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Radicalism in a Fancy Hat

My Fair Lady ready to occupy, and entertain, Eugene

The lack of money is the root of all evil,” George Bernard Shaw astutely clarifies. A well-known radical in his time, Pygmalion (the stage play from which My Fair Lady is taken) was Shaw’s biting commentary on class distinction, masked as a love story.

In the play, phoneticist Henry Higgins boasts in his misogynistic way that he can transform a down-and-out Cockney flower seller into a proper lady in three months. The culture clash is on, and it looks like it might be scrappy Eliza Doolittle who will turn the professor’s world upside-down. Romance ensues.

Pygmalion was musicalized in 1956 into My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, and went on to win six Tony Awards and spur an iconic film.

I spoke with Dan Sher, executive producer behind this new MFL tour, to find out why a 1912 play turned musical in the 1950s is still edgy next to the likes of Avenue Q and Spring Awakening.

“America right now is at the most polarized I’ve ever seen,” Sher says, referring to the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor. In My Fair Lady there is “an underdog element,” he says. “You’re really rooting for Eliza Doolittle. The power struggle (between Eliza and Henry) is transcendent of time and culture.”

Sher says he is particularly excited about the casting. He notes that watching the 1964 film version, one is always aware that Audrey Hepburn is Audrey Hepburn, even when she’s smudged up with a few ashes before Eliza Doolittle’s glamorous transformation.

According to Sher, Eliza will be played by  Aurora Florence, a young actress in her first big role outside of Utah. “There is something really magical about the chemistry in these leads,” he says, noting that casting a younger Henry Higgins (Chris Carsten) lessens the “creep factor” of their romance.

As Eugene police have cleared out our own Hooverville … er … Occupy encampment, My Fair Lady — a gussied up form of protest — sweeps into town in its wake. Shaw, Lerner and Loewe may have employed witty repartee and swooning love songs in place of cardboard signs and a bandana facemask, but the root message is the same: The old system needs to be turned on it’s head.

Perhaps we need to make like Eliza Doolittle and take on the system individually,  one by one. Because, as Shaw notes, “If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.”

My Fair Lady Plays at Eugene’s Hult Center Jan. 7-8; www.hultcenter.org or call 682-5000.