The “Lincoln Center” production of “My Fair Lady” has been transferred largely intact to London’s Coliseum Theatre and placing it on a conventional stage rather than semi in the round (as it was in New York) has taken away none of its engaging intimacy. It is the first major production of the great musical in London for twenty years.
“My Fair Lady” is, of course, “Big Theatre” – it is over three hours long, has a big cast and an even bigger orchestra which makes a big sound! But in essence it is a simple story addressing big themes. Gender, Class, Wealth (or the lack of it), Morality…it’s pretty much all there. Along of course with the fin de siècle certainties of the virtue of Englishness (especially of the English language) of those still Imperial times.
The simple story asks the question “Can a flower girl pose as a Duchess and persuade those who might see through her. “ But in posing the question George Bernard Shaw, in “Pygmalion”, weaves in an acute dissection of the norms and mores of Edwardian England. There has been some debate in recent times as to whether GBS’s plays are truly feminist. That debate seems rather sterile to me. From Pygmalion to Candida, Major Barbara to Man and Superman (and others) Shaw’s women were groundbreakingly strong, confident and self-assured.
The original play and it’s musical version are set in the England of a few years before the Great War. It was the time of the Suffragettes “Votes for Women” campaign and we see that briefly in a crowd scene. Shaw wasn’t to know that war would shortly give that campaign a resolution as women played a key role and did a lot more than just keeping the home fires burning. After 1914-1918 there was no turning back.
The world of Eliza Doolittle is an overwhelmingly male world both in the refined surroundings of Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering and in the raucous world of Eliza’s father the Dustman Alfred Doolittle. Doolittle and Higgins, different though they are, have the same views of women and marriage. “Let a woman in your life and your serenity is through” as the latter puts it!
Higgins attitudes and behaviour sound vile to modern ears, a male chauvinism that would get him vilified if not locked up today. Extreme though he is, however, he is not really challenged except in the most subtle, and effective, way. Eliza shows him up occasionally with words but mostly with her exemplary behaviour.
Henry Higgins thesis is that language use, and especially accent, is the definitive discriminator between the classes. Improve the way a flower girl speaks and she improves her station – especially if you give her a good dress to wear. But Eliza does more than this. As her transformation is underway we see her curled up on the sofa with a book. For her self-improvement is more than talking posh.
Eliza is played by the excellent Amara Okereke who is black and of Nigerian heritage. Colour-blind casting is pretty much the norm these days. We’ve seen a black Curly in Oklahoma at Grange Park Opera and Okereke herself was Laurey in the same musical at Chichester in 2019. There is an unspoken agreement between the audience and the performer in such productions. We all know that Curley and Laurey could not have been African-American but agree that it doesn’t matter. When Curley sung “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” offstage at Grange Park there was no audible sharp intake of breath as he appeared on stage. Hooray !
But in the new “My Fair Lady” there’s a difference. We are colourblind to the Eliza until, perhaps, her father appears and we see that he is black as well. The premise changes at this point. Now we have two members of a black family in Edwardian London. We can surely no longer be colourblind at this moment. Having cast Okereke the Director cast Stephen K Amos as her father. Had Shaw wanted to address the issue of race in Pygmalion he would have done so. But he didn’t. The casting here has become deliberate, not colourblind any more.
A Five Star Production
For me this is a five star production dramatically and musically and it is brilliantly staged. The leads are excellent and the chorus carries us along with pace and style. The ENO’s terrific orchestra is pitch perfect – what a delight to have so many players ! Above all Shaw’s intention is properly realised.
The golden age of the American Musical was for thirty years after WW2 driven primarily, of course, by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Lerner and Loewe, in “My Fair Lady” at least, were their equals. Perhaps the key point is that from “Oklahoma” onwards the story mattered. Hardly one contentious or controversial subject was missed. Whilst the fripperies of pre war musicals like “Anything Goes” or “42nd Street” were (and still are) fun “My Fair Lady” is about more than song and dance. The Lincoln Center production realised so well at the Coliseum honours Alan J Lerner and Frederick Loewe – but crucially it honours George Bernard Shaw as well.
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Sounds lovely Paddy. Wish we could go. I inherited a painting from my grandfather of a flower seller in Covent Garden painted in the nineteenth century.