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When Lincoln Center Theater revived Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” on Broadway in 2018, some eyebrows rose at the timing. In the thick of the #MeToo movement, did it really make sense to give renewed attention to a show about a man working to modify a woman to meet his specifications?
Director Bartlett Sher had thought plenty about that. The onetime artistic director of Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, Sher has established himself as one of Broadway’s preeminent revival directors, helming productions including “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The King and I” and “South Pacific,” for which he won a Tony Award.
Sher doesn’t tend to radically reimagine the works he directs, but in approaching “My Fair Lady,” he saw the need to make some changes. For one, the age and power dynamics of a phonetics professor (Henry Higgins) instructing a Cockney flower seller (Eliza Doolittle) how to speak — immortalized by Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn in the 1964 film adaptation — have been shifted. But rather than reinventing the wheel, Sher sought to return to the tone and perspective of the musical’s source material, George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion,” which possesses a distinctly less romantic bent.
“My Fair Lady” comes to Seattle’s Paramount Theatre Dec. 28-Jan. 2 in a national tour that’s recently restarted after an 18-month pandemic hiatus. Sher’s production will also run in London’s West End in 2022.
We caught up with Sher by phone just after a rehearsal for his new production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at The Metropolitan Opera. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow.
“My Fair Lady” is one of those shows with such broad appeal, but what were your reasons for being drawn to it?
The piece itself, as I approached it, had a lot to do with Shaw. You know, Shaw really was writing a piece about the position of women and class in 1911. He was very connected to the women’s movement at the time. He was so good at ideas mixed with drama that he could create a drama which would prove false the notion that class should matter, or language, or a person’s ability with either. He built this brilliant structure, which allows us to see Eliza overcome these false boundaries, which were created to keep people in a certain position.
I went back to Shaw, and I went back to the 1938 film [of “Pygmalion”], which the musical was based on. The unfortunate thing about the ’38 film was that’s where we got the ending that ends the musical — not one that Shaw wanted — where she comes back [to Higgins]. So my biggest question in doing it originally was to address that and restore Eliza’s power and ownership over her own choices. That’s why you have a very different ending to ours.
We had one really great person on our side, which was Shaw [and his] brilliant ideas and construction. That’s what gives us a chance to see this piece in a fully new way.
Shaw died before the premiere of “My Fair Lady,” but do you think there are other elements of the musical he would have had a problem with?
He was very happy with [the 1938 “Pygmalion”] — he won the Academy Award [for adapted screenplay]. He was very happy with all of it, except they took it away from him and changed the ending. I think if you observe the actual structure, the bulk of the musical serves all of his purposes, but the ending does not. You can’t create this false love story, which I think they felt was required for a musical. He was so against the rom-com in general. He was trying to write the anti-rom-com.
Often, revivals are accompanied by the notion that the show must be modernized in some way. Do you think that’s a useful lens to look at old works through?
It really depends on the piece. Take something like the new [film adaptation of] “West Side Story.” I think Tony [Kushner] found some remarkable ways of seeing it freshly for now. I think the new “Oklahoma” succeeds largely because it’s so experimental — but the original structure was so strong, and that information was already in it. The beauty of a revival is it’s a conversation with the past, with who we were and who we are now. It should leave some room for the audience to make its own decisions about how the past is heard now.
Does the touring cast for “My Fair Lady” add any new nuances to the show?
What I love about Shereen [Ahmed], who was in the original production on Broadway playing the part [of Doolittle], is a person of color in that role heightens the question of race. She’s an incredible performer, and we’re absolutely thrilled to have her doing it. She brings enormous intelligence and heart to the piece, and as an Egyptian coming from a Muslim family, it heightens all the class and race divisions even more, so you see it more strongly. That’s what’s great about a classic: You can overlay and reexamine all these questions freshly.
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