Tony winner and former San Diegan Bartlett Sher answers five questions about incoming ‘My Fair Lady’ tour
After shuttering for the pandemic, the revived Lincoln Center Theater-sponsored tour arrives in San Diego on Tuesday
For many years, Bartlett Sher has been one of most respected theater directors in the country. He has Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Obie awards to his credit, is the resident director of Lincoln Center Theater in New York and he directed the highest-grossing play in Broadway history, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
But long before all that, Sher was a young and hungry artist-for-hire who got his professional start in theater in San Diego in the 1980s. In an interview Monday about one of his most recent projects — the relaunched national tour of Lincoln Center’s “My Fair Lady,” which arrives Tuesday at the San Diego Civic Theatre — Sher had some questions of his own.
Before talking about his Tony-nominated revival of the 1956 Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical, Sher wanted to know how San Diego’s small theater companies are doing these days and which local critics are still reviewing. After catching up on the local news, he talked about the tour, which was based on a Lincoln Center production he directed in 2018 that played 509 performances before closing in July 2019. The national tour launched in December 2019, shut down in March 2020 for a pandemic break and returned to the road in September. Here are five questions with Sher:
Q: Your Lincoln Center production of “My Fair Lady” was hailed by critics for putting Eliza Doolittle at the center of the story rather than her linguistics coach Henry Higgins. How did you come up with that?
A: I didn’t really come up with that idea, I just took the story back to its source. It was based on George Bernard Shaw’s (1913) play “Pygmalion,” which was his own version of feminism at the time and an analysis of class and language and how it was used to oppress and hold down people. It was in the writing all along. It’s a pretty brilliant piece of writing.
Q: There’s always been some ambiguity over whether Professor Higgins and Eliza end up together at the end, even though there’s no romantic relationship in Shaw’s book. What changed?
A: The musical was taken from the 1938 film with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller, for which Shaw wrote and won the Oscar for that screenplay. Hollywood changed the ending (to suggest they’re attracted to one another). The people who made the musical had the rights to the 1938 film and that’s when they developed this older man-younger woman thing in the musical. That wasn’t the way the play was written. Leslie Howard was very young in the film, and he and Wendy seemed the same age. But then when Rex Harrison got hold of the role (in the 1964 film with Audrey Hepburn), they had to rethink it because of their age difference.
Q: So do you think Eliza would have come back to Higgins in the end?
A: Shaw was influenced by Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” She would leave. The real conditions for women in the 19th century were incredibly oppressive. Women had no options if they were a flower girl with the wrong accent. We reinvented the ending, and we reinvented the nature of the whole relationships.
Q: While most of the major productions and tours have faithfully re-created Cecil Beaton’s costumes that Audrey Hepburn wore in the 1964 film, you did not. Why?
A: Cecil Beaton and (film director) George Cukor were extraordinary artists and their work is indelible and unforgettable. There’s no point in competing with Beaton. We had to build a world with Catherine Zuber, my very often Tony-nominated and -winning costume designer, to rethink the clothes and play in terms of class and position and give it a very different look.
Q: Tell me about Shereen Ahmed, who plays Eliza Doolittle on the tour?
A: Shereen is an extraordinary young Egyptian actress who manifests all the feelings of not being part of a larger majority of the culture. She’s an incredible artist.
‘My Fair Lady’
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. 7:30 p.m. Thursday. 7:30 p.m. Friday. 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday. 1 and 6:30 p.m. Dec. 5.
Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., San Diego.
Tickets: $35.50 and up
COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination required or negative COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of showtime or rapid antigen test performed by a medical professional within 12 hours of showtime. Masks required indoors.
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