One of our cast members casually mentioned to a friend that Encore’s next production (May-June 2012) would be My Fair Lady, whereupon the friend asked a rather obvious question: How did they ever come up with that title, anyway? What is it supposed to mean? The cast member was stumped. He had never thought about why My Fair Lady is called My Fair Lady. He dimly remembered that Pygmalion, the title of the George Bernard Shaw play on which the musical is based, had something to do with Greek mythology (In fact, the tale of a sculptor by that name, who fell in love with a statue which he had carved and which subsequently came to life, is found in the Latin poet Ovid’s Metamorphosis.) But My Fair Lady? There was only one thing to do: approach our theatrical scholar is residence, Artistic Director Robert Binder, who himself acknowledged that it had taken him many years to solve that conundrum. The answer: London Bridge.
London Bridge?, repeated the still confused cast member.
“London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
(well, you know the rest!)
Sometimes, one question leads to another, and one might be tempted to inquire about the origin of the nursery rhyme and who was the Fair Lady so mentioned. Do yourself a favor and don’t go there! The origin of this paean to the series of bridges crossing the River Thames is as murky as the river, as is the identity of the mysterious woman in the rhyme. You would be better off pondering something more immediate.
Consider this: Lerner and Loewe, or more formally, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick (Fritz) Loewe met by chance in a restaurant in 1942 and soon began a musical collaboration starting with Life of the Party in 1942, What’s Up in 1943, and The Day Before Spring in 1945, three musicals which have proven as successful as a typical U.N. resolution. They stepped it up several notches with Brigadoon in 1947, a story about two American men who wander into a Scottish village which comes to life one day out of every one hundred years. This musical, with its beguiling songs, was a considerable success at the time and has been successfully revived over the years, including a film version directed by Vincente Minnelli, starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. Less successful was the team’s next venture in 1951, Paint Your Wagon, about life in California during the Gold Rush.
Following the triumph of My Fair Lady on Broadway, Lerner and Loewe collaborated on the score for the greatly acclaimed film Gigi, also directed by Minnelli, starring, among others, Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier. However, efforts to transport its magic to the stage fifteen years later were disappointing, to say the least.
After the back-to-back successes of My Fair Lady and the original film version of Gigi, Lerner and Loewe’s next and final work for the stage (1960), Camelot, was eagerly anticipated. This musical, a retelling of the King Arthur legend via E.B. White’s The Once and Future King, has become associated with the the time and the ethos of the John F. Kennedy administration in the U.S. and is revived with some success (the musical, not the presidency) from time to time. The music is wonderful — Loewe’s music rarely disappoints — and some of Lerner’s lyrics are witty. In a better world, a theatrical company like Encore could mount productions of lesser known musicals like Brigadoon or Camelot and make a go of it. So what separates the handful of musicals, like My Fair Lady, that are so endearing that peoples’ eyes light up when you just mention their names, from the rest, the ones you have to almost beg people to attend? That’s the something more immediate to ponder over.
Perhaps you have to start with a really good story, one which is compelling, cogent, and somehow continues to speak to its audience. In Pygmalion, Shaw tackles a subject which always seems relevant: the nature of class distinctions and individual identity. Examinations of social barriers and their effect upon the lovelorn have long been a favorite theme of British writers. Consider this example from Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Villette:
“Had he seen Paulina with the same youth, beauty, and grace, but on foot, alone, unguarded, and in simple attire, a dependent worker…….., he would have thought her a pretty little creature…….., but it required other than this to conquer him……. (H)e required all that was here visible — the imprint of high cultivation, the consecration of a careful and authoritative protection, the adjuncts that Fashion decrees, Wealth purchases, and Taste adjusts; for these conditions his spirit stipulated ere it surrendered……”
Those of you who were fortunate enough to see our production of H.M.S. Pinafore will remember Captain Corcoran’s adjuration to his daughter Josephine that her beloved Ralph Rackstraw, a common sailor, would at every turn commit solecisms that Society would never permit.
In Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw took a slightly different tack. He wrote a play about a young woman who was indeed ‘on foot, alone, unguarded, and in simple attire,’ and had her meet an older, self-absorbed, insufferable man who, to prove a point, would train her to enter High Society. Would he be able to take this flower peddler, give her lessons in elocution, as well as what would be described on American TV as an “extreme makeover,”, fill her head with Society’s badinage, and recreate her as essentially another person? Shaw’s subversive question: Would anybody notice the obvious forgery?
Shaw, being a master playwright as well as a socialist, went well beyond this simple premise and created a series of characters that are more than the cardboard figures in most musicals, even sneaking in a most unusual love story — or maybe a love-hate-love-hate story, given the constantly changing relationship between Eliza and Professor Higgins. Perhaps having strong characters and convincing dialogue to work with are the key to a composer and a lyricist coming up with their finest work. Whatever the reasons, Lerner and Loewe certainly outdid themselves, creating a musical that from Day One (March 15, 1956 at the Mark Hellinger Theater) was universally acknowledged as a masterpiece of its kind. It even somehow survived the film adaptation, something which doesn’t always happen to a Broadway musical.
The challenge for a company like Encore is to re-imagine a work which is ingrained in the memories of so many of our audience, scaling it down to the smaller dimensions of the Hirsch Theatre and the obvious limitations of our budget, yet retaining is opulence, its humor, and the sweep of its music; in other words, making it our own. We are up to the task, and you may be witness to our accomplishment.