I asked the cast members of My Fair Lady to name their favorite costume from the show. Naively, I expected a range of answers, but most of the actors replied that their favorite outfits came from the Ascot Gavotte scene late in the first act.
Ensemble member Rebecca Eichenberger said her costume is “unique and gorgeous.” Ensemble member Shereen Ahmed observed that her clothing made her feel “like a damn princess!” Ensemble member John Egan gave a more expansive answer: “I like my Ascot Top Hat and Costermonger Bowler. I’m not normally a hat guy but these “top” off my two different characters not only because of how I have to hold my posture but because they define the two [widely different] classes.”
I was a little foolish to ask about costumes this early in the run since the production is in previews and the visual information is understandably limited until the opening on April 19th. So instead of elaborating on the frippery let me say a few words about Ascot Gavotte.
Ascot is a British racecourse, located in Ascot, Berkshire, six miles from Windsor Castle. The course has twenty-six days of racing during the year, the most illustrious being the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes in July. For this occasion, the royal family attends, adhering to the strict code of day dress with hat for the ladies, and black or grey morning dress with top hat for the gentlemen.
Invitations to the Royal Enclosure, where the toffs assemble, are coveted. A frequent attendee in the mid-20th-century was Cecil Beaton, an experience which gave him valuable information when he designed the costumes for My Fair Lady’s Broadway production and its Hollywood movie adaptation.
If the Ascot part of the musical’s scene is generally well-respected in past and current stage renderings, the Gavotte is not. I confess I’d never heard the word until, as a young child, I listened to Carly Simon’s smash “You’re So Vain” on the radio and heard: “You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht/Your hat strategically dipped below one eye/You scarf it was apricot/You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte.”
Simon, who wrote the hit, used “gavotte” for its rhyme value, as did Alan Jay Lerner, the My Fair Lady lyricist. Neither songwriter was creating lyrics to accompany an actual gavotte. The scene in the musical contains movement but no dancing. Even the embassy ball, which comes in act two, features waltzing not gavotting.
And in case you were wondering: a gavotte is a French dance in which a line of dancers move alternately to the left and right on a four count. The dance became popular in the 17th century at the court of Louis XIV, when Jean-Baptiste Lully was the leading court composer. Jean-Philippe Rameau, who succeeded Lully in the French court, wrote an opera, Pigmalion, based on the same myth inspiring Shaw, and, by extension, My Fair Lady. New York City Opera performed the Rameau last weekend. It is more a one-act dance ballet than an opera. Whatever it is, there were no gavottes. Though I suspect the members of LCT’s My Fair Lady ensemble in all their finery would be happy to perform the steps.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.