Classical rendering of a masterly-crafted musical

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By 2017-10-15

By Ranga Chandrarathne
Ceylon Today Mosaic

Marked for its higher degree of professionalism, the musical 'My Fair Lady' by the Workshop Players enthralled the theatre-goers in Colombo despite it being a lengthy musical. Perhaps, the credit goes to all the highly-trained members of the Workshop Players who made it a memorable evening.

Apart from the impressive and apt costumes and lighting, what made the play unique theatrical experience was its innovative sets. Through the masterly execution of the acts in, perhaps, most organic manner, Artistic Director, veteran theatre personality Jerome L de Silva who also played the character of Colonel Hugh Pickering in the musical, was able derived the intended performance from the each and every actor in a manner which was rarely witnessed in Sri Lankan English theatre.

Workshop Players' latest musical 'My Fair Lady' was recently staged at the Lionel Wendt Theatre in Colombo. The Musical 'My Fair Lady' was sequel to the successful productions such as musicals 'Les Misérables', 'The Phantom and 'Jesus Christ Superstar' by Workshop Players. The musical 'My Fair Lady' was a remarkable piece of theater and musical to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Workshop Players.

The play
The theatre critic site Stage Agent in a note on the musical observes the evolution of the musical as, "Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady is based on Pygmalion, a play written by George Bernard Shaw in 1912. The title refers to a Greek mythological character who features in Ovid's Metamorphoses. In the original story, Pygmalion was a sculptor (Henry Higgins) who fell in love with a statue he had carved (Eliza Doolittle.) In the Shaw play, Eliza ultimately marries Freddy Einsford-Hill. The public uproar about Shaw's ending led to Shaw writing an additional postscript essay, detailing the reasons why it was impossible for Eliza and Henry Higgins to marry. He insists that Eliza "must retain her pride and triumph to the end," which means she cannot marry the man who has "created" her.

Producer Gabriel Pascal approached Alan Lerner about writing music for the Pygmalion story, when Pascal acquired the film rights in the mid-1930s. Lerner and his partner Loewe struggled with the lack of musical theatre ingredients in Shaw's play: the romantic leads do not end up together, there are no supporting characters who fall in love, and there is no large ensemble. Oscar Hammerstein advised his friend that this adaptation was impossible, and ultimately the project was abandoned. The film Pascal ended up producing in 1938, however, changed the ending. Despite Shaw's livid protest, there was a scene in which Eliza returned to Higgins and reiterated the words she spoke to him the first time she saw him: "I washed my face and hands before I come." This leaves the ending ambiguous and maintains the potential for a romantic conclusion for Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins.

When Pascal died, Lerner happened to read his obituary and revisited the thought of musicalizing Pygmalion. Lerner and Loewe realized this new ending was essential to the creation of Pygmalion as a romantic musical. They were so certain of their success that when battling for the rights, they threatened to write the musical without the rights and get them later. In the end, Chase Manhattan Bank (Pascal's executor) gave Lerner and Loewe the rights and My Fair Lady was born. The show's title is a reference to one of Shaw's provisional titles for his play, Pygmalion – Fair Eliza. Other titles considered included "Come to the Ball" and "Lady Liza," but everyone agreed that a marquee reading "Rex Harrison in Lady Liza" would hardly be in good taste.

Despite some protest from Shavians, My Fair Lady's opening in 1956 was a smashing success, and garnered six Tony awards, including Best Musical, and a Best Actor award for Rex Harrison, who played Henry Higgins. Noel Coward had first been offered the role of Higgins, but turned it down. Rex Harrison became synonymous with the role of Henry Higgins. He went on to play the role for six years on the West End, in the Oscar-award winning film (which also earned him an Oscar for Best Actor) and in a subsequent revival on Broadway in 1981. The original Broadway and West End productions also starred Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle. This was her first major "break-out" role. Though Andrews garnered much critical acclaim for her performance and was beloved as the ideal Eliza, studios refused to cast her in the film because she did not have any film experience. Audrey Hepburn took her place, and Andrews went on to be cast in Mary Poppins which then led to her role in The Sound of Music. The film version of My Fair Lady, directed by George Cukor, went on to earn eight academy awards.

My Fair Lady has had three Broadway revivals: in 1976 (Tony: Best Actor – Ian Richardson - nom and George Rose - win), 1981 (Tony: Best Revival - nom), and 1993. The play has also been revived on the West End in London in 1979 and 2001 (winner of 5 Olivier awards).

My Fair Lady has been translated into many languages, with Eliza speaking in Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, and Prague dialects amongst others."

Memorable rendering
Sticking to the original play, the workshop Player' production excelled in many aspects; not only in terms of recreating memorable characters which the audience would have experienced in other media such as film and DVD's, but also in taking the audience to one of the fascinating period in English history. Among other things, theatre-goers were able to witness one of the rare performances by Jerome L de Silva as Colonel Hugh Pickering on stage. The lead roles such as Henry Higgins (Kanishka Herat) and Eliza Doolittle (Daniela Perera and Amarsha Tissera) stood out for their convincing performances. Almost all the players have played their characters well, contributing to the overall success of the musical. Workshop Players should be commended not only for their substantial contribution to Sri Lankan English Theatre for the last twenty five years but also for their outstanding theatre productions such as the Musical 'My Fair Lady'. The play is directed by Surein de S. Wijeratne and produced by Jerome L. de Silva.

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