News Column

The classic musical 'My Fair Lady' gets newfound respect in two lavish Oregon productions (gallery)

August 1, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 01--It's been more than 50 years since the classic musical "My Fair Lady" premiered, but with all the attention the show has received lately, you'd think it was as fresh as a Broadway ingenue.

This year, the musical gets two big Oregon productions. On Friday, Tigard's Broadway Rose Theatre Company unveils its lavish, traditional staging, which runs through Aug. 18. And down in Ashland, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival continues its stripped-down, darker interpretation of the show through early November.

Plans are also underway for a big-budget Broadway revival next year, to be produced by music mogul Clive Davis, and possibly directed by Seattle's Bartlett Sher. Coincidentally, 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the much-loved film adaptation of the musical, which the late film critic Roger Ebert called a worthy adaptation of "the best stage musical of all time."

"It's a great, wonderful story," says Amanda Dehnert, who directed the Shakespeare Festival's production. "If you add into it how wonderful the music is, it's just something that's worth doing."

More pragmatically, Broadway Rose artistic director Sharon Maroney says it's "My Fair Lady's" turn to shine.

"Shows have popularity that goes in cycles," Maroney says. "These last couple of years, we've been doing one classic musical each summer, and I couldn't believe how many families came and brought their young kids. That's very exciting because we're introducing these classics to a new generation. If we don't do that, we're a goner.

"I know why we're doing it," she adds. "It's a wonderful show, the music is fabulous, and it's one we've been wanting to do for years."

Different interpretations

"My Fair Lady" was written in 1956 by lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe, based on George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play "Pygmalion." It tells the story of low-class English flower peddler Eliza Doolittle, and phonetics professor Henry Higgins' attempts to transform her speech patterns so she can pass as a duchess. Because it's such a deeply layered show, it's open to a wide variety of interpretations.

For this year's Shakespeare Festival production, Dehnert stripped away elaborate sets, focusing attention instead on two onstage grand pianos, which the actors perform around. That forces the audience to pay more attention to the lyrics and the dialogue, revealing darker themes and character flaws that can be glossed over by theatrical flash.

"The funny thing is, I don't think of it as exploring something darker in the story, even though I understand that comes out," she says. "I find that with these older shows, they sometimes are mis-remembered as being either simpler or lighter than they actually are. If you pick up the script of 'My Fair Lady' and read it, all that stuff is right there in it. I wanted to honor the material as it was written. It's a really great piece of writing."

For Broadway Rose, Maroney hopes to present a production that's up to the artistic values audiences might see on a national tour, with a large cast of 24 actors, a 12-person live orchestra, along with details like elaborate hats and period wigs.

"I love these classical musicals the way they were originally intended to be seen," she says. "I love all the ensembles. I love all the sets. I love all the costumes. I love the orchestrations and the vocal harmonies. That's what attracts me to musicals."

Part of the allure for her is "My Fair Lady's" historic setting and the chance to dig into the social and political issues of the time.

"I love going through all the research on the time period," Maroney says. "For me, that's what makes a show interesting."

While preparing for the show, she learned how difficult life was for the underclass in Victorian England. A flower girl like Eliza might have hit the streets as young as age 6, with little hope of a life of comfort. Maroney hopes the show reflects an undercurrent of that despair.

"At the first rehearsal, I told the cast we're going to focus on the reality of the cockney people, and the griminess and hardness of their lives," she says. "But it still will be heartwarming."

A love story? It's complicated

With its romantic melodies and lyrics, it's hard for audiences to think of "My Fair Lady" as anything but a love story. And yet if the show had a Facebook page, it's relationship status would most likely read, "It's complicated."

As Ebert notes: "No one ever gets kissed. The most the leading man can concede about the heroine is that he has grown accustomed to her face. His rival is invited into her house but would rather just stand outside on the street where she lives. And both her father and the man she loves consider marriage to be an abomination which they have been fortunate to escape."

Some romance!

Yet Maroney feels that by the end of the play there's a clear romantic connection between Eliza and Henry.

"I won't say it's a slam dunk and that they're going to end up happily ever after," she says. "But clearly there's something drawing them together."

And Dehnert thinks "My Fair Lady" is absolutely romantic, but in a realistic way.

"When we think of romance on stage or screen, we tend to limit it to an idealized form," she says. "The great love affairs that I know of are never like that."

While Eliza and Henry face an ambiguous future at the end of the musical, Dehnert says there's no denying the sparks between the two, particularly in the song "I Could Have Danced All Night."

"When she sings 'I only know when he began to dance with me, I could have danced all night,' she doesn't entirely know what it is, but it's all about Henry Higgins," Dehnert says. "It's about a feeling that isn't named 'love' because that's so narrow.

"But it's clearly a big thing. She sings the thing three times!"

The best stage musical ever?

So is "My Fair Lady" the best stage musical ever, as Ebert contended?

Dehnert believes it's got the greatest book for a musical.

"It's so well-structured and the characters are so interesting," she says. "It's so amazingly compelling."

And no show comes close to matching the score.

"It's not normal for a musical to have so many songs that people remember," she says. "Normally a show will have one or two songs at the most that people think of."

Maroney also says it's got better music than any show she's ever directed.

"I absolutely adore 'Loverly,'" she says. "And 'On The Street Where You Live' is breathtaking."

Ultimately, Dehnert believes that what sets "My Fair Lady" apart -- and why it's getting a sudden burst of attention -- is that it still has highly compelling things to say to today's audiences.

"All the classic musicals are the best of the best, and what makes them that is that the story they are putting forward still has integrity and still matters.

"When you look at 'My Fair Lady,' it was incredibly progressive in the way it talks about relationships and love and sex. That's not the way people remember it, but that's likely why they were interested in it in the first place."

Read more:

10 cool facts about "My Fair Lady," from its creation, to the big screen, to next year's Broadway revival.

-- Grant Butler

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