'My Fair Lady's Bartlett Sher and Gareth Valentine on the musical's endearing qualities
Bartlett Sher is the directorial brain behind two Broadway productions now in London. His critically-acclaimed play, To Kill a Mockingbird, is at the Gielgud Theatre. And now, his 2018 revival of My Fair Lady, which picked up 10 Tony Award nominations, opens in the musical's actual setting, Covent Garden. For Sher, staging My Fair Lady in London is akin to a ceremonial homecoming.
“My Fair Lady is a perfect sort of marriage of the American musical form with Lerner and Loewe and George Bernard Shaw,” he commented.
“But it really has its heart in Covent Garden, and its heart and the story right here where we're doing it. Bringing it back here and being able to produce it here is incredibly special.”
There’s pretty special casting too. Vanessa Redgrave stars as Mrs. Higgins, Amara Okereke plays Eliza Doolittle, and Tony-nominated actor Harry Hadden-Paton reprises the role of Henry Higgins. There’s a lot to enjoy in this My Fair Lady, which plays all summer long at the London Coliseum.
We sat down with director Bartlett Sher and musical supervisor Gareth Valentine to talk about their early memories of the show, and how the pair use their past My Fair Lady experiences to revamp the story.
My Fair Lady is at the London Coliseum.
Have there been any changes for the My Fair Lady London run compared to Broadway?
Bartlett Sher: Well there's one big change, which is that the Vivian Beaumont Theatre is a thrust stage, so it's a very different space. It had to be adjusted into a proscenium, which is a technical change.
I think every time you get to come back to a piece, and I did this four years ago for the first time, we've changed so much that now different questions are surfacing in it. So it's cast differently. Whenever I engage in a new text, I have to explore things in a different way. I don't just repeat the one I did. I'm actually re-asking all the same questions.
Having Amara [Okereke] as the lead makes me do that in a fantastic way. And so inevitably, it has to live and breathe within the time it’s in. And we've all been through a lot in the last four years. So it feels very different.
With this My Fair Lady, there is a different ending. What made this the right time for change?
Bartlett: Well, what's interesting about that ending is that Shaw wrote the film in 1938. But the Hollywood producers put the ending of [Eliza] coming back on it without his permission. Shaw was dead set against her ever coming back, against the romcom, against the nature of them as something, and they added that into it.
When they got the rights to do the musical, they kept [the ending]. All I really felt was that it wasn't true to the spirit of the text, and the spirit of the real exploration and honesty of where the story was going – the idea that the woman has to be free and able to go into the world on her own, and that's the larger point of the play. So we restored that idea. And it resonates extremely well and seems very true to the piece.
What were your early experiences of My Fair Lady?
Gareth Valentine: I first saw the movie when I was a kid and was absolutely besotted by it. Also a local amateur society did it in Wales, and partly in Welsh, which was something. Can you imagine Welsh Cockney?
Also I know the score. I mean, I can pretty much say the score by heart, and I've been able to since the 1970s, when I started learning. It's just all there in my head.
To be standing in front of the English National Opera orchestra with 36 players, [coming] from the 1960s when I was playing as a kid on the second-hand piano is quite a leap. It's going to be just sensational.
Bartlett: For me, I was just, you know, having a crush on Audrey Hepburn when I was young. I thought she was incredible in it. I did think Rex Harrison was a jerk. And I didn't really respond to Higgins at all, but I really responded to her. I remember when I first saw it on stage — when I directed it — I’ve always loved it.
Photo credit: My Fair Lady (Photo by Marc Brenner)
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