When asked to describe his ideal day, Noel Coward replied: “I should like to go to bed in New York and wake up in London.” At an afternoon tech rehearsal the other day for My Fair Lady, in the Vivian Beaumont, the situation was reversed; we were in New York by day and watching London by night. Specifically, Covent Garden, as illustrated by the set on the Beaumont stage, and New York, meaning the theater’s orchestra seats.
By “we” I refer to Michael Yeargan, the production’s set designer, and me. I asked him how he came up with his design for Covent Garden. “I drew on the fact that I’ve spent so much time over there,” he replied. “The first time I visited was in 1966, when it was still really a flower market more than a tourist stop. I did some work at the Royal Opera House. At that time, the Floral Hall – the circular building on our set – was used for scenery storage. It’s now been renovated and turned into a big lobby space.”
Talk of scenery storage led Yeargan and me to discuss the history of the Beaumont. “In its early days,” Yeargan said, “it was a repertory house. They needed part of that vast backstage to store sets. So they didn’t explore the full depth of the space. Regardless of the storage issue, using the far rear would have been a challenge. Sound design wasn’t what it is today, and they were doing plays.”
My Fair Lady was the first professional musical Yeargan saw. “It was a road company. I was about 12. The street outside Higgins’s house was suggested by a curtain, which got pulled across as in Kabuki. It had a street painted on it. And there was a flat with a door.”
The show’s original Broadway production had a set design by Oliver Smith. “That was a classic,” Yeargan said. “There were two turntables. The set had only 29 feet of depth so they had to be very ingenious.”
What makes My Fair Lady more challenging than South Pacific and The King and I, which Yeargan also designed at the Beaumont, is the number of locations. “Most of The King and I takes place in the royal palace,” Yeargan said, “and South Pacific was primarily near the beach. But My Fair Lady has Covent Garden, Higgins’s study in Wimpole Street, the street outside his house, the Ascot race track, the Embassy ball. That makes for a lot of transitions.”
He continued: ‘But all these transitions have made for a terrific challenge, both in terms of the set and the era. My Fair Lady takes place during a time of great societal transitions. It is just before World War I, and many things were colliding. But not, I hope, the pieces of our set!”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.