The musical team of Lerner and Loewe is perhaps not quite as well-known as their contemporaries Rogers and Hammerstein, but their shows are as familiar as any the latter can claim. Lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe are responsible for such Broadway classics as Brigadoon, Paint your Wagon, Gigi and Camelot. Beginning tonight, one of their most celebrated productions, My Fair Lady, comes to the Spokane Opera House.
The show was the brainchild of Hungarian film producer Gabriel Pascal, who searched for two years to find writers willing to adapt George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion to the Broadway stage. Many writers, including Noel Coward and Rogers and Hammerstein, turned Pascal down before Lerner and Loewe took up the challenge. Nearly a half century after the show premiered on Broadway in 1956, My Fair Lady is still captivating modern audiences.
The original Broadway production, which starred Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison, won nine Tony Awards in 1957. After this overwhelming success, a film version was a natural progression. In 1964 the film, which also starred Harrison, but which replaced Andrews with a lip-synching Audrey Hepburn, won eight Oscars.
Adam MacDonald, who plays Eliza Doolittle's charming suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill in the Spokane-bound production, speculates that there are several reasons for the show's enduring popularity. "Part of it is that a lot of theater-going audiences grew up with the movie," explains MacDonald. "But in terms of the story line, it's the whole idea that you can effect change -- you can change your own life."
The rags-to-riches tale of Eliza Doolittle, a cockney flower girl who is trained by a turn-of-the-century linguist to walk and talk and behave as if she is a duchess, is a familiar archetypal story in modern culture. About half of the teen movies of the last 20 years deal with the transformation of the nerdy outcast girl or guy into prom royalty. And no matter how many times the story is reincarnated, American audiences seem to love the idea that even the least likely candidates can get a break and change their destinies. However, My Fair Lady takes its material from meatier source material than the Hollywood movie machine.
The roots of My Fair Lady lie in Greek mythology. A king and accomplished sculptor, Pygmalion, was dissatisfied with the women he had encountered in the world. In an effort to discover what was missing, he sculpted a statue of the perfect woman and then prayed to Aphrodite to bring her to life. Aphrodite obliged, and Galatea was "born." The rest of the story varies, as myths often do, but one version finds Pygmalion in the uncomfortable position of not being able to control his creation once she comes to life.
In 1914, George Bernard Shaw used that version of the story as a starting place for Pygmalion. MacDonald also takes a lot of inspiration from Shaw's play, because in Pygmalion, MacDonald's character ends up with Eliza. "In the original play, Shaw wrote an epilogue in which [Eliza] does marry Freddy," MacDonald explains, laughing. "It's kind of a conundrum. In my head, I do get the girl."
Many critics of the play would say Freddy should get the girl, rather than the apparently misogynistic Professor Higgins, but MacDonald says the view of Higgins as the abuser and Eliza as the abused may a simplistic way to view the story.
MacDonald sees the relationship of Higgins and Eliza as a relationship in which both are changed. "Our show follows both of the stories," MacDonald explains. "Higgins, until the end, doesn't really transform very much. His is late and immediate, while Eliza's is a gradual transformation."
For MacDonald, her metamorphosis from guttersnipe to the belle of the ball is really about education and how that divides us in society. "What's the great separator of the classes?" MacDonald asks. "It's education." Henry Higgins tries to give Eliza all the training she's missed in a very compressed period of time, "so we get to see that transformation," says MacDonald.
So with all this talk of Higgins and Eliza, where does that leave Freddy? Much of the story is about the importance of class, culture and manners. The play is in the late Victorian era, when strict mores and structures were being propelled into the modern era. The character of Freddy, in many ways, has already made that transition. He likes Eliza from the moment he sees her, before her transformation is complete, and he likes her even more as he sees who she really is.
"I feel [Freddy] sees through all of the class and all the things that go along with that," says MacDonald. "Freddy's already letting go of the importance of the culture." When he meets Eliza, he is primed to abandon the trappings of class and family. "He makes this split-second decision that she is everything. It's like his whole life has been black and white, and now he can see in color for the first time."