My favorite book scene in My Fair Lady is the one involving Doolittle and Higgins. When I listen to its discussion of sex and money and kinship, and how class informs morality, I never fail to feel my thinking being challenged. When I interviewed Alexander Gemignani, the LCT production’s current Doolittle, in his dressing room, I brought the scene up almost immediately.
“What Doolittle is speaking to in that scene,” said Gemignani, “is his reality. And his reality is the point that Shaw” – whose Pygmalion is the bedrock upon which My Fair Lady is built – “gives Eliza. When she says, ‘I’m not just considered lower-class because I don’t have money but because of how I’m treated by others.’”
Gemignani observed that Doolittle – whose name points up his reality: he does little – doesn’t dislike his life situation. “He doesn’t want money because money brings too much responsibility. That’s the code he lives by, and the scene with Higgins is a collision of codes. Higgins has a more middle- or upper-class view of money and Doolittle challenges it.”
With his capering, cavorting, and songs in the English musical-hall tradition, Doolittle is a grand comic figure. But Gemignani maintained that the character doesn’t necessarily regard himself that way. “His poverty is funny contextually but it isn’t so funny to Doolittle. He spends his life going from drink to drink, which means that, however much he enjoys his freedom, some days aren’t so pleasant.”
For Gemignani, who is the son of the esteemed Broadway music director Paul Gemignani, doing Doolittle links him to youth. “I did the part when I was in high school, in Tenafly, New Jersey. The biggest differences between then and now are both hair-related. First, because in high school I had hair on my head and, second, because I can now grow my own facial hair. In high school, it had to be pasted on. The one thing that’s the same is my dustman’s hat, though here at Lincoln Center Theater it’s of higher quality.”
Given that musical theater is in his DNA, the views of Gemignani on Doolittle’s two songs – “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” – interested me. “There’s a real steadiness to the beat of both songs,” Gemignani said. “They have a good toe-tapping quality, with strong beats. They’re steely, hard, earthy. They don’t have the monologue quality of Higgins’s numbers or the soaring lyricism of some of Eliza’s.” Performing Doolittle, Gemignani said, “is a much different assignment from the lyricism of the previous Broadway show I did” – he was Enoch Snow in Carousel.
Gemignani has performed in an impressive nine Broadway musicals, but nine is paltry compared to the number of shows Gemignani listens to as part of his job as artistic director of the National Music Theater Conference, at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, held every year from mid-June to mid-July in Waterford, Connecticut. “We had 317 submissions of musicals this year,” Gemignani said, “which we eventually whittled down to the three for which we give workshops.” Gemignani listens to the five songs that are part of each submission, and to the full drafts of the approximately forty shows that make it to the second round. “It’s a lot of listening,” Gemignani admits, “but there’s so much talent involved that I can’t complain.”
Shaw once wrote that “talent is unformed genius,” and genius, Gemignani said, is a word that is not inappropriate for My Fair Lady. “It’s extraordinary at how high a level Lerner and Loewe were operating here.” And part of the accomplishment, Gemignani added, “is that the show can accommodate different interpretations. What’s so wonderful about this production is that it has a slightly darker undertone than the original production and yet manages to retain so much humor and so much humanity.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com