Ira Weitzman is the Mindich Musical Theater Associate Producer at Lincoln Center Theater. As such, he is heavily involved in the upcoming production of My Fair Lady and knowledgeable about the show’s background. He and I sat down the other day to talk about some of that history.
Brendan Lemon: I wanted to talk about two numbers from My Fair Lady: “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” and “The Rain in Spain.”
Ira Weitzman: “The Rain in Spain” is the favorite “My Fair Lady” song for many people. And it is so important to the show. At the very first performance before an audience, in New Haven, that song created a sensation. Why did it explode? It’s the first time in the show that we get to emotionally release to Eliza, where she accomplishes what for her at the beginning seemed impossible. It’s what the audience is waiting for. It’s a wonderful song. It’s hummable because the melody is repeated a lot and the rhymes are instantly catchy. But it’s the emotional release that makes it linger for people.
BL: Everything leading up to the song is not only the pressuring of Eliza to speak “correctly” but, as you say, the withholding of emotional release. The audience has not yet had a moment of joy for Eliza. “The Rain in Spain” gives them permission to have a good time.
IW: Right! For the LCT Review I interviewed one of the original stage managers of My Fair Lady, Jerry Adler, who’s still alive at the age of 92 and very lucid about his memories. He talked about that first performance in New Haven, which occurred during a blizzard. The running time was over four hours. Yet Adler says that the audience was rapt the whole time. And the applause for “The Rain in Spain” was so thunderous that at one point Julie Andrews, the novice among the stars, grabbed the hands of Rex Harrison and Robert Coote and led them downstage to take a bow. That prompted the audience to stop applauding so they could go on with the show.
BL: The audience had trudged through a blizzard and there must have been a cozy camaraderie in the theater.
IW: I wish I could have been there.
BL: There were only two songs in the My Fair Lady score that were very little changed from beginning to end. One was “Without You” and the other was “The Rain in Spain,” which was written very quickly.
IW: Alan Jay Lerner and Fritz Loewe would write together in the same room. The exuberant speed with which they conceived “The Rain in Spain” must have tipped them off how well the audience would receive it.
BL: Unlike “The Rain in Spain,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face” went through quite a process. Partly, because it comes at the end of the story and was a big challenge in terms of how you want the audience to feel ultimately about the relationship between Eliza and Higgins.
IW: Many people still view and maybe even wish that My Fair Lady was a true romantic comedy with a happy ending. But that was never Shaw’s intention. Quite adamantly not, in fact. I don’t think it was Lerner and Loewe’s intention to betray Shaw’s intention. But there was a recognition that Higgins, who was arrogant and disdainful and insulting, had to have a humanizing moment. Whereas Eliza had hers much earlier, in “The Rain in Spain,” when she has a large transformation, at least in speech. Higgins takes longer to evolve. For the audience, it’s a parallel to the release of “The Rain in Spain.” In both cases, the audience breathes and says, “Finally!”
BL: Even the melody of “Accustomed” has a much less vehement quality than all Higgins’ other songs.
IW: It’s the first time you hear him say something privately that as far as he knows only he can hear.
BL: Of all the musical numbers in the show, fully half are soliloquies. There are big set pieces like Ascot and the Ball, but the songs are largely solos or solo in intent. Which feels faithful to Shaw.
IW: Many people tried to adapt Pygmalion – like Rodgers & Hammerstein – or simply turned it down: Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, for example. But Shaw is not easy to adapt.
BL: You can see why other great talents said no. There isn’t a traditional romantic plot or love pairings. And how do you find a musical approximation for Shaw’s language? Loewe turned out to be brilliant for the task in part because, unlike his fellow Broadway composers of that era, he was born in Europe and his music wasn’t heavily influenced by American idioms like jazz or the blues. It was largely European, which works so beautifully with My Fair Lady.
IW: He was in some ways a throwback to the lush melodies of the operetta. Whereas the other great Broadway composers, starting with Kern, are being more authentically American.
BL: My Fair Lady is such a precisely verbal show, which makes it a little different from the other shows of the so-called Golden Age of the Musical.
IW: The need for verbal precision has made My Fair Lady more challenging to cast, right down to the smallest role in the ensemble. Everyone must be able to handle complex text.
BL: That text is why My Fair Lady, almost uniquely among great shows, operates at such a high level intellectually as well as, through the music, viscerally. To be first-rate, a production has to register both qualities.
IW: And much of the Shavian text is extended in the songs, which is also challenging. It’s a great tribute to Lerner and Loewe that they could convey that text in such a seemingly natural way.
BL: I’m half-joking here, but they were lucky that Shaw, a renowned stickler, was dead by the time they were creating the show, since he rarely granted the rights to adapt his plays into musicals.
IW: Lincoln Center Theater has been one of the few places that have produced another Shaw play turned into a musical: A Minister’s Wife, from Shaw’s Candida.
BL: You’ve been involved as well at Lincoln Center Theater with quite a few musicals that have been successfully revived – Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, South Pacific, and The King and I. What elements are necessary for revivals to be first-rate?
IW: Strong casting is crucial. In this case, finding the right Higgins in today’s climate is so important, given his dominating nature and how that can be perceived. You need an actor who can humanize him. Design is also key, given our three-quarter-thrust stage. The show has to be interesting from every single seat. Bart Sher, our director, is an expert in keeping the stage moving. Finally, in our case, because we’re fortunate, it’s very helpful to have an appropriate-sized orchestra. Because of that we’re able to use the original or almost-original orchestrations. And to go back to original creative intentions.
BL: So musically this production can be “conservative” – close to the original – while in interpretation being innovative: dramatically fresh for our time.
IW: In all the revivals we’ve done with Bart, there is always equal part respect for the source of the material and the intent of the material and the meaning of that material for today’s audience.
BL: The King and I, like My Fair Lady, has a relationship between a socially advantaged male and a less obviously powerful woman.
IW: The King and I and My Fair Lady have much in common, because they are both romantic musicals which never overtly consummate the romance.
BL: But The King and I has the polka, which is a substitute for sex. My Fair Lady is much less physical that way.
IW: That’s true. It’s about class not romance. But if you ask people whether My Fair Lady is a romantic musical they say, “Yes, absolutely.” The audience is able to see that there is at least the POSSIBILITY of Higgins to change his feelings about Eliza into emotions more tender and human. And that possibility is one of the things that allows us to envision the central relationship of My Fair Lady as contemporary.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.