More than 60 years after its Broadway debut, My Fair Lady remains the jewel in the crown of American musical theater. Every element is perfect, from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s gorgeous score to Lerner’s sparkling book depicting the endlessly fascinating relationship between ambitious flower girl Eliza Doolittle and imperious phonetics professor Henry Higgins. Thanks to Lincoln Center Theater, My Fair Lady is back on Broadway in a lavish new production that has garnered 10 Tony Award nominations, including Best Revival of a Musical.
Expectations ran high for My Fair Lady after the success of LCT’s revivals of South Pacific and The King and I, both directed by Bartlett Sher with a group of trusted creative collaborators. Four members of Sher’s dream team — set designer Michael Yeargan, costume designer Catherine Zuber, choreographer Christopher Gattelli, and music director Ted Sperling — spoke with Broadway Direct in separate interviews about the thrill of reviving Lerner and Loewe’s masterpiece at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
“There’s something instantly appealing about this show,” says Sperling, who recalls seeing the beloved 1964 film version with his grandmother, and whose 7-year-old twin daughters are “completely obsessed” with My Fair Lady. And yet the fact that the show sticks closely to the plotline of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion makes it more complicated to stage than many classic musicals. Observes Sperling, “It feels more like a really brilliant combination of a play with songs.”
Following Sher’s lead, the creative team took its cues from the source material. “Shaw was a great guide,” says set designer Yeargan. “It’s a stroke of genius, for example, that he put the first scene outside the opera house at Covent Garden, where all these elegant people are coming out and confronting the poor people selling flowers and vegetables.” As usual, Yeargan took full advantage of the Beaumont Theater’s vast playing space, hiding Professor Higgins’s home at the back of the stage, with plenty of room for complicated scenes up front. “The magic of that theatre is that the big space provides a spectacle,” says Yeargan, “but the downstage area is very intimate. There’s not a bad seat.”
That intimacy is evident in Yeargan’s fresh take on Higgins’s iconic study, where Eliza bravely asks for speech lessons and later experiences her “Rain in Spain” breakthrough. Only on Broadway’s largest stage would it be possible to design not just a study but a spinning two-story house. “It’s big because Higgins has so much power over Eliza and we wanted her to feel daunted when she comes into that space,” explains Yeargan, who, with this production, received his eighth Tony nomination (he has two wins). “At one time, the study was a beautiful Palladian room, but he’s taken it over with all his crazy recording equipment. We were able to find real spindles from that period, and it was a treat to make that stuff part of the texture of the room.”
Zuber’s nod to Pygmalion comes in the form of Eliza’s gown for the Embassy Ball, a breathtakingly beautiful column of apricot silk with silvery undertones, one of 250 costumes Zuber designed for the show. “I was hoping to give the sense of a classical statue,” says the five-time Tony winner and 2018 nominee for her work on My Fair Lady. Referring to the original Greek myth of a sculptor who falls in love with his handiwork, she says, “The lines of the dress are a subliminal suggestion that Eliza is Higgins’s ultimate fantasy creation.”
The famous ball scene offers a perfect example of how Sher’s creative team supports one another’s work. At the top of Act 2, the previously unseen orchestra makes a surprise entrance, its 29 musicians seated on a tiered platform behind Sperling. “When I saw [a rendering] of the orchestra on stage, I almost started crying at how beautiful it was,” says choreographer Gattelli. Never mind that the musicians and a staircase set piece cut into the space available to choreograph Loewe’s “Embassy Waltz”: Gattelli turned the challenge into an asset, beginning the number with a just a few dancers, “setting up this world of elegance and class that Eliza is about to enter,” eventually filling the stage with almost 30 cast members costumed by Zuber in flowing period gowns and tuxedos.
“It’s a thrill,” Sperling says of the audience’s delighted reaction when the orchestra (including 15 string players) takes the stage. A Tony winner for orchestrating Sher’s 2005 production of The Light in the Piazza, Sperling revels in leading the musicians through a score that includes waltzes, ballads, patter songs, and rousing music hall numbers. “Conducting it night after night, I’m struck by how every song is a winner,” he says, praising the performances of Tony nominees Lauren Ambrose and Harry Hadden-Paton as Eliza and Higgins, plus two-time Tony winner and 2018 nominee Norbert Leo Butz as Alfred P. Doolittle. “We’re working with top-notch actors as well as singers, so the crackling dynamics of the play are brought into vivid focus,” he says. “The score is rendered faithfully and vibrantly, and the physical production is splendid.”
Just as the music in My Fair Lady offers great variety, so do the settings ticked off by Zuber: “The Cockney world, the Ascot world, the Embassy Ball, the domestic servants at home — there are so many pieces to this puzzle, but that’s what makes it fun. I love designing costumes, so the more, the merrier.” Each cast member wears at least four outfits, and Eliza changes multiple times during her tutoring scenes to indicate the passage of days and weeks. When Zuber unveiled her incredible lineup of Ascot costumes in shades of pearl gray and mauve, Yeargan happily simplified his set to let the clothes be the star.
“Everybody knows each other’s language at this point,” Gattelli says of working with Sher, Yeargan, Zuber, Sperling, and lighting designer Donald Holder. “We jump on the ride together, we have each other’s backs, and we can almost finish each other’s sentences.” Gattelli had the unusual experience of working on a re-creation of the original 1956 production of My Fair Lady at the Sydney Opera House, directed by Julie Andrews, two years before LCT’s production. “To reexamine something I thought I knew and see it in a completely different way has been a dream come true,” he says now. The versatile choreographer received two 2018 Tony nominations, for his work on My Fair Lady and the diametrically different new musical SpongeBob SquarePants.
Summing up his work with Bartlett Sher on 11 productions in the past 13 years, Yeargan says, “They’re the shows you dream of doing when you’re starting out as a set designer, and I’ve been blessed to do them with Bart and his team. My Fair Lady was the biggest challenge because there’s so much of it, and so many expectations, but we approached it fresh, and I love the result. Everyone involved rose to the occasion.”