About the Play
World famous phonetics expert and British upper class professional bachelor, Henry Higgins is willing to wager that he can pass off the lowly Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle in high society as a duchess just by teaching her to speak proper English. After several grueling months of lessons Higgins introduces Eliza to his mother’s circle of friends which includes the young aristocrat Freddy Eynsford-Hill who falls for the newly refined Eliza. Higgins is happy to take all the credit for Eliza’s transformation and he can’t understand why his pupil is less than grateful. It is only after she has gone that he realizes his growing attraction for this new independent woman.
Like Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion from which it was adapted, My Fair Lady explores society’s prejudices toward class and gender with the addition of a spectacular score to illuminate the broad and rich mix of characters we encounter.
Opening on Broadway in 1956, My Fair Lady was a resounding record-smashing hit and would become the longest running major musical for its time, playing for 2,717 performances over the course of six-and-a-half-years.
The original My Fair Lady production featured Rex Harrison (initially offered to Noel Coward) as Henry Higgins and Julie Andrews (initially intended for Mary Martin) in the role of Eliza Doolittle in her American debut. The cast recording, which contains some of the most memorable Broadway tunes, spent 480 weeks on the Billboard charts, making it one of the longest selling albums. It was nominated for nine Tony Awards in 1957, winning six, including Best Musical, Best Actor for Harrison, and Best Director for Moss Hart. Subsequent Broadway revivals were mounted in 1976, 1981, and 1993.
Lerner and Loewe’s musical is based on the George Bernard Shaw play and Gabriel Pascal motion picture Pygmalion. The musical was adapted for film in 1964, again starring Harrison while Audrey Hepburn played Ms. Doolittle. Harrison captured the Academy Award for his silver screen performance.
It wasn’t until after Shaw’s death that film producer Gabriel Pascal approached Alan Jay Lerner to adapt the play for a musical. He and partner Frederick Loewe were stumped with the unconventional plot, there was no real love story, which, for the day, was an unworkable vehicle. Even Rodgers and Hammerstein were unsuccessful trying to make the musical adaptation. Lerner and Loewe re-approached the project after setting it aside for a couple of years, and, with fresh eyes, realized the original book for the play needed little alteration for the musical. It has since been called “the perfect musical” and “one of the best musicals of the century.”
About the Production
My Fair Lady holds a special place in Director/Choreographer Michael Jenkinson’s heart. Besides playing the role of Freddie over a decade ago, it was the second show he choreographed professionally for PCPA. That 2001 production was a breakthrough in Jenkinson’s understanding of the role choreography plays as “story” and not just dance. It also gave him the foundation and great appreciation for the cooperative and collaborative arrangement between director and choreographer. While Michael is proud of the work he did on that show 14 years ago, he is excited to make it different. It’s also new territory for the choreographer to revisit a project; but early on in the process he was convinced he would not take cues from past productions or the famous film of 1964 starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. “My observations are that many productions look like an endeavor to do the film version on stage and I find that really uninteresting. The film is wonderful, but the film will always exist so there’s no reason to replicate that,” Jenkinson said.
One area of particular focus for Jenkinson is the iconic Ascot scene which he describes as typically being presented as a costume parade. Besides the goal of elevating the basic shape and building in complex walking patterns, he has expanded upon the ensemble’s interrelationships - exploring and expanding their stories within.
The basis for the production is to strip away familiar external cues so that the observer looks upon the work without preconceptions, hence becoming more aware of the internal life of these characters and providing a brand new experience.
While the shape of the production will have a fresh visual feel, the show’s sweeping score and engaging plot remain. The class structure as the backdrop to a bet between two gentlemen to see if a lower class flower girl can be dressed up and passed off in high society is pivotal.
Jenkinson calls My Fair Lady an exceptionally well-constructed play that has great language, great music and a very unique story. “This is the most unconventional musical and a great challenge as a director because the relationships are so unique. There’s no formula like ‘I met you, then we fall in love,’ like a Curly and Laurie, or Harold Hill and Marion, or Tony and Maria. This is I don’t even like you.”
The message that rings true in the piece, and is really important to the director, is being true to your authentic self, while at the same time staying true to the tone of Bernard Shaw’s original work, the Pygmalion story. With the focus so heavily on character development, it’s no surprise this will be the director/ choreographer’s least dance intensive show. As he said, “no leggy show girls and no balletic moves.” The dance will come right out of the urban feel of the people on the streets. Their situation will be the instigation for the movement. “We’re not driving toward a 10-12 minute ballet in this production,” Jenkinson said. This piece is so well constructed that he needs to just get out of its way and let the actors do their work.
Jenkinson’s hope is that everyone who walks in to the theatre comes away with a brand new relationship to the play, a goal that is always paramount. “I’m not interested in the audience just sitting and watching something beautiful happen. I’m interested in them really hearing the play, even when we’re revisiting a war horse of a show, to bring it back fresh and not to allow it to fade away.”
About the Authors
Alan Jay Lerner: book and lyrics. Lerner was born into a wealthy family in 1918 and studied piano beginning at the age of 5. He attended Juilliard in 1936-1937 and later graduated from Harvard. There he lost the sight in one eye during a boxing match forcing him to give up his plans of becoming a pilot. He opted for Harvard’s theatre program and developed a love of writing radio plays. His mentors were Oscar Hammerstein and Lorenz Hart. His partnership with Frederick Loewe began in 1942. After three unsuccessful attempts they landed their first real hit with Brigadoon. The team is also credited for creating Paint Your Wagon, Gigi, and Camelot. Their final collaboration, after Lerner coaxed Loewe out of retirement, was the unsuccessful film The Little Prince, 1974. Lerner continued writing musicals, one of which won him an Academy Award for his screenplay for An American in Paris. Working with Burton Lane he wrote Royal Wedding and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. During his career he has collaborate with Kurt Weill, Andre Previn, and Leonard Bernstein twice, once as a fellow classmates at Harvard then much later, in 1976, on Bernstein’s last musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. After Oscar Hammerstein passed away, Lerner attempted a collaboration with Richard Rodgers, though that proved unworkable.
Frederick Loewe: music. Loewe was born in Berlin in 1901. A self-taught pianist (from the age of 8) he helped his father - an operetta star - rehearse for shows. By the time he turned 15, he was receiving public recognition for his compositions and performances. Accompanying his father to New York in 1925 he decided to make a go of it on Broadway, though with little success. He took odd jobs, including playing piano in movie theatres accompanying silent pictures which he improvised on the spot. Loewe met Lerner by chance at a famous night spot, The Lambs Club, in 1942 and their first collaboration was on the production of Life of the Party which was not a hit. It took a couple more attempts before they created Brigadoon which established the writing team with world-wide recognition. Following the film musical Gigi in 1958 - which won nine Academy Awards including Best Picture - the team wrote Camelot to unenthusiastic responses from the first audiences. The stars, Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet were summoned to sing a few numbers from the musical on the Ed Sullivan Show. Overnight, Camelot was an immediate hit. Lowe retired to Palm Springs, California. He and partner Frederick Loewe were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972.
George Bernard Shaw: playwright Pygmalion. He was born in 1856 in Dublin, Ireland. His father was an alcoholic and cut off Shaw’s education at the age of 15. In 1876, he moved to London and established himself as a leading music and theatre critic along with writing novels and essays on a wide variety of subjects. He also wrote 36 plays - writing up until his death at the age of 94. He spoke out on politics, poverty, class struggle, and women’s rights. He won an Academy Award for Pygmalion in 1938 and the Nobel Prize for literature in 1925. Other famous plays by Shaw include Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Candida, Major Barbara, Heartbreak House and Saint Joan. Shaw did not wish to see Pygmalion, his witty study of middle-class morality and class distinction, become a musical. And, it wasn’t until after his death, that Lerner and Loewe were asked by film producer Gabriel Pascal to take on the project.