For Bartlett Sher, My Fair Lady has always been, at its core, Eliza Doolittle’s story. While the celebrated director’s new Lincoln Center Theater production of Lerner and Loewe’s beloved musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion has been hailed as revelatory for celebrating its low-born heroine’s growth over that of Professor Henry Higgins — the mentor who seeks to turn the flower seller into a proper lady by correcting her speech — Sher insists, “I just followed the text, and emphasized what was already there.”
That would be, as Sher describes it, “a story about class, and about gender, and about power. And it’s a comedy: People tend to forget that it’s actually a comedy addressing these questions. Shaw was trying to do his version of The Taming of the Shrew, and between Shaw and Lerner and Loewe, there’s a whole lot of excellent writing here, as well as beautiful music.”
To serve all that, Sher admits he “steered away from Rex Harrison’s dominance of the piece.” Harrison, of course, starred as Higgins opposite Julie Andrews’s Eliza in the original Broadway production in 1956, and reprised his performance, this time with Audrey Hepburn as his costar, in the film adaptation eight years later. The director turned instead to the 1938 film version of Pygmalion, which cast Leslie Howard as Higgins and Wendy Hiller as Eliza. (“You can watch it on YouTube for free,” Sher notes.)
Specifically, Sher wanted to avoid “this idea of the older man shaping the younger woman. That’s not in the original play; I didn’t see it in the play. You have, in Higgins, this man who’s geeky, scientific, not very socially adept.” Sher gave the role to Harry Hadden-Paton, a Downton Abbey alum still in his thirties; the British actor received one of 10 Tony Award nominations granted to the production, with his costars Lauren Ambrose, Norbert Leo Butz, and Dame Diana Rigg, along with Sher, collecting others.
“Harry was born into that upper class in England, and he’s great with that language,” Sher says. “He’s young and vibrant and has this lightness of touch. He’s physically very gifted; he moves over all that space he has on stage brilliantly.” As Higgins’s mother, the venerable Rigg brings more verbal dexterity, Sher says, as well as “substantial heart and kindness. She has more experience than the rest of us put together, and she’s been incredibly generous with the work.” Sher also praises Butz, citing his character, Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle—“this countercultural figure, like a hippie in the ’60s”—as part of “the glue that connects all the stories” in the musical.
Ambrose, who plays Eliza, had worked with Sher 12 years ago on another LCT revival, of Clifford Odets’s Awake And Sing! “Lauren is an incredible actor, maybe as good as anyone we’ve got, and a trained singer on top of that,” Sher says. It was Ambrose’s idea to play down the power of her soprano early in the show, “then have her voice come into play more as she matures and gains strength and agency. And that’s beautiful to watch, I think.”
Though Eliza’s evolution into an elegant woman who blends into aristocratic circles, under Higgins’s rigorous training, has been described by some as a Cinderella tale, Sher finds that interpretation misleading, or at least incomplete. “It’s only half a princess story. Eliza goes to a ball, but the play really starts after she gets back and has to deal with the consequences. Were there really options for women then? Was there such a thing as equality?”
If such questions have come to the fore again in the #MeToo era, Sher stresses that they are hardly new concerns. My Fair Lady is set in 1912, “on the cusp of a women’s rights movement.” Cast members dressed as suffragettes march across the stage in the new production. “We have progressed because people before us have had these thoughts,” Sher says. “Shaw championed women’s right to vote, championed getting rid of sodomy laws, was an active socialist. He saw that theater could have an impact on people’s lives, and he advocated not only in the theater but everywhere for lots of critical causes.”
In putting his My Fair Lady together, then, Sher “tried to reproduce the conditions of 1914 and investigate what that meant now, when we’re again dealing with a culture in change.” His decisions, for instance, included casting an African American actor, Jordan Donica, as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, the young nobleman besotted with Eliza.
Praised in recent years for his rapturous, timely takes on other classic musicals, such as South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof, and The King and I, as well as his staging of 2017’s Tony Award-winning new play Oslo, Sher has a typically full plate at the moment. Projects in development include a Broadway-bound stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird; a London transfer of his The King and I, due this summer; Millions, a new musical based on the 2004 film, reuniting Sher with The Light in the Piazza composer Adam Guettel; and a film version of Oslo, whose author, J.T. Rogers, is working on other ideas with Sher. One involves “a political event that happened in the last eight years or so,” and might eventually be produced in the U.K.
For now, though, Shaw’s England is Sher’s focus. My Fair Lady is, in the end, “really about self-actualizing,” the director says. “Eliza goes from being nothing to going right to Higgins’s place and asking him for help. He takes her on and she excels beyond anyone’s expectations, especially his, and she discovers she has power, that she always had power, and she doesn’t need him.” Higgins, in turn, “has learned how to be in a relationship, how to feel, how to think differently, how to step outside the rules of his privilege. … But there’s a closeness and fondness between them. Whether it’s romantic or not, there’s a deep sense of care. And again, I’m just serving what’s there.”