers themselves, as they prepare their characters for a living and breathing audience, said Smith.
“We’re storytellers. That is our job in the theatre.”
Smith’s storytellers have begun performances of My Fair Lady on the Fichandler Stage. Click for tickets
Coming Soon: a profile of “Eliza Doolittle,” Manna Nichols.
What you might not know about MY FAIR LADY:
Before Lerner and Loewe (Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon) – turned George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion into My Fair Lady, other lyricists and composers turned down the idea, saying it could not be done. Cole Porter, declined the project, as did the teams of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz (The Band Wagon), E.Y. Yarburg and Fred Saidy (Finian’s Rainbow), and even Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.
Casting Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews as Higgins and Eliza was not an automatic decision.
Although he was a strong contender, Rex Harrison was not the only candidate. Various reports – from Alan Jay Lerner and the original Alfred Doolittle, Stanley Holloway – indicate Noel Coward, Michael Redgrave, George Sanders and even Sir John Gielgud were discussed.
As Eliza, Hollywood ingénue Deanna Durbin and Broadway belter Dolores Gray were considered. But would you believe American Broadway Legend Mary Martin as the Cockney flower girl? In the early stages, while she was flying around Broadway as Peter Pan, Martin expressed interest in playing Eliza. However, after she and manager-husband Richard Halliday heard Lerner and Loewe’s first songs, she changed her mind. Martin thought the whole show was a lost cause and declared to her husband, “How could it have happened? Richard, those dear boys have lost their talent.”
Not deterred by a lack of cockeyed optimism about the project from Mary Martin, the creative team investigated the 18-year old British imported star of The Boyfriend, a spoof musical set in the 1920’s. Julie Andrews, who had starred in the London original, made an auspicious Broadway debut as the endearing Polly. Andrews also possessed a clear, four-octave singing range. She was cast as Eliza Doolittle. But she nearly didn’t make it to opening night.
Young Julie Andrews, rehearsing Eliza, nearly did not make it to opening night. Director Moss Hart, in agreement with the rest of the creative team, felt that Andrews needed extensive work in order to overcome a lack of confidence, and meet the acting demands of her role. Four days into rehearsals, Hart dismissed the entire production company and cast. He took Andrews to the New Amsterdam Theatre, and in two long private rehearsals, personally coached her. When they rejoined the rest of the company, no one doubted Julie Andrews was ready to be their fair lady.
As rehearsals began for the Broadway premiere, Rex Harrison was nervous and intimidated about singing in public. He is said to have referred to the orchestra as “those interlopers in the pit.” He was also very keen on the musical being faithful to Shaw’s original, so much so, he carried a well-worn copy of Pygmalion, published by Penguin Books. When in doubt about a passage, he would cry out, “Where’s my Penguin?”
Harrison also inspired one of the songs Higgins sings in My Fair Lady. One day, as Harrison and Alan Jay Lerner took a walk in the park, they compared notes on their marital status. Harrison was on his second marriage at the time of My Fair Lady (ultimately married six times), while Lerner was ahead by one, on his third marriage in the mid-1950s. (Lerner married eight times!) Commiserating about their wives and women in general, at one point, Harrison stopped walking and shouted to Lerner, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were homosexuals?” Lerner is said to have been inspired by that thought to write the “A Hymn to Him,” also known as “Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like a Man?”
– Background information on the original production of My Fair Lady taken in part from Alan Jay Lerner’s “On the Street Where You Live” and Keith Garebian’s “The Making of My Fair Lady.”