Austin Musical Theatre's Scott Thompson on reviving "My Fair Lady"
"The minute they can sing along, you're in trouble."
That's Scott Thompson talking about the audience, and while you might think the co-founder of Austin Musical Theatre would welcome a crowd who knows a musical well enough to warble along with it, he says allowing an audience to get that comfortable is "the worst thing you can do in any revival." It means the audience is wallowing in nostalgia instead of engaged with the show. What you want is for people "to be so on the edge of their seat that they're not sure what lyric comes next, even though they've heard the song 20 times." It's vital that they feel the material feel "invented, not recited. You daren't recite this material."
The material here is My Fair Lady, the masterful musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe drawn from G.B. Shaw's Pygmalion. While Thompson has a list of musical directing credits as long as the legs of Ann Reinking, this is his first staging of the show, "and I too stand in awe of it," he says. "I'm like, 'Give me three more weeks with the actors in the rehearsal studio to find the nuances in this material.'"
So given My Fair Lady's familiarity, especially as seared into the public's brain by Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews on the original cast recording, how does Thompson keep the audience from getting too comfy?
"The best thing to describe my style in directing these classic musicals is that I'm a collector," he responds. "By that, I mean I look at everything. I look at Pygmalion, I look at the film, I look at any archived tapes, any papers, anything I can get my hands on that will tell me what the creators -- whether it was Shaw or Lerner & Loewe or Moss Hart, the musical's original director -- had in mind. Then when I get my idea, whatever my soul is bringing to it, I try to weigh whether that's in service of it. I don't mind appropriating -- I guess other people would say stealing -- but what I like to do is collect everything I know that has been successful and say, 'Oh my god, I can't live without that; that illuminates this particular passage or song better than anything else.' I just want everybody to see the best production of My Fair Lady that they can see in 2002, illuminated by historic perspective but enlightened by the way we feel now speaking the words.
"I think we have a great actor in George [McDaniel, who plays Higgins,] in that his hat is firmly tipped to Mr. Harrison when necessary, but between the two of us we're finding ways to re-illuminate the character. All we're looking for is, not the cast album performance, but the re-thought-out version of why the line might have been there in the first place, which I think any good director of My Fair Lady or Pygmalion or anything else would be looking for."
My Fair Lady runs Sept. 18-Oct. 6, Wed-Sat, 8pm, Sun, 7:30pm, Sat & Sun, 2pm, at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. Call 469-SHOW for info.