White Light Provides a Loverly Service to My Fair Lady

Having first been performed on Broadway in 1956, My Fair Lady is widely regarded as one of the most iconic musicals of all time. Featuring a book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, it tells the story of Eliza Doolittle, a working-class flower girl who takes elocution lessons from the snobbish professor Henry Higgins in order to pass as a lady… The musical was recently revived by English National Opera at the London Coliseum and features a lighting design by multiple Tony Award-winner Donald Holder, who approached White Light (WL) to supplying the lighting equipment.   






This latest production of My Fair Lady marks the fourth time the show has been revived in the West End, with the most recent being in 2001 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. So how did Donald manage to approach a show as renowned and much-revived as this with a fresh pair of eyes? He explains: “Despite watching the 1964 movie starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn as a young child on multiple occasions, I never had the opportunity to see a stage production. That said, I do remember the film quite vividly: brimming with joy and wit, its magical rendering of the foggy, damp streets of London, the formal elegance of Higgin’s study, the over-the-top opulence of the races at Ascot. Like every other audience member, I was rooting for Eliza: for her emergence as a force to be reckoned with, for the moment when she finally realised her full potential as a woman and for Henry Higgins to finally declare his emerging love for the girl who had grown to be a central focus of his life. 






He continues: “Simply put, it’s a beautiful, touching and human story and one that remained close to me right up until the day I had the opportunity to design the lighting for the Broadway revival back in 2018. Reading the script for the very first time felt very much like revisiting an iconic tale that had been passed on through the generations.  But when I began to look below the surface of this story, I immediately realised that this was actually a piece filled with big ideas- taking on some of the most pressing social issues of its day, and offering a shining example of how we as individuals have the power to shape our own destiny. So, with this in mind, I tried to approach the piece with a completely fresh perspective. I scrupulously avoid seeing other productions, or searching for any prior production info that might influence my visual approach. I’ve always felt it best to respond to the piece in this current moment in time, to consider it as a new musical, establishing the visual vocabulary not based on a set of preconceived notions from past productions, but rather upon the vision of the director and my design collaborators”. 











Through this approach, Donald and the rest of the creative team worked hard to ensure their production felt as fresh and unique as possible.  He comments: “The director Bart Sher was interested in creating a truthful world for My Fair Lady that was referential to the Shaw’s Pygmalion – the play upon which it is based.  Although the musical could be considered a romantic comedy on its surface, Bart was interested in revealing the underpinnings of Shaw’s work: a critique of the social mores at the time, whether that’s  the class structure or the limitations society imposed upon women.  So the intention was to craft a version of the musical where the circumstances of the story unfold in a place that feels quite reminiscent of the time in which the play is set: the era of gaslight and early electric light.  






He adds: “During the show, we experience exterior and interior settings at almost every time of day, and the passage of time also factors heavily into the narrative. This approach demanded the use of lighting sources with a wide spectral range- from the warmth of incandescent lamps to the cool dawn and golden sunlight of early morning, to the crisp, clear light of mid-day. I also needed a complement of tools that could deliver strong brushstrokes of light through the large window of Higgins’ study, or create long, singular shadows across the full expanse of the Covent Garden and Tottenham Court Road locations.  Considering that this production will tour the UK following its run at the Coliseum, I gravitated toward highly reliable fixtures that featured full spectrum sources: not necessarily the most recent products on the market, but rather road-tested ‘old standards’ fitted with HMI or Tunsgten lamps”. 






To achieve both the artistic and practical briefs required, Donald approached the Customer Service Hires team at WL to supply his rig. He comments: “The Vari-lite VL3500 wash and Spot and the ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal accomplish much of the heavy lifting in terms of storytelling. I also rely equally upon the Mac Quantum and Aura XB washes to deliver much of the reflected light from the constantly shifting skyscape. Additionally, several of the sets in the piece contain beautifully painted semi-translucent drops, which require equal applications of low-angle front and backlight, with a high level of specificity to create the sense of three dimensionality on a 2D surface. We accomplish this pretty effectively using Mac Viper Performance Profiles on the Circle Rail, along with a combination of GLP XBar 20s, ChromaQ ColorForce Striplights and Mac Quantum Washes overstage”. 











My Fair Lady is also renowned for being a large-scale musical due to it containing several characters and spanning a wide variety of locations. Did this present any sort of challenge for Donald, particularly as the show also had to go on tour? He answers: “As expected, we move through many locations over the course of the evening, and the scenic centerpiece of Higgins’ study is actually designed as a revolving unit, spinning to reveal three different locations within the residence.  There are moments during this production that the study unit is in a constant state of rotation, revealing spaces and the working life of the full residence as they sweep in and out of view. All of this was a challenge to light under the best of circumstances! However, given the limitations of having a touring rig, I found that the old adage of “less is more” was a good operating principle. I also believed that a simple, elemental approach to the most complex of lighting challenges in this piece was more in keeping with the spirit of the production than more elaborate, expensive and time-consuming solutions”. 






My Fair Lady is currently running at the London Coliseum until 27th August 2022, after which point it will begin its UK tour which will last until March 2023. More information can be found here






Donald concludes: “With this show, I was blessed with truly great collaborators. I’d like to extend my thanks and admiration to the ENO Coliseum crew, Production Electrician Pete Lambert and his team of professionals, Programmer Nick Simmons, Associates Stuart (Stacy) Cross and Karen Spahn; and, of course, the folks at WL for their typically outstanding support”. 






Photos courtesy of Marc Brenner. 




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