Amanda Dehnert says "My Fair Lady" is a double threat. She should know. She's directed it four times.
A revival of one of Broadway's all-time favorite musicals, directed by Dehnert, "My Fair Lady" holds down the Saturday night slot in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's opening weekend lineup for the 2013 season. Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" kicks off the season tonight in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, directed by David Ivers.
A revival of August Wilson's "Two Trains Running," directed by Lou Bellamy, will play Saturday afternoon in the Bowmer, and Shakespeare's "King Lear," directed by Bill Rauch, will round out the weekend with a Sunday matinee in the Thomas Theatre, formerly the New Theatre.
Dehnert, a theater professor at Northwestern University, guest directs widely around the nation and is a former artistic director of Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I.
"'My Fair Lady' has an interesting story about a complicated relationship," Dehnert says. "People think it's because (George Bernard) Shaw wrote it. But it's not 'Pygmalion.' It's its own story. They took his thing and made it their thing."
Shaw wrote "Pygmalion," in which he lampooned the English class system and commented on independent women, in 1912. The story goes back to Gilbert and Sullivan and earlier, to ancient Rome and a tale by Ovid. More recently the theme has popped up in movies such as "Educating Rita," "Can't Buy Me Love," "Pretty Woman," "She's All That" and "The Princess Diaries."
"My Fair Lady," with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, is set in 1912, the year of Shaw's play. It opened on Broadway in 1956 with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews and was an instant hit with audiences and critics alike.
"It also has great songs," Dehnert says, such as "On the Street Where You Live," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "Wouldn't It be Loverly," "Get Me to the Church On Time," "The Rain in Spain" and "With a Little Bit of Luck."
The difficulties of turning Shaw's witty play into a musical were legendary. Shaw wouldn't hear of it while he was alive. Later, when the rights were clear, Lerner and Loewe tried it and gave up. Then Rodgers and Hammerstein had a go. They gave up, too.
In the 1950s, Lerner and Loewe tried again. They pulled it off after they realized it wasn't a typical musical comedy — there was no romance between the lead characters — and they turned out Broadway's longest-running hit ever at that time, a show that's often called "the perfect musical."
The version audiences will see at OSF is known as the "piano reduction." Instead of an orchestra, Dehnert says, the music will be provided by two Yamaha grand pianos on the stage, played by pianists Matt Goodrich and Ron Ochs, both of whom live in the Rogue Valley.
"The actors will dance around them and in between them," she says.
There are several approved scores for the show in existence, in part because Lerner and Loewe knew that not every theater that would mount a production would have the space or the budget for a full orchestra, Dehnert says.
She credits Lerner and Loewe with the foresight to ask Loewe's arranger, Trude Rittmann, to create a score for two pianos that would not only track the melodies and accompany the singers but would keep, as much as possible, the intricacies and nuances of the orchestral arrangement. Rittmann had fled the Nazis and wound up in New York City. She later worked with George Balanchine, Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland.
Associate Music Director Darcy Danielson says Rittmann's score is one of the glories of the show.
"It's definitely not something you settle for," she says.
In the story, Eliza Doolittle is a Cockney flower girl, and Henry Higgins an arrogant professor who loves language. When Higgins bets he can turn the low-class Eliza into a young woman who can pass for upper crust by altering her diction, the sparks begin to fly.
With Cockneys and upper-crusters and a plot that puts a premium on pronunciation, voice and text coach David Carey assumed a major role in the rehearsal process, Dehnert says.
"He was great," she says. "After awhile this funny thing happens where the actors begin to feel like they can't hear the difference. It's very tricky."
Received pronunciation, the upper-class, standard English spoken by Higgins, was thought to have been inculcated in the students of elite schools to the exclusion of regional dialects. It contrasted markedly with the London-based, working-class Cockney accent of people like the Doolittles, who notoriously dropped their h's, among other quirks.
Dehnert says Jonathan Haugen and Rachael Warren, who play the Professor and Eliza, will sing their own parts. As will Anthony Heald as Eliza's father, Alfred P. Doolittle, and David Kelly, as Col. Pickering.
She says a big musical like "My Fair Lady" isn't necessarily more challenging to direct than a smaller, more intimate nonmusical play.
"It doesn't matter," says this woman who once told a reporter that a play by Shakespeare was "just a story," after all.
"What we do is both very, very difficult and very simple."
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.