West End revival of hit musical My Fair Lady heads to the Alhambra in Bradford
It has become so ubiquitous as to be used as a replacement for wit, so one tries to avoid what is now a cliché, but it feels appropriate to borrow and invoke the phrase here because, it is true, that Bartlett Sher has surely won the West End this year.
The American director has been at the helm of two major critical and commercial theatreland hits in the space of a few months in 2022.
First, in March of this year, the West End’s Gielgud Theatre saw the arrival of Sher’s staging of Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.
In a four-star Guardian review, Bartlett’s courtroom scenes, surely the most terrifying to put on stage given how large they loom in the minds of fans of the book and the Gregory Peck movie, were praised as ‘sensational’ and ‘filled with tension, anger, betrayal and disbelief’.
To have scaled the mountain of such a modern classic successfully and brought it to the stage was an impressive feat for the American director, but then he followed it up two months later with a similarly well received new production of My Fair Lady in the West End.
When we speak Bartlett is back in the US and he begins our conversation with a reminder that even those who appear superhuman are vulnerable to the slings and arrows of the time in which we live: the first thing I hear from Sher is a hacking cough on the other end of the line.
I hope it’s not Covid?
“Actually, it is,” says Sher.
He was struck down on a recent family break, ironically.
One wonders if the workload he has been dealing with over the past year might have weakened the immune system - he does appear to have achieved superhuman feats since 2022 arrived.
“Yes, it was all part of a plan to dominate the West End,” he says, demonstrating, as he will throughout our conversation, that he is more a master of irony than we tend to think of his countrymen as being.
“No, no, not really, it just has happened this way that I have both shows in the West End at the same time. We had projects backed up because of you know what.”
The pandemic has made Sher look like one of the busiest directors in the land, but it’s down entirely to his own skill that he also looks like one of the most critically acclaimed.
“It has been very nice, I was pleased with the way audiences received the productions.”
We are ostensibly here to talk about My Fair Lady, Sher’s production of which arrives at the Bradford Alhambra tomorrow for a two week stay in the UK City of Culture for 2025, but it feels appropriate to at least mention the other major production he has helmed this year.
Both to Kill a Mockingbird and My Fair Lady had successful runs on Broadway for Sher before they headed across the ocean to the West End and both share not just a director, but an approach to the material that is respectful, but not reverential.
In the case of My Fair Lady, those expecting a faithful recreation of the movie on stage will be surprised.
“We decided to go back to the source material and look at Shaw’s work. You have to remember that he was a revolutionary writer who was doing some revolutionary thinking in his work,” says Sher.
My Fair Lady the musical, written by Alan Jay Lerner with the music by Frederick Loewe was of course based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion.
Both tell the story of a linguistics professor Henry Higgins, who accepts a bet that he can transform Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a ‘proper’ lady.
In 1964 it was turned into a multi-Academy Award-winning movie starring Rex Harrison as Higgins and Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle.
“Purists don’t need to worry, after all, I’ve reinstated the ending that Shaw himself wrote for the piece.
“Some people come to the theatre for happy endings and some come to be presented with something challenging that will make them think. I think this production honours and restores what Shaw himself would want,” says Sher.
My Fair Lady is at Bradford Alhambra, September 22 to October 2.