By Gordon Meyer
The Broadway musical is absolutely one of my favorite entertainment genres. My parents exposed me to musicals from a very young age, both live on stage and their big screen adaptations. “My Fair Lady” is one of a handful of musicals that, for me, will live forever. When it originally opened on Broadway in 1956, it was not only a smash hit, it set a new record for the longest running musical to date in Broadway history. (That record was later broken by “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Grease,” and others.)
Broadway cast albums were huge business when “My Fair Lady” opened, so CBS, through its Columbia Records division, financed the play just so they could put out the cast album. Later, when Warner Bros. Pictures co-founder Jack Warner wanted the movie rights, he paid a then record $5.5 million plus 47 ¼% of the gross over $20 million. And all rights to the movie went back to CBS after a mere 7 years. Even now, that deal is unprecedented. But that’s how badly Warner wanted the movie rights. The songs, written by composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, are timeless and include many standards including “On The Street Where You Live,” “I Could Have Danced All Night” and, of course, “The Rain in Spain.”
In 2018, New York’s Lincoln Center mounted a widely praised revival that earned 9 Tony Award nominations. I had heard such great things about this production that, when it was announced that the touring version would have a run at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre (home of the Oscars), I snapped up a pair of 3rd row tickets for a performance that was supposed to play during the summer of 2020. We know what happened then.
Fortunately, the tour was rescheduled and began a 4 week run at the Dolby in early October of 2021 and we still had our 3rd row seats. For those not familiar with “My Fair Lady,” it’s a musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s play, “Pygmalion” about Eliza Doolittle, a 20 something very working class, barely literate Cockney street vendor of flowers who yearns for a better life, but has no idea how that could happen, until she encounters Professor Henry Higgins, a loud, rude, misogynistic linguistics expert who boasts that, if she put herself in his hands for 6 months, he could teach her proper English that would be so good he could “pass her off as a Duchess at the Embassy Ball.” Thus begins her often uncomfortable transformation from Cockney flower girl into an elegant lady.
It’s hard to watch even the best revival of “My Fair Lady” on the stage without comparing it to the 1964 movie starring Audrey Hepburn as Eliza (with Marni Nixon providing her singing voice) and Rex Harrison recreating his original Broadway and West End role as Higgins. Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote the lyrics and book of the Broadway version, adapted his own script for the screen for a very faithful translation, retaining at least 80% of the original dialog from the play.
I mention this because, at that time, it was a common practice for Hollywood studios producing big screen versions of Broadway hits to make significant changes. For example, when MGM produced a big screen version of the musical “On the Town” starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin, they replaced all but 4 of the songs with music by Leonard Bernstein with new songs written by house composer Roger Edens. It was very different from the stage version. But “My Fair Lady” was one of the more faithful adaptations of a Broadway musical to hit the big screen, largely because of both Lerner’s screenplay and Harrison’s iconic performance as Higgins.
So how did the cast measure up to the big screen cast? Let’s face it. Audiences are going to compare the leading cast members of this production to the likes of Hepburn and a very young Julie Andrews as Broadway’s original Eliza Doolittle, as well as Rex Harrison and the rest of the superb cast of the movie. So, let’s start with the excellent. Shereen Ahmed, who was Lauren Ambrose’s understudy for the Lincoln Center run, was outstanding as Eliza Doolittle. She was equally convincing as both the working class, Cockney flower girl and the elegant woman who impressed even royalty at the Embassy Ball. Just as importantly, her singing voice was a world class musical instrument, both in range and timbre and perfectly matched to her character’s arc. I predict that Ms Ahmed has a long and very successful Broadway career ahead of her.
I wish I could say the same for the actor playing Higgins, Laird Mackintosh. I’m realistic enough to know that it would be a mistake to expect a Rex Harrison clone in that role. Every actor playing Higgins needs to find a way to make it his own, just as Ms Ahmed owned the role of Eliza in her own way. Now the Dolby Theatre is a 3,300 house, so it’s understandable that performers go big in order for audience members even in the back of the house can “read” the performance. But, in order to work well, an actor needs to really BE the character, rather than ACT the character and Mackintosh chose the latter method so his character never felt real to me.
I know it’s probably unfair to compare any contemporary performer to the way Rex Harrison played the role, both on stage and screen (as an aside, I was lucky enough to see Harrison in a 1982 touring revival of “My Fair Lady” and it was a true joy). I not only don’t mind actors doing different interpretations and style in classic roles, I welcome that – as long as they’re BEING instead of acting. It’s not that Mackintosh was bad. And I liked the choice to have him actually sing Higgins’ songs rather than talk them through the way Harrison did. His singing voice was quite good. It’s just that I felt he was overacting, similarly to the satirical character of the Master Thespian that Jon Lovitz used to do on Saturday Night Live.
As for the rest of the cast, the other stand out was Adam Grupper as Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, “a common dustman” and a bit of a con artist. The late Stanley Holloway created that role on Broadway and recreated it for both the London run and the movie and was quite memorable in the role. In this production, Grupper made the part his own with split second comic timing, excellent song and dance work and a notable chemistry with the rest of the cast. His song, “I’m Getting Married In The Morning” is still the show stopper that it was in both the original stage version and the movie.
The creative team behind this production, led by director Bartlett Sher and choreographer Christopher Gatelli, is a sumptuous one, featuring beautiful and elaborate sets designed by Michael Yeargan, gorgeous costumes designed by Catharine Zuber and a large and terrific ensemble cast. And, let me tell you, it was a joy to see a musical play accompanied by a large, live orchestra conducted by John Bell.
Overall, it was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon and quite a delightful production. “My Fair Lady” runs at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood through October 31, 2021. The tour plays an additional 20 cities between now and July 10, 2022. The complete tour schedule, including links to buy tickets, is available on the MyFairLadyTour dot com website in the Tours section.