BBC Proms – Night 2: MY FAIR LADY

The BBC Proms is an institution in Britain. For eight weeks during the British summer, the best of classical and orchestral music is put on display with guest soloists, conductors and symphonies the world over. Now in its 118th year, the Proms continues what has been it’s mission since day one:

 to present the widest possible range of music, performed to the highest standards, to large audiences

For over a century audiences have packed Royal Albert Hall to hear the world’s best music.

Last night was definitely no exception, as 2012 has been a landmark year for Britain, with Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in June and the upcoming Olympic Games (which start in a little over a week from now), this years Proms had to be something special and the line up couldn’t be more spectacular.

I only happened upon a news article Friday about conductor John Wilson and his orchestra presenting a full concert production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Masterpiece My Fair Lady. The musical which debuted to rave reviews in 1956, starred Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews and has been hailed as one of the greatest pieces of musical theater in history. The 1964 big screen adaptation starring, Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, won 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Original Score.

The film itself is duly famous because of two key issues. One being producer Jack L. Warner’s refusal to cast Julie Andrews in the role she claimed for herself in New York and London, explaining she was not photogenic enough and that a star like Audrey Hepburn had never made a financially unsuccessful film. A second controversy also arose when a stink was made about Hepburn’s vocal tracks being over-dubbed by Hollywood ghost voice actress Marni Nixon (who would also sing for Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Deborah Kerr in The King & I.)

The concert’s conductor, John Wilson, is no stranger to the stage of RAH. His concert programs glorifying the sounds Broadway and Hollywood Movie Musicals have gained him praise throughout England, most notably for his painstaking research and use of film adapted scores used during the Golden Age of the Hollywood musical.

Saturday night’s Proms presentation promised to be an extraordinary evening. And it was.

In an interview, Wilson said he would use the 1964 Andre Previn score, citing a specific need because the Broadway scores are only written for a 20 odd pit orchestra, and the full orchestra was more appropriate for the hall.

I have seen My Fair Lady several times, I even was lucky enough to see the Cameron Mackintosh revival that made a national tour through the U.S. in 2008. Yet, I had always hoped a future production might use the gloriously full-realized orchestrations that the film had. Without evening knowing it, I got my wish and the finished product, as presented at the Royal Albert Hall was nothing short of stunning.

Hearing the roar of the eight chord opening of the “Overture” was something otherworldly. It reminded me so much of the film I loved as a child and the lush beauty of a full orchestra. Thankfully when Broadway musicals are given the Hollywood treatment, the score itself is given the same amount of detail and care – that’s probably why Movie musicals are still so beloved, because of the attention to very detail. The music is never left out, it’s given the appropriate spotlight, indeed a chance to shine.

Famed British actor, Anthony Andrews, leads the cast as Professor Henry Higgins, while Annalene Beechey, makes the famed role of Eliza Doolittle all her own. Alum Armstrong is a delightful Alfred Doolittle and James Fleet is perfect as Colonel Pickering.

Despite some minor technical goofs like: late opening of microphones and the limitations of radio, the production was splendid indeed to hear. Anthony Andrews makes a very respectable Professor Higgins adding his notable panche and style to the role. Annalene Beechey’s is a delight as Eliza complete with cockney accent and all. Of course her singing “I could have danced all night,” accompanied by a full compliment of musicians makes it worth the price of admission.

The concert (which was over 3 hours long) included an interesting intermission chat at the Royal College of Music, regarding the playwright George Bernard Shaw and how the musical stays true to his original version in his play Pygmalion. The talk centered on how the play and the musical carry a central theme: both are commentaries on the British class system of the day and the infancy of the suffrage in Britain.

I’m sure for radio listeners in England or abroad (like myself) the 20 minute insight Shaw’s play was quite an education. Thank you, BBC Radio 3.

Needless to say, I cannot thank John Wilson for (unbeknownst to him) scratching a goal off my bucket list: to hear my favorite musical in concert using the Andre Previn adapted film orchestrations. For the layman the concert was a nice showcase of talent, but for me it something much more. The concert proved that classic musicals are still appreciated and still have resonance in today’s culture.

Excuse me, while I go listen to it again..

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