On the surface, the Time’s Up era hardly seems the time for a musical based on the Pygmalion myth, in which a male sculptor molds the perfect woman. But in fact, director Bartlett Sher urges, the hard talks sparked by #MeToo provide the moment audiences need to re-examine Lerner and Loewe’s classic My Fair Lady.
“What role does theatre play in our lives? There are certain stories we grow up with and we return to them as a way of investigating who we are—who we are as a person, who we are as a country,” the Tony winner says.
Sher uses his revival to flip the typical perspective from Professor Henry Higgins transforming street urchin Eliza Doolittle to that of a woman hell-bent on improving her own circumstances. Sher’s mission is to tell her story. “My version much more leans toward Eliza and what Eliza goes through,” he says. “She chooses to go and learn. She chooses to take her life in her hands and get out of her situation and challenge the conventions around her.”
Sher’s interpretation draws more from George Bernard Shaw’s 1938 movie Pygmalion than any previous iteration of the musical. “[Shaw] was a big advocate for exploring equality between the sexes. He took this myth as a way of challenging these larger questions,” says Sher. “I happen to think it’s about Shaw’s thing that class doesn’t matter. That gender doesn’t matter. That people are equal and that they do rise and change and can overcome these obstacles and opportunities to be different. That is entirely what the piece is saying.”
To demonstrate the scale of Eliza’s challenge, Sher creates a world rich in disparity, juxtaposing the lives of the poor and the privileged. On the spectrum of Sher’s previous works, this production promises to skew lavish and large. “It’s a very epic piece,” Sher says, calling it the most demanding work he’s ever staged at Lincoln Center Theater, where the show begins previews March 15.
But Sher’s refocusing of the story hinges on the dynamic between Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins, which is why casting two equals was crucial. Sher chose Harry Hadden-Paton, making his Broadway debut, for Henry and Lauren Ambrose, whom he directed in Broadway’s Awake and Sing!, for Eliza. And—contrary to previous tellings—Sher insisted on actors of the same age, noting that the text never prescribes the age gap to which many audiences have become accustomed, and removing one complicated factor in the power dynamic.
Sher wants audiences focused: “At the root of it is the role of class and gender and the lengths to which people have to go to overcome their circumstances and prevail through equality.” With My Fair Lady Sher aims to instigate a conversation that moves the needle toward that parity. Now wouldn’t that be loverly?
Hear star Lauren Ambrose sing before making her Broadway musical debut as Eliza Doolittle: