When it comes to musical theater standards, overtures for the orchestra have gone the way of nylon stockings and neckties for the audience. Contemporary composers tend to dig right into their score. But My Fair Lady, Lerner and Loewe’s 1956 musical that turned Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle into household names, greets its 2022 crowd at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre the old-fashioned way – with a composite of show numbers.
What follows the introduction in this revival may come as a surprise. Instead of a visually luxuriant view of Edwardian London, we are met with a stretch of cloudy sky above and a solitary figure of flower girl Eliza below. The cloudy sky towers over many scenes, and the solo image of the heroine also recurs. She operates as an outsider, craving “a room somewhere” that offers plenty of coals, chocolates and a head resting comfortably on her knee.
My Fair Lady’s Class Demarcation
The stage quickly fills with scenery and characters that place Eliza at the gates of Covent Garden’s opera house in Edwardian London. Class is as sharply demarcated on a public street as it is in a private home. Every word and every physical gesture convey the hardened attitudes of the highborn and the lowborn, interacting without ever sharing space.
Derived from George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 stage play Pygmalion, My Fair Lady now serves as a Mid-Century stepping stone to Upstairs, Downstairs and Downtown Abbey. Lerner’s libretto is untamed by feminist or classist sensitivities, and Bartlett Sher’s production doesn’t interfere with the story of Professor Higgins’ retraining of Eliza to pass as a lady in British society.
Broadway in Chicago Production Boxes without Gloves
Professor Higgins’ raw egotism and Eliza’s vigorous response become a boxing match without gloves. Noting her Cockney accent, Higgins sings:
By law she should be taken out and hung
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.
Later, responding to Higgins’ teaching methods so sadistic even his household servants and colleague Colonel Pickering object, Eliza sings:
Then they'll march you, Henry Higgins, to the wall
And the king will tell Eliza, sound the call
As they lift their rifles higher
I'll shout ready, aim, fire…
With every confrontation, Laird Macintosh as Higgins and Shereen Ahmed as Eliza – each vocally and theatrically blistering – fight for survival with increasing fervor. Higgins needs to prove that his linguistic techniques can overcome class distinction. Eliza needs a pathway out of the gutter. In this writer’s view, the core battle is with their own isolation.
Middle Class Morality
My Fair Lady turns its attention from Higgins’ well-heeled turf to Eliza’s subsistence neighborhood and back again without much sentimentality for either world. The only glimpse we get of communal camaraderie is Get Me to the Church on Time. During that raucous number, Eliza’s father celebrates a final night of debauched freedom before his wedding – or what he decries as “middle class morality.” Scenic designer Michael Yeargan expresses the pinch of that transition with an East End pub that literally folds up into a church.
For many, simply hearing My Fair Lady’s overture is like reuniting with an old friend. For those less familiar with Lerner and Loewe’ classic, the show will fill an important gap. One caveat: Thick Cockney accents can be hard for the American ear to grasp, and this bedevils Act I when we’re learning who is who and what is what onstage. But with a little patience, theatergoers can keep up with Eliza and Higgins and their search for connection.
June 28 - July 10, 2022
Cadillac Palace Theatre
About the Author: Susan Lieberman
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows aired on BBC Radio 4 last season.