My Fair Lady a story of self improvement against the odds

Toni Feetenby as Eliza in the Pick Me Up Theatre production of My Fair Lady
Photograph by Will Jackson

We are always interested in the way in which life imitates art, or vice versa so there was some comment in the office when news arrived that My Fair Lady is coming to the Grand Opera House in York within minutes of the Government announcing the details of university entrants for this year.

Not surprisingly it is just as difficult today as it has always been for someone from an inner city comprehensive to get a place at Oxford or Cambridge universities. But perhaps more important news is included. More people are seeing their fist family member go to university than ever before.

This may not appear to be a very significant fact and you may be wondering what the connection this has with a short run of a musical? Well, with more people than ever going to university we are obviously becoming a more educated nation, which is good. But with more people doing so as the first member of their family to do so, we are also potentially becoming a nation of people who are rejecting the idea that we are going to let what people like us have achieved in past limit what we ourselves are going to achieve.

In this we are exactly like Eliza Doolittle, the heroine of both the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion and the musical My Fair Lady created by librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe, does.

When confronted by the limitations that society placed on her and the opportunity to change she washes her hands and face and goes in search of her dream.

It may not have been much of a dream by the standards of today’s social media celebrities, a job in a flower shop or as a lady’s maid, and it may have been hijacked by the Svengali under whose influence she falls as he commits to passing her off as a duchess at a society ball.

Svengali might seem like a strong word to use, but the story is as much about control as it is about self improvement and the fulfilment of a dream. The original play has been interpreted as an attempt by Bernard Shaw to poke fun at the snobbery of English society, but what he is actually describing is how the rules of society control both entry to different social groups and control the people who have been granted entry. This was not lost on the designer of the original programme Al Hirschfeld, who portrayed Bernard Shaw puppeteer controlling Henry Higgins who is also seen as pulling the strings that control Eliza Doolittle.

The road to creating a successful musical out of Pygmalion was not as easily achieved. The play lacks any of the essential elements of a musical. There was no element of the plot that could be considered a love story, neither was there a sub plot or secondary love story and there was no opportunity to create a single ensemble number. Bernard Shaw himself had been uncomfortable with the idea of Pygmalion being converted into a musical. It was not until after the writers’ death that the film producer Gabriel Pascal who had purchased the rights to all of Bernard Shaw’s work started looking for lyricists and composers to work on the project. Oscar Hammerstein II, and Richard Rodgers, tried but gave up, and when they were finally asked Lerner and Loewe took two years before they started to write anything.

The solution that Lerner and Loewe found to resolving the lack of the essential elements of a musical in Pygmalion was to create extra scenes to fill the gaps between the acts of the play.

What they created is undoubtedly my favourite musical, or more accurately my favourite film musical. The film of My Fair Lady is something that I can watch again and again. Despite the original misgivings of the composers My Fair Lady has for me everything that a musical should have. There is excitement, glamour and some doubt, no matter how many times I see it that there might not be a happy ending.

Along with everyone else I must be careful not to compare a stage production with that musical. The classic songs will all be there; Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?, With a Little Bit of Luck, The Rain in Spain, I Could Have Danced All Night, On the Street Where You Live, Get Me to the Church on Time, and I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face?

For this Pick Me Up Theatre production at York Grand Theatre of My Fair Lady there will also be the costumes from the acclaimed Crucible production in which Dominic West played Professor Higgins.

It is a production that promises to be something not to be missed. Director Robert Readman, has cast Eliza is Toni Feetenby, performer whose previous roles with Pick Me Up include Joyce in Betty Blue Eyes and the Baker’s Wife in Into The Woods. Higgins is played by Rory Mulvihill, a man who has created his own dramatic life change, following a successful career as a solicitor he is now one of the most popular performers in the City.

The strong supporting cast includes Mark Hird as Colonel Pickering, Andy Stone as Alfred Doolittle, Sam Hird as lovelorn Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Susannah Baines as his snooty mother, Sandy Nicholson as Mrs Pearce and Barbara Johnson as Mrs Higgins.

There is more to My Fair Lady than simply being a great musical. It is a musical that the creator of the idea, George Bernard Shaw, did not want made. It is the musical that many composers believed given the nature of the plot could not be made. Yet somehow it was made. People decided that it should be made, they put the work in and they created not just a stage musical but also an iconic film musical as well.

Perhaps just like Eliza, the people who brought her story to the musical stage, and those teenagers who went to university this year, as the first member of their families to do so, if you want something to happen all you have to do learn how to do it and work hard to achieve your ambition.

My Fair Lady is on at The Grand Opera House York from November 20-25 with matinees on Thursday and Saturday.