The Lerner and Lowe musical ‘My Fair Lady’ is a phenomenon both musically and socially. When it made its debut on Broadway in 1956 it broke all box office records. The program notes contain a pertinent anecdote about a woman who on discovering the seat next to her was unoccupied leant across to the woman sitting on the other side and asked if she knew for whom it was intended. On being told it was the woman’s husband she was amazed.
‘Whatever kept him away?’ she pressed.
‘He’s dead.’ The other woman replied.
The first woman offered her condolences but could not contain her curiosity, why hadn’t one of her friends accompanied her?
‘They’re all at his funeral.’ The woman confided.
It sums up the effect this show had on the world in those opening months when ‘My Fair Lady’ eclipsed everything else. It was to be no different in London or indeed here. It was so successful in Melbourne that rather than tour the show JC Williamson’s created a new company to take it to Sydney.
‘My Fair Lady’ is the adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s comedy ‘Pygmalion’ which had already been adapted twice in film. In his comments on the 1916 production of ‘Pygmalion’ Shaw wrote, ‘I am able to boast that it has been a great success on the continent and in America which proves not only that a play can be didactic but that it shouldn’t be anything else.’ It is often mistaken as a ‘Cinderella’ story; the impoverished flower girl becomes a lady. In fact there is nothing much of ‘Cinderella’ about the outcome for Eliza Doolittle in either the musical or its antecedent GBS play.
Shaw originally conceived the story as a satire based on the philologist Henry Sweet who endeavored to establish himself at Oxford in a chair of phonetics. He failed dismally even though, at least in Shaw’s view, he was almost on a par with Nietzsche. In the preface Shaw remarks ‘The reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play. … [Sweet] had become a sort of walking repudiation of Oxford and all its traditions. … With Higgins's physique and temperament Sweet might have set the Thames on fire.’ As it was Sweet’s temperament was so acerbic it alienated everyone who came in contact with him.
Shaw was fascinated by language as a tool for self improvement acknowledging that a professionally acquired accent could move people through the class structure of English society. Equally however the home spun variety appalled him. ‘An honest and natural slum dialect is more tolerable than the attempt of a phonetically untaught person to imitate the vulgar dialect of the golf club; and I am sorry to say that in spite of the efforts of our Academy of Dramatic Art, there is still too much sham golfing English on our stage’.
The title of Shaw’s play refers to the Greek sculptor who carved a model of the perfect woman out of marble and in the process fell in love with his own creation. Eliza in both the play and the musical enunciates the converse of Shaw’s theme ‘The difference between a flower girl and a lady … is not how she behaves but how she’s treated’. While ‘My Fair Lady’ has been said on many occasions to have radically changed the original play, it has not. What it did was to modify it to the new medium and it did it brilliantly. It may have been Marshall McLuhan who coined the expression ‘the medium is the message’ but no one knew it instinctively better than Alan Jay Lerner.
‘My Fair Lady’ retains all the essential qualities of a brilliantly conceived plot through a very witty book and lyrics. Underlying both is a message that proved profoundly prophetic for its time and accounts for why this musical became the phenomenon that it remains. It is known in management as the ‘self fulfilling prophesy’ and it is what is behind most of management’s current mantra, ‘You can be whatever you believe you are’. It’s not about luck it’s about belief in self and giving others the right cues about yourself. It’s Robbie Burns in an about face, not ‘the gift … to see ourselves as others see us’ but the promise that others will see us as we see ourselves and so the quintessential number, “I Could Have Danced All Night". ‘I’ll never know what made it so exciting.Why all at once my heart took flightI only know when he began to dance with me, I could have danced, danced, danced all night.’
Eliza realized she could do a thousand things she wouldn’t have believed possible. It wasn’t about ‘love’, it was about taking gold at the Olympics. The ‘he’ wasn’t Higgins, as Pickering points out, it was the Prince of Transylvania who asked her to dance. It meant she had won. What Eliza felt for Higgins was what an athlete feels for the coach, maybe it’s a form of love but it’s not romance. This is not a love story, it’s a hero one, it’s about winning. The magical music of Frederick Loewe meant of course that everyone who saw and heard it took those subliminal messages away with them for the rest of their lives. It’s quite an extraordinarily accomplished piece of theatre and one that no one, of any generation should miss.
It would probably be an over statement to suggest that the stage, film and musical adaptations of the story were the chrysalis of the incoming Age of Aquarius but it would be fair to describe it as one of the age’s most coherent heralds. That emancipation of spirit led to its subsequent harnessing through the management mantras that have manifested themselves since and ultimately gave rise to the modern advertising industry and our present world of ‘spin’.
The coming of age of ‘My Fair Lady’ as set out in the notes to this production depended on the brilliant innovations of Alan Jay Lerner that were worked into the fabric of both the lyrics and the book. Gabrial Pascal had touted the proposition around everyone who had done musicals and they all turned him down.
It was probably in the expanded role of Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle played with great gusto and appeal by Robert Grubb in the present production, that turned the tables in the creation of ‘My Fair Lady’. Alfie is a man who shuns responsibility and it is this that conjured the lyrics of ‘With a Little bit of Luck’ and introduced the other side of ‘London society’. While Shaw had created the foil for the devotee of language and conceived of his down fall or in this case comeuppance, it was Lerner’s musical encapsulation of it in ‘I’m Getting Married in the Morning’ that made for himself and for the rest of the world the ‘musical’. In the space of three minutes he had reinforced the idea of being tied down by the expectations of others at least twenty one times, quite a feat for any librettist.
This production presented for us by Opera Australia is certainly a very stylish one with the pinnacle being reached in the ‘Ascot Gavotte’. It is a wonderfully choreographed tableau by Elizabeth Hill, gorgeously painted in the suffused grey and apricot tones of the costumes designed by Roger Kirk. Hill’s choreography for the most part was rather staid and conventional especially in the scenes outside Covent Garden with the chorus taking up positions in groups at either side of the stage. In the later scenes with the little ‘dustman’ outside the pub they became animated and demonstrated that a chorus can easily accomplish more that one thing at a time without proving a distraction.
The orchestration under the baton of Andrew Greene for the most part seemed somewhat lack luster. However the overall musical direction as evidenced in the vocal quality was varied, rich and sustained. Sound, designed by John O’Donnell delivered a very well balanced and clear acoustic throughout.
Richard Roberts’ set design was effective and beautifully constructed if predictable and the summer house proved very evocative. Kirk’s choice of the rich saturated ultramarine blue for Eliza’s house dress echoed the renaissance colour choice for the depiction of the Virgin. It has an extraordinarily gravitating effect under lights.
It was perhaps in the lighting of Trudy Dalgleish that the technical aspects of this production excelled. The contrasting tones of light that traced out the pattern of performances were masterfully handled. In the Ascot scene the apricots of the costuming and set were at once matched then contrasted giving a superb vibrancy. In the ball scene later, the lights pointed up the characters highlights lighting the shadows in contrasting hues.
While director Stuart Maunder delivered an impeccably paced production there was a strange distortion having Reg Livermore present a very different Higgins to that normally associated with the role. Despite his very accomplished portrayal it was the interpretation of an older man and brought to mind images of a Keneally type Leprechaun flourishing round the stage. Higgins is written as an older man, a generation, maybe to Eliza and no doubt age is relative but the gap here rather lop sided the story. In ‘I’ve grown Accustomed to her Face’ there were associations more of ‘Lolita’ than ‘Pygmalion’. The references to the respective age difference with Pickering, played with Wilde reserve by Rhys McConnochie became almost an unintended send up.
Taryn Fiebig presented a very endearing Eliza although the diction in the songs went strangely astray at times. In this musical more than most such becomes particularly pointed.
Matthew Robinson in the role of Freddie Eynsford-Hill delivered a most beautifully controlled rendition of ‘On the Street Where You Live’ with an elegant tonal purity. Higgin’s mother, performed by Nancye Hayes was an absolute delight. Clarissa Foulcher performed as Mrs Eynsford-Hill and Nick Christo the role of Zoltan Karpathy. Adele Johnston played in the role of Mrs Pearce and Hester van der Vyver as Mrs Hopkins. Along with support from the chorus it was vocally a very strong cast.
So what of the story that GBS wrote and Lerner and Lowe translated into music? What did become of these early paradigms of self help? GBS himself appended a sequel to his 1916 production which wasn’t all that far from that of Messrs Lerner and Lowe. It was always to be about the ‘slippers’, who was going to be fetching whose. Eliza married Freddie of course, what else could she do? She could no more have changed Higgins than fly to the moon and she certainly wasn’t about to be bossed around, ‘Not bloody likely.’
She did however end up going back to Wimpole Street after the £500 wedding gift from the Colonel was finally exhausted but it was as Mrs Eynsford-Hill. The bachelor pair was delighted; it suited Higgins down to the ground.
Eliza could never abide Higgins. He was always going to be ‘right’ too often which is why they argued incessantly. Shaw confesses that she always harbored a secret desire to get him alone on a desert island and watch him make love like any ordinary person but it was only ever to be a dream.
Higgins was an avowed bachelor, ‘Never let a woman in your life’. As Shaw pointed out he was never likely to ever find anyone who could quite equal his mother and having seen Nancy Hayes you can understand why.
Opera Australia presents
My Fair Lady
Lerner and Loewe
Venue: Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Dates: 7.30pm – June 21, 25, 28; July 2, 4, 9, 15, 19, 24, 26; August 1 & 4
Matinees: 1.00pm – June 28; July 12
Duration: 2 hours and 50 minutes including one 20-minute interval
Free Opera Talks: July 12, 19; August 1, 4 - 45 minutes before performances
Tickets: $55 - $156. A children’s price of $50 is available for matinee performances only
Bookings: Opera Australia Ticket Services (02) 9318 8200
Sydney Opera House (02) 9250 7777