When I was in Year 7 at East Doncaster High School, back when they were called High Schools, the school musical was My Fair Lady, and I auditioned to be in it. I got to be part of the chorus in the opening scene in Covent Garden and I played a Cockney urchin of sorts. I sang ‘Wouldn’t it Be Loverly’ and got to do a soft shoe shuffle dance with a hockey stick wrapped in black duct tape to resemble a walking stick – as you do.
I was in good company, it would transpire, as future Underground Lovers Vince Giarrusso and Glenn Bennie (a few years ahead of me at EDHS) played Freddie Einsford-Hill and Alfred P. Doolittle respectively. Regardless, I was beguiled by the musical, and even though I only performed in the first scene, I’d sit through every rehearsal I could, lapping up its musicality, its witty and sparkling dialogue and lyrics, and its dual celebration and mockery of the English class system.
So hearing that Julie Andrews, who starred as the title character, Eliza Doolittle on Broadway in 1956, was directing a 60th anniversary production of the original, and bringing it to Melbourne, I had to see it.
A friend of ours, Matt Heyward, is in the ensemble cast, playing a cockney in the opening scene, just like I did (but much better, of course), and he was kind enough to organise House Seats at the Regent for a Friday evening performance a couple of weeks ago. So there we were, middle of Row A (about eight or nine rows from the stage) ready to be transported.
And transported we were, back to a 1956 musical production of a play written in 1913 (Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw) and a story set in Edwardian London, of a young cockney flower girl groomed to be a lady by language expert, Professor Higgins.
The costumes and sets, recreated from the original designs, were gorgeous, especially in the Ascot and Ball scenes (of course), performances from all were polished, and the book, despite its obviously dated sexism, still shines.
It’s interesting then that Shaw did not approve of the ‘happy’ ending of Eliza returning to Higgins that one production added to Pygmalion, which subsequently made it into My Fair Lady. Even when I was in the school musical, I found in unsatisfactory, especially given Eliza’s evolution as a person, and not just as a ‘lady’, and her relationship – which is not romantic at all – is a step backwards.
But there’s plenty to delight and enchant in the musical today, as much as there was for me 38 years ago. I think it was this that really consolidated my love of the English language, and English society, that would go on to inform the rest of my teenage years – and ultimately my career path as a writer. And for that, I’ll always love My Fair Lady.