THEATRE producer John Frost had long dreamed of resurrecting My Fair Lady, one of the precious gems of musical theatre. To do it in such a way that would leave all previous revivals in the shade: a painstaking re-creation of the original 1956 Broadway production that for 60 years has remained an emblem of theatrical perfection. And just to make it really special, what if the original Eliza Doolittle, Julie Andrews, was on board to bring the classic spectacle back to life?
Could it be done? Yes it could – and how! When My Fair Lady premiered at the Sydney Opera House in September, it was more than just another opening night for Frost, whose career in theatre in Australia and abroad spans almost five decades. What he calls a “labour of love” took some three years to realise – and how it came to life is a reminder that when an audience sits expectantly in a darkened theatre, waiting to be entranced by a musical production, the magic on stage has been a long and complex time in the making.
“People don’t think about it, but that’s like everything when you see the finished product,” he says. “When you go to the theatre, you just want it all to unfold, and come out after two or three hours and think, ‘That was fantastic’. You escape into another world.”
Getting the design absolutely right to work in the Joan Sutherland Theatre was a big challenge.
Creating that other world is a magical mystery tour all its own, especially an undertaking as enormous as the My Fair Lady revival. Executive producer Alex Budd of Opera Australia – which has partnered with Frost on this production – puts it this way: “It’s like giving birth to an elephant, when you’re not an elephant yourself!”
In the case of My Fair Lady, that normal birthing process for a top-tier musical production was made more complex due to the producers’ determination to re-create the original show in exacting detail. The sets, costumes, lighting – everything would be precisely as it was when the musical had its Broadway bow. Having the original blueprints for their ambitions made it an easier task – but only on paper.
“What was hard was [having] multiple blueprints,” says Budd. “Oliver Smith [the 1956 production’s set designer] had made alterations from production to production through the years, and we had various versions of different scripts. So it wasn’t: ‘Here it is out of the box’. The next challenge was being absolutely true to that, rather than having the flexibility you have when creating something new.”