By Michelle F. Solomon
Madeline Powell, who plays Eliza Doolittle, and Jonathan Grunert, who stars opposite her as Professor Henry Higgins, in the Broadway national tour of My Fair Lady coming to the Arsht Center, agree that there’s a depth in the production that goes deeper than familiar and beautiful songs, and lush costumes and sets.
While set in London in the early 1900s, the themes present in the script itself are certainly ahead of their time, they concur. The musical, based on the 1913 George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion, debuted on Broadway in 1956. When the show opens, we meet phonetics expert Higgins who is paying close attention to a flower girl, Eliza Doolittle. He is studying her working-class Cockney accent. He wagers a bet that in time he’ll be able to transform the street seller, both in her accent and actions, well enough that she will pass for a princess.
The Lincoln Center’s 2018 revival of My Fair Lady directed by Bartlett Sher, stays true to the original text, Powell points out.
While the musical that was made from Shaw’s play has always left an audience to sort out for themselves whether a romantic relationship forms between the two main characters, the playwright never meant for that intention. Even during the play’s run, well before a musical version, in London and New York in the early 1900s, audiences were embracing the same conclusion as well. It continued, too, when a film was made in 1938 and continued to perpetuate the idea.
Shaw decided to write an epilogue, a postscript to his play to make things clear.
“The rest of the story need not be shown in action, and indeed, would hardly need telling if our imaginations were not so enfeebled by their lazy dependence on the ready-makes and reach-me-downs of the ragshop in which Romance keeps its stock of “happy endings” to misfit all stories . . .” she will, if she marries either of them, marry Freddy. And that is just what Eliza did,” Shaw writes.
The actress now playing Eliza in the national tour says that with the revivalists never having to change one bit of text, “this is Eliza’s story and she has full control and full agency over what is happening to her and the experience that she is having. When she is no longer having that experience, she is able to be her own agent and leave. And this was always the intent of Shaw who wrote ‘Pygmalion‘ more than 100 years ago,” Powell says.
The lead actress also says that when the revival was conceived, in 2018, it was at the peak of the #MeToo movement.
Her co-star, Grunert who plays Higgins, says that modern audiences receive the characters much differently than those watching the musical in the late 1950s. Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison premiered on Broadway on March 15, 1956, in the musical that featured a book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and a score by Frederik Loewe.
“Not a word has been changed, not a single note. It’s the exact same classic Broadway musical audiences know and love but audiences today see and hear it and their alliances shift, their relationships with the characters shift. Take the age difference between Eliza and Henry; I think modern audiences see that and realize that it isn’t their ages so much as it is their perspectives – their very characters that are challenging one another.”
Grunert says that what the revival digs into is what has been present from the beginning.
“We don’t have to change a word of it, we just have to let the show speak for itself,” he says. And Grunert concludes why the show has stood the test of time. “There is something very profound in watching two people learn to speak the same language and there is something powerful to watch as a woman literally finds her voice.”
For Powell, she has found that director Scher, in crafting his revival of My Fair Lady for Lincoln Center to honor Shaw’s original idea, was necessary — a way of setting the record straight.
“. . .That there not be a hint of romance just for the audience’s personal satisfaction and to really drive home the point that was so important to Shaw, which was platonic friendship and the dire need to understand each other when we have experienced such different versions of life,” she says.
As for the musical itself, Lerner and Lowe’s timeless songs stand on their own historically.
“The first time you may have heard these songs is very rarely through the musical itself,” says Grunert. “You know the songs, but they have been introduced in a million different contexts.”
But, Grunert, guarantees, whether it’s your first time seeing My Fair Lady or the tenth, when the character becomes overwhelmed by emotion in the familiar “I Could Have Danced All Night” or “On the Street Where You Live,” something will strike a chord.
“Suddenly these songs you’ve heard your whole life are surprising you because when you encounter them in real-time and within the show itself, it’s a whole different experience.”
My Fair Lady is part of the Broadway Across Miami series at the Adrienne Arsht Center in the Ziff Ballet Opera House, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. The show opens Tuesday, March 28 and runs through Sunday, April 2. Tickets range in price from $35-$130. For tickets and information, go to www.arshtcenter.org.
Broadway on Biscayne “I Could Have Danced All Night” offers audiences the opportunity to learn how to waltz, just as Eliza Doolittle did. The class will be led by Tone Jacobsen, a former national ballroom dance champion of Norway. Admission is free with a ticket to the performance of My Fair Lady on Tuesday, March 28. The dance workshop will take place from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. on the Thomson Plaza for the Arts. Limited spaces are available. While supplies last, participants over 21 will receive a complimentary glass of Pommery champagne and a lavender lemon cookie.