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A good 'My Fair Lady' production takes more than a little bit of luck

Eliza Doolittle (Pamela Brumley) and Henry Higgins (Christopher Guilmet)
Provided by Stages

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 5, 2013: Last Friday morning at the Kent Center for the Performing Arts, the cast, crew and artistic staff of the upcoming Stages St. Louis production of “My Fair Lady” gradually arrived and readied themselves for a last rehearsal there. After the weekend, the cast moved to the Reim Theater in Kirkwood for final tech and dress rehearsals before the musical opens on Sept. 6.

Before the run-through of Act One begins, the stage manager walks the cast through the well-choreographed details of what happens after the play is over and the actors take their bows.

The members of the cast assemble on stage, starting with those who portray buskers, flower girls, servants etc., then to those in minor named parts, those with larger parts and finally, Pamela Brumley and Christopher Guilmet – who portray Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins.

The process takes more than half an hour to get exactly right. Thinking about how actors take their bows and make the process flow and coalesce into a meaningful way of showing appreciation for applause after a performance seems an appropriate introduction to how this Stages production of “My Fair Lady” got this far.

It’s just a single example of the immense amount of dedicated effort it takes to bring a musical such as “My Fair Lady” from an initial thought of the piece being a potential part of a Stages season into existence as a fully developed artistic statement.

And it’s a development process that takes more than a year, according to Michael Hamilton, artistic director of Stages St. Louis, and Jack Lane, the the company's executive producer.

Fit into the season's theme

“Right now, we’re in the process of finalizing the musicals for our 2014 season,” says Hamilton during an earlier conversation at the Kent Center. “As a matter of fact, as soon as “My Fair Lady” opens and has life, we’ll actually start on the design process for the 2014 season.”

The decision to consider “My Fair Lady” for the current season came about through several considerations, according to Hamilton. First, Stages hadn’t produced the musical since 1998. More importantly, it seemed to fit into the over arching theme of this season.

“We try to have a tacit theme for all our seasons,” explains Hamilton. “And for this year, we already had “Legally Blonde“ at the center, which is a light and comedic take on female empowerment. And even our piece for young audience – “Cinderella” fit well with the theme. That theme also ended up carrying through in “Always… Patsy Cline,” which Eric Pugh brought to our attention and pushed very hard for us to consider.

“But since the Patsy Cline piece takes a very musically heavy approach, and “Legally Blonde” is a comedy, I thought we needed something with gravitas – something that had a very strong book for a musical. “My Fair Lady” was a great fit. It’s always very important to me to have the proper balance in a season, and we found it with this combination.”

“For me, “My Fair Lady” is arguably a perfect musical,” adds Jack Lane. I’d say it’s easily among the very best ever – certainly top 3 in my opinion.”

“In addition, we always look for something that brightens the human spirit, “ adds Hamilton. “A piece where beauty is allowed to blossom, and that reaffirms that dreams can become reality. With the new building that was in our future at Stages, that seemed like something to celebrate as well.”

Cooperate with The Muny

But when Stages checked on the availability of “My Fair Lady” for 2013 in St. Louis, Hamilton and Lane discovered that another area organization had also expressed interest in presenting the musical.

“People may think it’s an easy thing to choose musicals for a season, but many things are not available,” explains Lane.

“We found out another company here in St. Louis was interested in doing it,” adds Hamilton, and you didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out it was the Muny!”

Lane and Hamilton contacted Mike Isaacson, the Muny’s executive producer, and the Muny’s president and CEO Denny Reagan to talk about “My Fair Lady,” and came to an agreement that Stages would be free to produce the piece for its 2013 season.

“We have very close communication going on between us and the Muny -- and the Rep,” says Lane. “Mike and Denny told us to go ahead, and we’re very grateful.”

With the rights to “My Fair Lady” secured for the 2013 Stages season, work began in earnest immediately afterward.

Assemble the team

“At the end of the 2012 season last October, we prepared scripts prepared for the following year’s run,” explains Hamilton. “We then made offers to the people we wanted on the artistic team for the show.”

After the end of the season, October and November is taken up with moving Stages equipment and costumes out of the Reim Theater – and preparing for the annual Stages fundraising gala in November.

“The Gala is a show unto itself,” says Lane. “And the rest of November we spend refurbishing and winterizing all the things we just moved.”

“Once we’re past that, we have initial readings of the piece with the design team,” explains Hamilton. “I express my opinion on the piece and lay out my thoughts on how it fits into the space and the season. Then in December, the designers respond to me verbally and with sketches on their ideas for the show.

“During January and February I’m out for a month in New York doing the casting process for the season. We look at 3,000 to 5,000 photos and resumes, then whittle that down to under 1,000. We then have rehearsals here in St. Louis for a week in February and work on deciding on the cast.”

Contracts are then offered to actors in March, and the design team comes up with set concepts.

“The designers physically create what we call a white model of all the sets,” says Hamilton. “Once that’s approved, they move on to adding color and finalizing details.”

“And of course, there’s always the b-word – Budget!,” adds Lane with a laugh. “That always comes into play. How much does that cost? But by the end of March we’ve figured out who’s going to build exactly what – and we have to start.”

From that point, things get very busy. Essentially, Stages is working on three main stage shows – plus its Young Audiences musical – at the same time.

Make it work

“Since we have to move everything into the Reim for our main stage shows, we’re like a road company,” says Hamilton. “We put together a giant schedule for the four productions. And to make it more complicated for 'My Fair Lady,' by the third production, we’re losing manpower – people on crews going back to regular fall jobs.”

And for Hamilton and Lane, there’s double duty. In addition to working on upcoming productions during the day - once the season starts, they are attending performances at night.”

“It’s important that the producer and the director are there at the performances as much as possible,” notes Lane. “It’s showing them you’re there for them through the run.”

“Working in theater has to be more than a job,” adds Hamilton. “It has to be a grand passion. It has to be something you truly love.”

Stages – this company - is family,” states Lane. “We created the foundation for this 27 years ago. And it’s still a family that’s strong and growing.”

That feeling of “family” is clearly evident as the final Kent Center rehearsal of “My Fair lady” continued last Friday. Despite the fact the actors were not in costume and there were no sets and many of the props were improvised, the magic of the theater was palpable in a complete run through of Act One of “My Fair Lady.”

Seeing it come to life on stage beginning Sept. 6 should be a magical theatrical moment – and one that makes a year’s worth of work by the Stages “family” incredibly satisfying.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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