This story is part of a series of articles spotlighting Thespian troupes and the shows that earned them 2020 International Thespian Festival main stage recognition.

TROUPE 4501 of New Albany High School in Indiana is no stranger to the ITF main stage. My Fair Lady marks the troupe’s first appearance there in six years, with other productions including Antigone (2014), The Drowsy Chaperone (2011, with Floyd Central High School), and High School Musical (2007).

Earlier this year, New Albany also was honored with the Educational Theatre Association’s Outstanding School Award, which recognizes schools whose theatre programs exemplify and promote high standards of quality.

Story

In Covent Garden, flower girl Eliza Doolittle peddles her wares to evening strollers when she notices a gentleman studying her, taking copious notes. The observer is Professor Henry Higgins, a famed phonetics instructor, lamenting the sound of Eliza’s thick Cockney accent. When Higgins encounters Colonel Pickering, a fellow linguist, Eliza hears him tell the man that the girl’s speech chains her to her lower-class station in life.

The next day, Eliza drops by Higgins’ home seeking speech lessons so she can elevate her position to work in a lady’s floral shop. Excited by the challenge, Higgins bets Pickering he can transform Eliza in just six months, in time to pass her off as a “proper lady” at the upcoming Embassy Ball.

Eliza moves into Higgins’ home and endures his tyrannical training. Happily, their plan succeeds, first with Eliza’s society debut at the Ascot races and later with a successful introduction at the ball, where an international speech expert proclaims Eliza a Hungarian princess.

As Higgins and Pickering applaud themselves for their accomplishments, they rudely ignore Eliza’s role in achieving them, causing her to flee Higgins’ home in anger. Soon, Higgins realizes he’s grown fond of the girl and seeks her return, leaving Eliza to decide her future.

Shelby Brown sings “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” in the New Albany High School production of My Fair Lady.
Shelby Brown sings “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” in the New Albany High School production of My Fair Lady. Photo courtesy of Amy Miller.

BACKGROUND

The 1956 musical My Fair Lady, with songs by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, is based on the 1913 George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion. That script was inspired by a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses about a man who falls in love with his ivory sculpture of the “perfect” woman, which later comes to life.

The original Broadway production of My Fair Lady, which starred Rex Harrison as Henry and Julie Andrews as Eliza, ran more than six years — a record for the time — earning six Tony Awards, including best musical. Two years later, in 1964, it was immortalized as an Oscar-winning film, with Harrison reprising his role opposite Audrey Hepburn as Eliza.

The show has returned to Broadway four times, most recently with Lincoln Center Theater’s 2018 revival. It boasts a tuneful score that includes “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “The Rain in Spain,” “On the Street Where You Live,” “Get Me to the Church on Time,” and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”

Matt Landon as Alfred P. Doolittle and the cast of the New Albany High School production of My Fair Lady.
Matt Landon as Alfred P. Doolittle and the cast of the New Albany High School production of My Fair Lady. Photo courtesy of Amy Miller.

TROUPE 4501’S PRODUCTION

Amy Miller (front left) as Miss Flannery in the ITF national cast production of Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Amy Miller (front left) as Miss Flannery in the ITF national cast production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Photo by R. Bruhn.

For Amy Miller, director of theatre arts at New Albany High School, directing and choreographing a show for the International Thespian Festival main stage “is literally a dream come true” and a full-circle moment. Miller has a long history with the festival, making her first appearance there as a fifth grader in 2001 with New Albany High School’s production of Show Boat. As a Thespian, she participated in four more ITF shows with Floyd Central High School — TitanicSeussicalDames at Sea, and Zombie Prom — culminating in her performance as Miss Flannery in the 2007 national cast production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. “Yeah, I’m 100% Thespian homegrown,” Miller said.

In 2014, Miller took over as troupe director at New Albany, where she made it a goal to get back to the ITF main stage, this time as a director. That journey started when Miller was approached by Music Theatre International to pilot a new high school version of My Fair Lady. “The show was a perfect fit for my student actors and a great exercise in creating a cohesive and creative environment,” Miller said.

While the plot of My Fair Lady hasn’t changed, Miller said “a lot of ‘fat’ got trimmed from the edges” of the high school edition. “We started early with the script, score, and planning of the design. I wanted so badly to do a show that had our New Albany Theatre spin and still honored the greatness of the original script.”

For the most part, that meant tweaks rather than wholesale changes. “The songs have been slightly revamped, some cut down, some different words,” Miller said. “Transitions and orchestrations are different. Some of the scenes have been pared down a bit. It runs at just two hours. It’s a tight script, and the kids took to it quickly.”

Miller credits her students with bringing the story to life, proudly declaring that the show’s Eliza, Thespian sophomore Shelby Brown, “could have stepped out of the original movie.” Brown counts herself “incredibly grateful” to have worked on the production, admitting it was “a big responsibility to portray such an iconic role” onstage.

“The thing I liked best about playing Eliza was that she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind,” Brown said. “She wasn’t going to let anyone boss her around. Eliza doesn’t really care what people think of her. I have always done things based on what I think is right, so most days, I am not bothered by what people think of me either, as long as I am being true to myself.”

Senior Matt Landon embraced the comedy of Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, calling the role “a culmination of all my past roles put together into one.” What was new to him was mastering the character’s Cockney accent while making sure his lines could still be understood by the audience. “The music, the blocking, and the choreography all came with practice, and once learned, making everything unique through our individual characters was key.”

Part of that process was developing clear relationships among the show’s characters. “My friends Austin Sheets and Michael Mingus played Harry and Jamie, the two guys who are always following Alfred around,” Landon said. “We sat down and worked out a backstory about how the three of us came to be together and why we liked being around each other. That built chemistry offstage, and it translated well into our characters and scenes together onstage.”

The show also offered exciting design challenges for the troupe, particularly creating its elaborate Edwardian settings, including Higgins’ bachelor home. “It is a massive show with a beautiful two-story study unit. I didn’t want it to be all drops. I wanted layers and for [the show] to be tightly cued,” Miller said.

That meant building some smaller scenery pieces that could move with the actors, as in the quick scene shift from Higgins’ study to the races at Ascot. “It’s magical how it happens so fast. It’s fascinating to see everyone moving backstage in a literal choreographed dance of drops, actors, pieces, costumes, and crew,” Miller said.

Both Miller and stage manager Kim Caufield compared the process to a well-oiled machine. “It took a little finesse and practice, but in the end our crew got these towering pieces to move on and off the stage in seconds,” Caufield, a senior, said. “It was such a rewarding feeling for me to be a leader of a great team. Each successful scene change came with a small victorious feeling and sense of pride.”

The cast and crew felt extra pressure knowing their show would be scrutinized by other schools interested in licensing this edition in the future. “Everything had to be perfect,” Brown said. “This process was 10 times more stressful than working on other shows. We knew we were putting a lot on the line for this production.”

At the same time, Caufield, who grew up watching the film version of My Fair Lady, appreciated the creative liberty of working on a pilot production. “It still doesn’t feel real to me that a show I was part of is going to be used and looked at by other schools as a blueprint for their production,” she said.

For Miller, it was important that students not jump to conclusions that this classic show is dated. “The story is way more relevant than most people realize,” Miller said. In particular, the cast spent time discussing My Fair Lady’s tricky ending, in which Eliza is faced with the decision of whether to stay with Higgins or forge an independent, but far riskier, future.

“We played with the ending literally until the second-to-last performance,” Miller said. “I watched it so many times, and I knew we had to let Eliza choose her destiny. Staging that in a way that is not obvious was difficult. At the end of the day, I looked at the actress playing Eliza and said, ‘What do you think she would do?’ And she said, ‘I think we can’t see her leave the room,’ and there it was. We leave the audience with a cliffhanger. … We see Eliza for a large part of the show getting led around and bossed by two strong men, but it doesn’t take her long to control her destiny. That’s what the kids need to understand. Eliza is the one doing the work and achieving the goals. Ultimately, she realizes that, and to see the growth in her character is important.”

“The ending of this show, in my mind, is the most important part,” Brown said. “People have all kinds of different opinions about what Eliza is going to do. For me, I would have left him, so that is what I had Eliza think she was going to do. … Women may have issues where they let men dictate their choices. I think Eliza is a great example of what you can do if you don’t let men take control of your life.”

Caufield also sees a timely message in the show. “My Fair Lady tells a story of making something of oneself. That’s a very relevant topic for a lot of up-and-coming generations, including my own, because we’re getting ready to make something of ourselves in the real world,” Caufield said.

The My Fair Lady cast and crew developed a tight community, one that gave them memories for a lifetime and the confidence to take on new adventures. “Passion drives success,” Caufield said. “While you might not always get the role or position you want, or you have a hard rehearsal or a bad run one night, having passion for what you’re doing will drive you to succeed. Don’t stress the small mistakes. Focus on the passion behind everything you do.”

Want to see more? Explore the fun of the Virtual International Thespian Festival and register today!

The cast and crew of My Fair Lady take a final bow.
The cast and crew of My Fair Lady take a final bow. Photo courtesy of Amy Miller.
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