Merging The Memory And The Modern In My Fair Lady

(Jeff Busby) My Fair Lady at Sydney Opera House

It’s been 60 years since Julie Andrews transformed from a flower girl into a sophisticated woman in My Fair Lady. This year, two productions aimed to pay homage to the original, with a hat tip to later Broadway revivals and an appreciation of audience expectations today. 

Last summer, a production ran in a small theatre in Dexter, Michigan, directed by the designer who had come to the United States from England in 1956 because of his fair lady. Tony Walton, engaged at the time to Andrews, his first wife, says he saw the show some 300 times on Broadway and London’s West End. “I used to have scary dreams that I would be asked to step in when Rex Harrison got sick. In those dreams, I would begin performing with confidence and then realize that I couldn’t remember a line or lyric. But now, 60 years later, I’ve discovered I can remember every word!” says the designer-director who had done some acting, too, in his youth. 

Meanwhile, while Walton was in Michigan, Andrews was taking a turn as director and in rehearsal at the Sydney Opera House, where she assembled a design team with connections to the people who created the musical. Oliver Smith and Cecil Beaton are billed as the show’s scenic and costume designers, but they had a little help.

Rosaria Sinisi was Oliver Smith’s student at NYU and his assistant for five years from 1979. After his death in 1994, she was charged with handling his materials—renderings, color elevations, drafting, and more—for this and other shows. While the materials are now housed in DC, she made digital copies before sending them off and had all she needed to recreate the cueing of the movement of all scenic elements in relation to the script and score, as well as to assemble a comprehensive prop bible.

The 1976 revival, in the St. James Theatre, required a significant redesign for a space too shallow to accommodate double turntables. “Back then, Smith merged details of the 1956 design with what would be acceptable to the eye of an audience at the time,” Sinisi says. “He never would have put the 1956 version on the stage.”

When Sinisi assisted Smith for the 1981 Rex Harrison revival, the producers wanted to avoid changes in running plans and scenic transitions in a theatre with limited space for flying pieces that would intersect with the units on the turntables,so they bought an old set, disappointing Smith, who had wanted to update the design with its mostly painted architectural detail. They did allow Smith to rebuild Higgins’ study. “We added dimensional detail and built book spines, but the style of all the sets in that production wasn’t really harmonized,” Sinisi recalls. Fortunately, in 1981, Smith talked about what he would have done differently if he could, and that provided a roadmap for Sinisi in Sydney.  

The initial design for the study featured a fireplace in the curve of the staircase at floor level and a wall rising above it, with the staircase coming down behind that chimney breast. “That was cut the first time Rex Harrison walked the set,” says Sinisi. “He objected to being hidden behind a four-foot wall for part of his descent from the balcony.”  

Eliza Doolittle In Sydney

The producers in Sydney wanted to reproduce the original 1956 production, but since Sinisi knew Smith would have changed the design significantly, she added dimensional detail and tightened the painting style.

“I also opted not to use the 1956 version of the Flower Market, which featured a very exposed backdrop showing forced perspective corridors receding in perspective,” she says, explaining that a more realistic treatment would harmonize better with the added dimensional detail on set pieces. “So for that scene, we used Smith’s design for the 1976 revival at the St. James Theatre. This set has a curved, forced perspective brick wall with additional columns and is easier to dress convincingly with prop flower baskets. It also focuses more attention on the crowd scenes downstage.”   

In 1981, Smith had hoped to elaborate on the Ascot Road drop. “The 1956 original was very Marcel Vertès-like in painting style, which didn’t correspond with the more realistic look we were striving for,” she says, adding that Andrews preferred showing stables and outbuildings behind Ascot, rather than the racing stands emphasized in the original. When Andrews questioned why the elegantly-dressed Mrs. Higgins arrived on foot, Sinisi added a car, something Smith also wanted in 1956, but it was cut. Associate scenic supervisor Naomi Berger, who had also worked for Oliver Smith, dug into the research and found that 1912, when the show is set, was the first year that cars were permitted at Ascot. Too little space for exits slowed transitions. “Those Ascot chorus people in their wide hats and sweeping costumes were running into prop tables and temporary dressing rooms,” says Sinisi.

In the new Sydney production, “the entire show had to be redrawn in metric, and in AutoCAD, per the requirements of Australian scene shops; every addition of dimensional detail had to be painstakingly crosschecked against the plans and sections to ensure that we weren’t creating pieces that would hang up in the flies or units whose chimneys or flippers would catch on side masking or borders during the transitions,” says Sinisi, crediting Steven Capone for the AutoCAD redrawing and metric conversion work. 

Not difficult enough? Sinisi soon discovered there was no single scene shop in Australia capable of building and painting in the allotted time, so she worked with ten shops in 11 locations, scattered across the continent. “This required a very high level of coordination among shops, particularly with respect to painting style, as backdrops were, in some cases, painted in different cities from the corresponding sets,” she says. An Australian painting coordinator, Pip Runciman, ensured consistency.  

Moreover, there wasn’t much scenic tech time before previews. “This affected the cueing of scenic transitions in particular, which is part of Smith’s original design and is very complex, involving the coordination of many separate elements.”

They browsed archival material at the Springer Opera House in Wisconsin, where Feder did some consulting work. Columbia University had some material, too. “Who knows how often these archives are visited? It was a treat,” says Michael Gottlieb.

They looked at the original design and other versions from the mid-‘60s as well as revivals on Broadway and road companies and began drawing the lighting to a contemporary Broadway standard. The set dictates where lights can go but,“if Abe had 18, we had 18,” says Gottlieb. Feder’s plot comprised strip lights, beam projectors, and 6'' and 8'' Lekos, some used as backlights, others for lighting painted drops. Richard Pilbrow substituted Chroma-Q Color Force LED strip lights, all with cyc or border optics, for the original incandescent fixtures.

“It would have been fun to reproduce what he did with the 500W Leko. In its day, it was radiant,” says Gottlieb, adding that they couldn’t have rented historical equipment if they had wanted to; it isn’t easily available. 

Knowing they would have a tight tech schedule drove some choices. In two positions where Feder used PAR 64 strip lights as backlights, Pilbrow opted for Martin by Harman MAC TW1 tungsten wash fixtures that can deliver a color change like a three-color strip light.

Other equipment used in Sydney included Martin MAC Viper Performance Spots, GLP impression x4 fixtures, ETC Source Four Revolutions with shutters and rotating gobo modules, ETC Source Four Ellipsoidals and PARs, Robert Juliat Cyrano Followspots, mini-strips, MR16 birdies, and LJUS Design Dinkey LED spotlights. Dimming equipment included Jands HP12 Dimmers, City Theatrical WDS wireless transmitters and receivers, and AFCT 5-Channel PWM Dimmers. Effects gear includes Look Solutions Viper NT Fog Machines, Tiny Foggers, and Martin by Harman Jem Fans. Among the many scenic electrics elements were City Theatrical Incandescent Flicker Candles. The design team used Virtual Magic Sheet and Moving Light Assistant software. Feder couldn’t have dreamed of this.

Gottlieb notes that, while Smith designed the show to hang on 6'' hanging centers, in Sydney the grid had 200mm centers, just under 8'' centers. Adds Sinisi, “An additional problem is that the interior of that stage house is virtually landmarked, to the point where even adding pipe extensions can be forbidden. The problem with an 8''-centered grid is obviously that the positions of the pieces over the turntables are fixed, and splitting the difference between 8''-centered line sets suddenly gives you 4''-centered pipes, which can be anathema for additional built detail. Moreover, the theatre features several enormous immovable lighting trusses that don’t fall in ideal locations in relation to set pieces.”

To make matters worse, most Broadway houses are at least triple the height of the proscenium from the stage floor, but the grid in Sydney was only double, forcing lowering of borders and making it hard to achieve decent lighting positions, while masking the bottoms of drops and scenery in their out positions. Cutting scenery was not an option, and some 21st-century lighting instruments occupy more space than Lekos did in 1956, but Smith’s original plans allocated 18'' for each light pipe. “Richard Pilbrow and I engaged in lengthy real estate negotiations, exploring multiple plans and sections, in order to make sure that the set would both fit in the theatre and accommodate the needs of his lighting equipment,” Sinisi says. Abe Feder faced some of the same challenges, according to Gottlieb. “For example, the walls of the study set are not parallel to the proscenium arch or to any of the hanging drops, with a balcony and sweeping staircase that are very difficult to light,” he says. “Everything is blocked by something, but since it was solved to some satisfaction historically, you know it can be solved today.”

The two-week tech period was too brief, but Gottlieb says Pilbrow is very good at working quickly. Pilbrow and Gottlieb agree that the challenges of the house were mitigated by a wonderful crew and electrics team. Charlie Hall programmed the ETC Eos Ti Console with 8,000 channels. The production electrician and lighting supervisor in Australia was Hugh Hamilton. “This is a big musical by today’s standards, not just yesterday’s,” notes Gottlieb.

New Opportunities In Sound

Sound designer Michael Waters says everyone intended to honor the original production as faithfully as possible, but the microphones used 60 years ago were nothing like those used now, and he agrees today’s audiences have different expectation. So, although natural sound from stage and orchestra pit was important, Waters used some amplification in the Sydney Opera House, which wasn’t designed for musical theatre or even for opera.  

Waters says he doesn’t like to ask audiences to lean in. “The audience pay good money to be entertained, and they shouldn’t have to work, so setting the vocals at a comfortable level is important to me,” he says. He designed a sound system that delivered crystal clear dialogue through to the back of the gods and orchestra reinforcement that sounded as natural and as unamplified as possible, while still riding orchestral dynamics. “Today’s audiences demand BluRay not just CD quality, but it was also paramount to not over-amplify and bash the audience’s ears, which can be very easy to do too.”   

Andrews was excited when Waters suggested incorporating surround sound. “While the show is not heavily laden with sound effects or soundscapes, it did open up opportunities to have some fun with the show,” he says. “For example, the top of the show starts with a montage of 1912 London sounds, such as hansom cabs and horses moving about the streets, while people are leaving the theatre looking for taxis to go home. The motor car was new, so there’s a couple of motor taxis while prerecorded voices calling for taxis come from all around the theatre. Then there’s the Ascot scene and the horse race, which is a bit of fun, and Dover even makes a subtle cameo appearance.”

Waters was also careful to make sure audiences could hear dialogue over laughs, which meant micing actors: 40 cast mics, DPA 4061s on Shure UR1M packs. That made a digital console necessary, a DiGiCo SD10, running around 94 channels. “Another issue they would never have had in the old days was the effect hats have on cast mics,” he adds. “I need to have different EQs for so many different characters, due to hats. In some cases, I’ve double-mic’d some actors on shirts or blouses because the head mics can’t be used.” He didn’t use outboard effects or processing.

The production also features a 36-piece orchestra. Waters had a sound system by JPJ Audio, including L-Acoustics KIVA speakers (center cluster); L-Acoustics 112P (stalls, proscenium L-R); Meyer Sound MS2s (dress and gods, proscenium L-R); L-Acoustics 5XTs (delays and surrounds); L-Acoustics SB12s (subs); and an RF reverse radio speaker system for the gramophone and car sound effects. Additional gear includes a Figure 53 QLAB v3 sound effects kit and TC Electronic TC4000 on vocal and string reverbs. 

Feathers And Flowers

John David Ridge assisted Cecil Beaton on the 1976 Broadway revival, and then stepped in for him in 1981 after his death. He says Andrews and Rex Harrison felt the costumes Beaton designed for the Cockneys in 1956 were cartoony, and when Beaton approached the show again in ‘76, he made them more realistic. Everything else stayed the same, then and now.

My Fair Lady at Sydney Opera House

In 1980, they almost completely redesigned the Cockneys, making the contrast between the classes sharper than ever. Ridge went to the Museum of the City of London and found period photos. “I had a wonderful costume painter who made them look awful,” he recalls. “They looked as if they smelled as though they never took a bath,” he adds, noting that the poor of the period slept in their clothes to deal with the cold. As dramatic as the changes were to the designers, audiences didn’t notice. Ridge says The New York Times remarked on how much like the original it all was.

This year in Sydney, Ridge referred to the work Beaton had done in 1956 and particularly what he planned in 1980, and he used today’s fabrics, trying to come close to the look. “I was able to find nice polyesters for Ascot that didn’t exist 30 years ago. We saved some money on silk.”  

What was most different this time? “The world has changed so much in 35 years,” Ridge reflects. Back then, one person in New York dyed feathers, did flowers, and embroidery. Now, he had to go to Florida for feathers and Los Angeles for hand embroidery, fortunately to artisans with whom he’s worked for years and who understood what he wanted. He could have gone to Paris for silk flowers but found someone in Australia, just a three-hour drive from Sydney.

Tony Walton In Michigan

Walton recalls how in awe he was of the creative team in 1956, and when invited to direct a 60th Anniversary revival of this musical classic, he saw his opportunity to create “a valentine” to them.  

It would be impossible to reproduce the original at the Encore Musical Theatre, which has no wings, flies, or storage space, a small stage, and a smaller budget, but Walton found ways to evoke it and give it a modern feel. He travelled to London with his wife/assistant director Genevieve LeRoy Walton and visited the original scenic locations, too, to see what they looked like today.

Walton, who co-designed with Sarah Tanner as well as directed, recalled that Oliver Smith and Cecil Beaton frequently took their cues from line drawings in the original Penguin edition of Shaw’s Pygmalion that illustrated characters and their environments. These were drawn by Feliks Topolski, a close friend of Shaw’s and a leading artist of the day, so Walton framed the action with two large projection screens on either side of the stage and rear-projected Topolski-like images on them; these hinted at Oliver Smith’s original scenic designs for the settings. Coffer Contracting in Dexter, Michigan, builds home additions more often than shows, but when Jonathan Coffer helped out at the Encore in the past, he didn’t use steel. This time, large steel frames were required on which to permanently stretch the rear projection screens, and the black scrim covering them, taut. These were set diagonally at either side of a central staircase. “We had to be strategic when we built, so the frames didn’t get in the way of other parts of the set,” he says.

When lighting designer Robert Perry saw the space, he and Walton shared ideas of how they might incorporate a second story into the space, under which they could position the projectors. That way, iconic scenes could be suggested by projections stemming from each upstage corner under the upper level. 

“We incorporated a little technology into an old musical, but it never felt overly technical,” says Perry. The theatre’s fixed lighting positions were a challenge. “If you need other positions, you have to get very creative,” he says, adding that he and Walton wanted the production to be lush and colorful. “We wanted faces to pop, and we wanted color from the front to give punch to costumes,” he says. For a musical this size, he would normally use followspots, but in this venue, they would have lit the actors at a very flat angle and washed out the projections; they would have hit the deck and bounced upstage. Instead, he used front specials to pick actors out of the scenes.

Perry found Walton detail-oriented with a keen sense of mood and location, as the two worked together, creating windows projected from lighting fixtures for Higgins’ study and a sense of opulence inside the Ascot tent before the race, placing the race itself on a bright, sunny day. “Tony wanted to know how the weather looked when the race began,” Perry says, adding that Walton also served as dramaturge. “Tony came to the table with binders filled with research,” he says, noting that this included notes from various productions of Pygmalion

Perry tried using footlights but removed them to give choreographer Matthew Brennan enough space to work and ensure that nobody kicked out a light while dancing. When he looked at his equipment list a few weeks after the show went up, he was amazed by what it was possible to create with so little. “Every light in my plot was definitely working overtime for this show,” he says. He used seven ETC Source Four 36° ellipsoidals, 18 ETC Source Four Jr. Zooms, four Altman 6'' Fresnels, three PAR 38 floods, nine Geni Stage Wash LEDs, four Chauvet DJ SlimPAR 56 LED units, a Stage Ape LED PAR, an American DJ Mini-Fog machine, a fire pit special effect, and a couple of practicals, including a chandelier and table lamp in Higgins’ study.

Sound designer Chris Goosman says Walton wanted to integrate musical accents from the band into the soundscape. As far as the audience enhancement for the musical part went, they “tried not to go over the top with modern production technology,” he says. Although working in the intimate black box proscenium space required some ingenuity, the new and the original techniques merged successfully.

“When I first fitted Jess [Jessica Grové, who played Eliza], she had just had a baby and was nursing, and I was worried how much she would shrink by opening night,” says Yuka Silvera, who created all of Eliza’s costumes. She found the nursing mother’s radiant skin made her “look so beautiful in the white chiffon dress and the cream striped organza dress.” Silvera did much of her own sewing, sometimes building from patterns she found online and adapted, sometimes reworking clothes she bought or had. “I checked my closet,” she says.

Although there were just two Equity actors in the show, Grové and Daniel Gerroll, who Walton brought in from New York to appear as Higgins, others proved up to their roles and dazzled audiences with the help of costume designer Caitlin Graham and music director Tyler Driskill.

Perry, who went to Yale Drama with Encore’s founder and artistic director, Dan Cooney, was impressed with the theatre his classmate had opened in Michigan. “He went back to his local area and created this beautiful thing, this gem in the rough.”

Read the full November 2016 digital edition here.

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