Musical ‘My Fair Lady’ showcases wordplay and deep ideas

It’s one of those musicals that tops many people’s favorites lists. “My Fair Lady” is the Cinderella story of a bedraggled flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, who is scooped up from the streets of London, educated and transformed into a beautiful, independent woman by a misogynistic and snobbish phonetics professor, Henry Higgins, on a bet.

It’s filled with some of the most memorable and beloved songs in the musical theater canon. Classic tunes such as “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “On the Street Where You Live” — written by Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe — are dressed up with lush costuming and high-stepping dance numbers.

But don’t take it as a lightweight, frothy affair that’s locked in the past. This musical, which opens at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival on Saturday, July 2, has its roots deep in the classics as it explores the divides of class, gender and education — universal issues that are entirely relevant today. That’s what makes good theater great theater.

“It doesn’t feel remote or classical at all. It feels crazy contemporary,” says ISF actor and artistic associate Tom Ford, who plays Higgins.

The musical is based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 comedy “Pygmalion.” Shaw based his play on an episode in Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” in which a sculptor named Pygmalion, who despised women, creates a statue of a woman that is so perfect that he falls in love with it. Shaw’s take on the myth becomes social satire. Higgins “sculpts” Eliza out of language and manners, but what he really does is open up her world.

“Higgins unleashes her mind,” Ford says. “Eliza’s mind was always there, but by the end of the musical she has the language and the confidence to express herself. That’s what he’s enthralled with — her mind.”

Eliza learns who she really is, says Jillian Kates, who plays Eliza in this production.

“She finds this new identity after having hers stripped away and something false put on her,” Kates says. “But by the end of the play, because of this new vocabulary she’s learned, she’s finds her strength and can put words to her emotions. When that comes out at the end, she’s transformed.”

Higgins civilizes Eliza and she humanizes him. And that’s reflected in the language of the play and the music.

In the beginning, Higgins’ songs are dense, rapid-fire and cutting. Eliza’s songs, such as “Wouldn’t It be Loverly,” are lyrical and simpler. As her character develops, her songs become more verbally rich, like in “Without You,” in which she tells Higgins she can “do bloody well” on her own. His only lyrical song is at the end, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face”

Eliza is simplistic in her phrasing in the first act, but as she becomes more sophisticated, her words increase, Kates says.

This sort of wordplay makes “My Fair Lady” a bit like today’s Broadway blockbuster “Hamilton,” says ISF resident director Victoria Bussert.

“It (“My Fair Lady”) was the hot ticket on Broadway in its day, and in the same way that Lin-Manuel Miranda says that rap was the only way he could encompass Alexander Hamilton’s language. I say the same of Learner and Loewe in encompassing the volume of Shaw’s.” Miranda created and stars in “Hamilton.”

When Lerner and Loewe put music to Shaw’s dense play, they used patter, a musical form that’s a direct precursor to rap, for Higgins’ language. In patter, performers speak in rapid-fire fashion in rhythm. It’s a theatrical device that dates back to the ancient Greeks, and is used in opera and most famously by Gilbert and Sullivan. Think “Very Model of a Modern Major General.”

Part of it was that Rex Harrison, who originated the role of Higgins, was not a singer but an actor. So rather than carry a tune, he did what classically trained actors do — speak extremely well. Ford, who has done Broadway musical theater, is a singer. So his classical training really kicks in for this role.

Higgins says a mouthful every time he speaks, says Ford, who played the title character in ISF’s “Sweeney Todd” in 2014.

“I say more lines in the first scene of this play than in all of ‘Sweeney Todd,’ ” he says.

Like rap, patter is the best way to get a lot of ideas into a few bars of music. But unlike “Hamilton” where the performers tell a story throughout the musical, the songs in “My Fair Lady” explore the character’s inner life.

“It’s a journey,” Kates says. Through the play, you can see her awakening to herself and her own ideas. In the beginning she doesn’t know how to express herself. She makes sounds and throws things, she’s like a child.”

In the end, Higgins wins his wager. The scullery maid becomes the princess — but it happens through education and self-realization, not magic.

ISF’s ‘My Fair Lady’

8 p.m. Friday, July 1, (preview), Saturday, July 2, (opening) and 7 p.m. Sunday, July 3, (family night) and dates through Aug. 26. ISF Amphitheater, 5657 Warm Springs Ave., Boise. Greenshows start at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays. $20 to $40 general, $13 for kids 6 to 17, $20 for students with ID. 336-9221,

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