Wednesday, 23 July, 2014

 
Published February 14, 2014
Arts
Pitch-perfect staging of My Fair Lady
One of the finest plays in the world heads here, writes RACHEL LOI
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Trills and spiel: George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion became a musical in 1956 and has seen numerous stagings ever since. The US National Tour of My Fair Lady animates the story of a rough Cockney-speaking Londoner who scales heights of society with the help of a phonetics professor. - PHOTO: BASE ENTERTAINMENT

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EVERYONE loves a good classic tale of riches to rags, where Cinderella meets her prince and suddenly turns into a princess. And that's what you get to see with the award-winning musical My Fair Lady - a working-class girl turning into a lady - but that's just one side of the story.

"It's the story of Cinderella with a twist," says Jeffery Moss, 69, the director of the US National Tour of My Fair Lady, which ran for seven months in 2012 and just opened in Singapore at the Sands Theatre this week.

"That's the irony of the story. He's the teacher, she's the student. But at the end, she takes this guy who thinks he's a gentleman, and shows him how to really become one," explains Moss with a chuckle.

The story follows a young girl named Eliza Doolittle who makes a living selling flowers on the streets of London in 1912. One night, her rough Cockney accent as a working-class Londoner attracts the attention of a phonetics professor named Henry Higgins - a lover of proper speech and enunciation.

Higgins makes a bet that within three months of speech lessons with him, Eliza will be rid of her current accent and be able to pass off as a high-born English lady. After some thought, she takes up his offer in hopes of making a better living for herself, and that's where the story begins.

For Moss, he believes that the relatable scenes and witty script have been what kept the show relevant all these years, even though it is based on a play that was first staged in 1912 titled Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw.

"It's so universal. We're in Asia with this show, and even with the different cultures, different mindsets, it seems to talk to people universally. I think that's one of the reasons people say it's one of the greatest musicals of all time," says Moss.

My Fair Lady became a musical in 1956, with book and lyrics by Alan Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe. It starred Julie Andrews as Eliza and Rex Harrison as Henry in the original Broadway production which won six Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical and Best Choreography.

It spawned a movie version in 1964, with Harrison reprising his role as Henry and Audrey Hepburn taking on the role of Eliza. The movie bagged eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director.

As the director of such an iconic piece of theatre, Moss reveals that people do tend to compare his production with the earlier editions, but that doesn't bother him one bit.

"I'm proud of it when people say this reminds them of the original production. I'm happy in fact. It was a long time ago, it set the mark, it's iconic," he says.

Likewise, actress Aurora Florence, who plays the role of Eliza Doolittle in this production, is unfazed that she has to fill the shoes of big names like Andrews and Hepburn. Instead, she focuses on bringing her own element to the character - a "grit" that reflects Eliza's rough background in what she calls a sometimes farcical production.

"I don't try to copy them (Andrews and Hepburn). There's nothing specific that I try to do that they did. But I'm sure that because I grew up watching the movie and I listened to the soundtrack from Julie Andrews, there are some things I do that would be very similar," explains Florence. The 24-year-old is also known for co-founding the American alternative pop band Imagine Dragons, and releasing her own EP It's Wonderful last year.

Adding on to Florence's views, Moss insists that while he retains most elements of the previous productions, he is not copying the way My Fair Lady has been staged in the past.

"There are certain things that are in the script because the original production did it that way, and we acknowledge it. We're not foolish enough to say let's set it in another city or something like that... We're showing the story to the audience in our own way. The next show down the road will also make My Fair Lady in a different way.

"But do we think our show is best? Yes!" he laughs.

rachloi@sph.com.sg