My Fair Lady returns to New Haven

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Photo by Jennifer Lu.

After spending decades on Broadway stages, one of the most well-known musicals in theater history is returning to New Haven: the city where it first premiered.

An all-Yale ensemble, composed of students, faculty, staff and alumni is putting on a concert production of “My Fair Lady,” by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Opening this Saturday, the show will be performed at the Shubert Theater, where it first premiered in 1956. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion,” “My Fair Lady” centers on the character Eliza Doolittle, played by Felicia Ricci ’08, who takes lessons in speaking with an “upper class” accent.

“There are roughly a dozen musicals out there that are just perfect,” said Amber Edwards ’82, the show’s producer. “‘My Fair Lady’ is one of the top three on that list.”

Marc Vietor ’83, the show’s director, said the musical focuses on social reform, as the plot traces a social experiment in which a character named Henry Higgins believes he can change Eliza’s reputation in society simply by changing the way she talks. In the play’s environment, Vietor explained, the upper and lower classes spoke with entirely different accents. Vietor added that several workshops with cast members have been fully devoted to pronouncing the characters’ lines in the correct accent.

“As with anything that comes out of England, this story is all about class,” said David Loud ’83, the production’s musical director. “After all, one of the main characters claims he can identify people’s economic classes purely by the way they speak.”

Vietor, Edwards and Loud said they believe that one large contributing factor to the musical’s success has been its deviance from the traditional “love story” plotline of most musicals that came before “My Fair Lady.” Loud explained that the legendary musical theatre writers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein had employed the “love story” plot so much in their works that musicals were becoming somewhat predictable. He added that in this case, the audience is left to imagine its own ending to the show, which does not have a traditional resolution. At one point, Loud noted, Lerner gave up on writing “My Fair Lady” because he thought the unconventional storyline was impossible to adapt into a musical.

Ricci said she thinks that although romance is not the show’s most prominent theme, love does play a substantial role in it. She described the character of Henry Higgins as a “love letter to the English language” because his passion for the intricacies of speech is reflected in his lines. Ricci added that she believes that  “My Fair Lady” had such a successful debut because the romance in the show is subtle. The original Shaw play, Vietor noted, was named after the mythical sculptor Pygmalion, who fell in love with one of his creations. As a result, he said, the love theme is unavoidable.

Loud said he thinks that because the show is so recognizable, it produces feelings of nostalgia in performers and audience members alike, but can also pose challenges. “When we were children,” he explained, “Everyone had the ‘My Fair Lady’ record in their house and parents played it repeatedly.” Vietor added that during his adolescence, “My Fair Lady” was one of the most frequently staged productions in high schools across the country, noting that the show is not nearly as well-known to the current generation of young thespians. Since many ensemble members know how the original production of the show sounds, Loud noted, they may be tempted to simply imitate that sound, which he said he wants to avoid. The younger performers who are not as familiar with the musical are valuable because they bring a fresh perspective to the old piece, he added.

Vietor said he believes that one of the original production’s most appealing aspects was the extravagance of its set, props and costumes, which do not appear to the same extent in this production. As a result, he explained, this ensemble needs to make the storyline believable without these resources.

“The hardest thing is creating a sense of that lavishness without the visual fanciness,” Vietor said. “What we have to do is create a setting in which the imagination can fill in the blanks.”

There will be two performances of “My Fair Lady,” both on Jan. 25.

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