Fall is a season that summons the accumulated experiences embedded within the interior texture of memory into a colorful transformation sparkling with vibrant complexities of emotion, thought, purpose, and focus that carry us upon the winds of a fate which, as Chaucer noted, we must win for ourselves.
Such is the case with the erstwhile heroine Eliza Doolittle, who shines brighter than ever in the sumptuous new national Broadway Touring production of Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady, which is easily one of the most beloved musicals in the canon of contemporary theatre.
This lavish new production from Lincoln Center Theater, who also staged Tony award winning revivals of South Pacific and The King and I, and which tells the story of a young Cockney flower seller who meets a linguistics professor determined to transform her into his idea of a ‘proper lady’, will blossom on the stage at Midland Center for the Arts in a series of performances that will run from Friday through Sunday, October 28-29-30th.
Directed by Tony-award winner Bartlett Sher, the classic score features such memorable classics as “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “The Rain in Spain,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “On the Street Where You Live.” The original 1956 production won six Tony Awards including Best Musical, and was hailed by The New York Times as “one of the best musicals of the century.” And this revival is getting equally strong acclaim, hailed as being both opulent and daring, and proving that a beloved musical from another era can keep on kicking as long as it’s got its eyes wide open.
For actress Madeline Powell, who is starring in the lead role of Eliza Doolittle and also making her Broadway National Tour debut, the task of filling the shoes in a role most people associate with Audrey Hepburn is as equally daunting as it is life-changing. A graduate from Oklahoma City University in 2021, she finished her musical theatre degree after the pandemic and then moved to New York City.
“As we all know, it was a very different New York City when I moved there after the pandemic,” Madeline reflects when asked about the audition process and how she managed to secure the role.
“It was an interesting year because everyone was trying to learn how to audition, and how to exist in the world, and how to be actually free, so for a year I was doing a lot of self-taping that I would submit to audition. With My Fair Lady, which typically would be an in-person audition, I got an appointment to record my video but then got very sick right before the day I was set to record, so I had to cancel it because this music is so iconic I could not sing a classic song by Lerner & Lowe and not do it well.”
“My agent said to send the video in when I was ready, but to also understand the longer I waited the further the door would shut,” she continues. “I kept trying to record but was not satisfied with the results, so finally I got a take that I was okay with and a week later sent it in, apologizing that I was submitting it so late. But shortly after that I got a call back to come in for a live audition. I was the only person there and the room was full of people and after Covid it was such a surprise and so exciting. I literally had not performed for an audience since before the pandemic, so it was exciting and refreshing to see all these creative teams present. I had a ton of fun and felt like I was in master class trying new things and laughing a lot.”
When looking at My Fair Lady within the lexicon of contemporary American musical theater, what does Madeline feel distinguishes it the most from other classic 20th Century musicals? “In my personal opinion, it’s one of the most well-done pieces in the musical canon,” states Madeline. “It’s so expertly written and draws from a lot of other texts such as Pygmalion. Plus, this generation of the show is special because it is so true to that original text.”
“Bart Sher, our director, works hard to go back to the original story of Pygmalion written by George Bernard Shaw, and really tried to honor his original perspective of this story before it became a musical. While it’s the classic everybody knows and recognizes, it’s also respectful of the original intention. The biggest difference is that this is not a love story between Eliza and Professor Higgins, because it never really was intended to be a love story.”
“This is something that Shaw was adamant about when he wrote Pygmalion and later when it was adapted into the musical - he did not want it to be a romance; but hey if you put Audrey Hepburn up on the screen, what do you think is going to happen,” laughs Madeline. “However, it does state explicitly in the script that Eliza and Professor Higgins are friends and not lovers, only the intimacy they experience is something neither of these people have experienced - that true unconditional love that stems out of friendship - and they’re both trying to figure that out.”
Are there any other themes, motifs, or narratives that exist within this new translation of My Fair Lady that distinguish it from other versions?
“There are so many veins running through this story you can focus on because so many of the characters are so intricately written,” responds Madeline. “Earlier versions have always been well done, but in this new translation we see Eliza’s transformation in an empowering way - she is so determined and focused on her own needs in a way that’s incredibly hard as a woman to do. We watch her use her power and knowledge that she has gained to transform herself. Her transformation is never about superficial beauty. The glamorous makeover is that she builds a life for herself on this new path of life she is carving out for herself, so it’s more like an internal makeover.”
Having said this, what for Madeline is the most challenging component involved with her portrayal of Eliza Doolittle; and how does she get around being stigmatized by Audrey Hepburn’s interpretation of the role being eternally emblazoned upon the public mindset?
“The most difficult part is articulating Eliza’s transformation,” reflects Madeline, “because it is huge. We see her at very different extremes at different points in the show, which is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done but also so fulfilling - finding those highs and lows and when they happen, which is encouraged by Bart’s staging of the show. Because the script is so well written it works in any iteration, but Bart is really intentional about looking at specific lines that are telling about Eliza and her reactions.
“All these little smaller moments that people might miss, the production team makes sure they are highlighted and staged with a focus on the smaller details. That’s the most challenging and different thing from our original perception drawn from the film version, but also the most rewarding and fascinating for me - giving a new definition to the character.”
Madeline says she and the cast are very excited and geared-up to bring this production to the Midland stage. “We start the tour the second weekend of October and it runs through May 29th. We’re finishing the rehearsal process and had the first run of the show yesterday that went really well. We all had a blast and are ready to start up the engine and run through this thing. The sets are being loaded in today and lots of exciting things are happening!”
The Lincoln Center national touring production of ‘My Fair Lady’ will run at Midland Center for the Arts from Friday, October 28th through Sunday, October 30th. Show times are 7:30 PM Friday, 1:00 and 7:30 PM Saturday, and Sunday at 3:00 Pm. Tickets start at $26.50 and can be obtained at MidlandCenter.org or by calling 989.631.8250.