Despite being one of the most enduring, beloved musicals of all time, My Fair Lady isn’t performed terribly often: The last Broadway revival was over 20 years ago, and there hasn’t been a professional production in Boston for at least a decade. On the eve of the musical’s 60th anniversary—and just a few years after the 100th anniversary of Pygmalion—the Lyric Stage Company of Boston reinvents Lerner and Loewe’s timeless classic, which will kick off their brand new season on Sep 4.
On the production’s timing in relation to these milestones, director Scott Edmiston says that it’s “rather symbolic, since we are treating it like Shaw’s play with songs … it’s a wonderful moment to revisit what some people have called the most perfect musical ever written.”
With one of the best scores ever penned for the stage, My Fair Lady tells the story of Eliza Doolittle, a cockney flower seller who meets Henry Higgins, a chauvinistic linguist who bets that he can transform Eliza into a “proper lady” by teaching her upper-class English. The original production, called “one of the best musicals of the century” by New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, broke records on Broadway and made a star out of Julie Andrews.
Edmiston isn’t only reimagining the show for the Lyric’s intimate space but has also chosen to update the setting of the play from 1912 to the 1930s. It’s a bold, inspired decision that Edmiston hopes “will give new resonance to the economic and class issues which are so prominent in the musical.” The 1938 film version of Pygmalion, with a screenplay by George Bernard Shaw, is what sparked this idea for Edmiston: Shaw treated the film as contemporary, rather than set in the usual 1910s.
By the 1930s, England was a vastly different place than it was during the Edwardian era, and moving the story ahead a few decades undoubtedly raises the stakes for many of the play’s characters. In 1912, the English hadn’t yet experienced the horrors of war—the innocence of Edwardian England was all but destroyed by the 1930s; there was also rampant unemployment by that point, which inserts the possibility of a more somber history for many of the characters. “The depression was a time of contrasts: top hats and empty pockets, P.G. Wodehouse and breadlines,” explained Edmiston.
The role of Eliza is dizzyingly demanding, and it’s a role that carries a certain amount of audience expectation: Most are used to either the singing of Julie Andrews or the charming performance of Audrey Hepburn, who starred in the 1964 film.
When asked about recreating such an iconic role, Edmiston said, “In the film, Hepburn is exquisite, but her delicate beauty shifts the feeling of the piece to more of a Cinderella story: We are just waiting for her to put on a gown and reveal her true elegance … She is essentially a street beggar who wants to be able to improve herself so she can get a job … She doesn’t dream of being a princess, she wants to have a room with heat … She wants an education. In the end, she becomes the equal of Higgins, and that makes their relationship difficult and interesting. Shaw was a huge proponent of women’s rights, and we mustn’t lose sight of that.”
In the Lyric’s new production, Jennifer Ellis will star as Eliza. “Jen is one of the great talents in Boston, and I’m thrilled to be working with her on the role,” said Edmiston. “She is making the character uniquely her own.”
Recently, the Lyric has demonstrated remarkable skill at reimagining big musicals for its cozy space; its Into the Woods was one of the finest productions in Boston last year. The confines of the physical space, when used well (which the Lyric almost always does), can gloriously enhance an audience’s intimate connection with a piece, and that’s what Edmiston is counting on here.
“I was intrigued by the idea of shifting the focus from spectacle to character … What we love most about My Fair Lady is not the grandeur but the complex, rather mysterious relationship between Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins. Are Eliza and Higgins in love? People have been debating that since 1914.”
MY FAIR LADY. RUNS 9.4-10.10 AT THE LYRIC STAGE COMPANY, 140 CLARENDON ST., BOSTON. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT WWW.LYRICSTAGE.COM