Here's how 'My Fair Lady' offers a considered take on the 'Pygmalion' story

Sophie Thomas
Sophie Thomas

“If you’ve seen Rex Harrison, you’re going to be expecting the sort of romcom ending,” says Harry Hadden-Paton, the Tony-nominated star who is currently playing Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady in London. But this My Fair Lady doesn’t finish as you may initially expect.

“[This ending is] what Bernard Shaw intended,” continues Hadden-Paton. But we won’t leave you on a cliffhanger. Here’s how the My Fair Lady musical in 2022 offers a refreshing approach to the Pygmalion storyline.

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It’s a production from New York

This production of My Fair Lady was first seen on Broadway in 2018. My Fair Lady played at Lincoln Center Theater from March 2018-July 2019 and earned 10 Tony Award nominations, including Best Revival of a Musical.

Cast aside all thoughts that My Fair Lady remains dated. “We’re not doing an old-fashioned musical. With the choreography and the acting, it’s modern,” says Malcolm Sinclair, who plays Colonel Pickering.

“This is not an old-timer musical, this is not the Golden Age musical, this is the diamond musical,” opines Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Mrs. Higgins. High praise indeed.

There’s a different stage to Broadway

When My Fair Lady was on Broadway, the production was performed in a thrust: a stage where the audience is sat around three sides. That’s not quite possible in London. So if you did catch My Fair Lady on Broadway, why not see it again in its new configuration in the West End?

The show goes back to the original source material

There’s a slightly different ending in this My Fair Lady compared to other productions. We won’t spoil what the ending is — you’ll have to see it for yourself — but it delves into Shaw’s original ideas.

“All I really felt was that [previous shows weren’t] true to the spirit of the text, and to the spirit of the real exploration and honesty of where the story was going,” explains director Bartlett Sher.

“The woman’s position is she 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.”

Throughout the rehearsal process and on stage, My Fair Lady isn’t all happy and light. “We’ve been drawn by Bartlett away from fluffy bunny stuff,” notes Maureen Beattie, who plays Mrs Pierce.

“It’s still witty, still funny, and all the lighthearted bits are still there, but actually what you also get parallel is the darker side of these characters. It comes out of the need to survive in a difficult world and that really makes it so much more interesting.”

The show will make you think of older productions

This My Fair Lady may end differently, yet there’s still a nostalgic feel to the piece. And the chance to see a classic musical at the London Coliseum doesn’t come around all too often.

“What’s always great is if you put on [a classical musical] again, to come back to that and go ‘Hey, why was this brilliant in the first place? Why do we love this?’ There’s a reason why it became brilliant and the contemporary themes are still living inside of it,” says Sharif Afifi, who plays Freddy Eynsford-Hill.

My Fair Lady examines present-day society

Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady musical is based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion. However, the centuries-old story continues to resonate with the world around us.

“In the original play Pygmalion, Shaw was attacking the English class system,” says Sinclair. “It’s a great show and a deeply moving show, but it’s not a cosy show.”

“It keeps making me think of today, of who’s trying to take us back to yesterday in everything,” exclaims Redgrave.

The piece feels different from Broadway

However you think about the world, a lot has happened since 2018. So for Sher, approaching a musical with fresh eyes was key to ensuring My Fair Lady would translate for London audiences.

“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,” comments Sher.

“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.”

My Fair Lady doesn’t come around often

It’s been a long time since My Fair Lady was in London. In fact, it’s been over 20 years: Martine McCutcheon last played Eliza Doolittle in 2001. So this is a rare chance to see the well-known musical staged in the West End.

“We were able to cherry-pick different bits of the text to illustrate [ideas] that are more resonant for people today,” concludes Hadden-Paton.

“And that’s the joy of working on something that, by the way, the rights aren’t just handed out willy nilly. This is every 20 years. So it’s very exciting.”

Book My Fair Lady tickets on London Theatre.

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