When “My Fair Lady” arrived on Broadway in 1956, it was not your typical musical.
The leading characters, Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins, never kiss, never admit any feelings for each other and spend most of their time worrying about how words are supposed to sound.
But through the years, “My Fair Lady” became a hugely successful and beloved show and is performed everywhere.
It opens tonight at Ephrata Performing Arts Center in a small, chamber version.
“It’s a very small production,” says Ed Fernandez, who is playing Col. Pickering and co-directing with Lydia Brubaker.
The cast includes 12, and the orchestra features a string quartet and keyboards.
“We are treating it like a play, scaling it down,” Fernandez says.
Much of the dialogue in “My Fair Lady” is lifted directly from George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” the play upon which “My Fair Lady” is based.
“The production works in this venue in a way you can’t do when you go big,” Brubaker says. “The space leads us.”
In the intimacy of the staging, the characters will be illuminated.
So who are Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins? The lowly flower girl and the upper-class phonetics professor?
“Eliza’s scrappy,” Fernandez says.
“She is dreaming of being someone else,” says Stacia Smith, who is playing Eliza. “She gets the gift of the opportunity to prove herself, and she takes the chance.”
Eliza is selling flowers at Covent Garden when Higgins comes out after the opera and hears Eliza’s cockney accent. It’s painful to Higgins, and he makes no secret of his disgust.
He says “a woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere — no right to life!”
He meets Col. Pickering, another phoneticist, on the steps of Covent Garden. The two have long admired each other but never met. As they talk, Eliza keeps interrupting, hoping they will buy flowers from her.
Higgins boasts that he could turn her into a lady by perfecting her accent. Eliza hears this and realizes this is her chance.
She goes to Higgins’ house and asks for lessons, explaining she wants to open a flower shop.
Higgins and Pickering make a bet about whether Higgins can pull it off. Eliza moves in and the lessons begins.
“Higgins has order in his life,” says Preston Scheffler, who plays Higgins. “He’s got principles, and in the time period (1910) in regards to class, he’s progressive. He wants to bridge the gap between classes.”
But he’s also demeaning and demanding. His disdain is dripping.
“To his credit, he treats all souls alike,” Scheffler says. He has disdain for many, many people.
As the lessons continue and Eliza learns to speak like a proper lady, something is happening.
Higgins thinks he’s in control, but he really isn’t. The balance of power is shifting.
“She challenges Higgins on all his boundaries,” Fernandez says. “There’s a point where she becomes his equal, maybe even more.”
“And it takes him completely by surprise,” Scheffler adds. “She puts him in a world he is not prepared for. This person comes along and forces him to live emotionally.”
“It’s a story about women’s empowerment,”Brubaker says.
“She’s not afraid to ask him things directly, to look in his face,” Smith says.
In recent years, controversy has surrounded the show, especially the ending, which involves a pair of slippers.
Is Higgins a misogynist? Is the ending of the show sexist? Can today’s audiences enjoy a show where a woman is insulted and treated badly by her leading man?
The ending was changed for the recent Broadway revival. Fernandez and Brubaker wanted to use that ending, but were told they were not allowed. It’s copyrighted.
So how will the problem of Eliza and Higgins be settled? Will there be romance? Scorn? Or maybe friendship?