My Fair Lady is one of the most beloved, well-known musicals of all time. Even if you’ve never seen it, you’re already familiar with it. I realized I was as I watched the 1964 movie adaptation for the first time. The tale of a professor trying to groom a street vending flower girl into a sophisticated lady has been called “the perfect musical” by critics.
Many songs from our musical lexicon come from the soundtrack, such as “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Now you can see and hear it live in Warwick, as the Ocean State Theatre Company is producing an adaptation of My Fair Lady through October 19.
Interpreting such a well-loved musical performed by legendary actors would be a challenge for anyone. There’s magic in the characters interactions, such as Professor Higgins describing Eliza Doolittle as “She’s so deliciously low! So horribly dirty!” to her face, Eliza’s Cockney-accented responses of “Wah!” (to which typing cannot do justice) and “You oughta be stuffed with nails, you ought!” and the comedic-dramatic friction between them as the lessons transpire. There are high expectations, and Producing Artistic Director Amiee Turner is up to meeting them. “So many people have a very specific and favorable feeling about this show,” she says. “People love it. And they should! It is my job to meet those expectations in a fresh way.”
Though the musical is set in Edwardian London, which encompasses 1901-1910, the sharp, witty dialog and plot connect well with modern audiences. “It will stay true to the time period, but this production will not be a ‘slave’ to those confines – we will use it as a visual springboard,” Amiee says. “It really is a timeless piece as to its messages and themes.”
The timelessness of the musical’s themes is among its greatest strengths. Professor Higgins takes Eliza in on a bet, determined to turn her into a proper lady, all the way from selling flowers in the gutter to hobnobbing with kings and queens, and princes and princesses. The plot touches on issues such as class distinctions, the gulf between the haves and the have nots (or at least the have lesses), and the differences between people. Though aristocratic tendencies were more prevalent among the well-to-do in early 20th century London, the lines of class division is a relevant subject today, everywhere. It’s all about people and perception. It’s Amiee’s hope to convey the musical’s messages to the audience: “First, not to judge a book by its cover. Second, the cover does matter! And third, that when you place a judgement on someone without allowing yourself to understand that person, you are the one who suffers the loss of learning something new.”
As I said, even if you’ve never seen My Fair Lady, you’re already familiar with it. Its inspiration, Pygmalion, was parodied by The Three Stooges in their "Hoi Polloi" episode. If any guy had reservations about seeing a musical, they’ve just been obliterated. The Simpsons parodied it in the episode My Fair Laddy. The Muppets have performed various songs from the soundtrack on several times. Even Family Guy has referenced the play on more than one occasion. Not only did Stewie sing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face” in Running Mates, but Once if by Clam, Two if By Sea featured him attempting to turn a character named, of course, Eliza, into a proper lady. Furthermore, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane credits Harrison’s performance of Professor Higgins as the inspiration for Stewie’s voice. See? Told you were familiar with it.
My Fair Lady was adapted from the 1912 George Bernard Shaw play (and 1938 movie) Pygmalion in 1956. It was an instant hit on Broadway and won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Rex Harrison won the Best Performance for Leading Actor award for his portrayal of the insult-slinging linguistic Professor Henry Higgins. Julie Andrews was nominated for her interpretation of the urchin-esque, would-be lady Eliza Doolittle. She was subsequently replaced by Audrey Hepburn for the 1964 film adaptation, which itself won eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture).
Of course, the best way to experience a musical is live, watching actors and actresses perform without a net against a backdrop of elaborately detailed set pieces. “My Fair Lady is lush and glorious and so grounded in theatre history,” says Amiee. “Between George Bernard Shaw’s original Pygmalion to Lerner & Loewe’s brilliant adaption to Warner Brothers’ spectacular film adaptation, it is exactly the kind of first class musical theatre we feel speaks to both theatre and musical theatre fans.”
My Fair Lady is a classic with timeless themes that apply to the modern day. The music and the characters will stay with you long after the show is over. If you’re looking for a night out, you’d be hard pressed to go wrong seeing “the perfect musical.”
The Ocean State Theatre Company | My Fair Lady | Now through October 19