An interview with Geraint Owen: Bringing ‘My Fair Lady’ home
As the celebrated Broadway revival of the classic musical ‘My Fair Lady’ arrives in Wales the young musical director from Cardiff Geraint Owen is looking forward to being at the musical helm in his native city. He’s currently on the road with Lerner and Loewe’s classic musical for nothing less than a whole year so he’ll welcome being home for a few weeks. So does he fall asleep each night with the eminently catchy Frederick Loewe tunes going around in his head?
‘It’s eight shows a week plus rehearsals so you do live and breathe it. But they are good songs though. There’s a reason this show is still here. Every single song, even the least well known, is a treat to play.’
The show, starting its three week run at the Wales Millennium Centre tonight, has quite a list of musical treats, a litany of long established hits, firmly part of the great musical songbook. You can hear them in your head and hum them even as you list them. ‘I Could Have Danced All Night,’ ‘Get Me to the Church on Time,’ ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,’ ‘On the Street Where You Live,’ ‘The Rain in Spain,’ and ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.’
This new stage version, developed by the Lincoln Center Theater, is directed by Bartlett Sher whose recent theatre credits include ‘The King and I’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and was described in the Evening Standard as a ‘Rolls Royce of a revival,’ while the New York Times reckoned it was ‘glorious and better than it ever was!’
It’s got a glittering cast to go with the shimmer of songs. Michael D. Xavier stars as Henry Higgins, Charlotte Kennedy as Eliza Doolittle and EastEnders’ Adam Woodyatt plays the role of Alfred P. Doolittle. They are joined by world-famous soprano Lesley Garrett playing Mrs Pearce and John Middleton (Emmerdale) as Colonel Pickering.
Geraint Owen has written musicals himself. He was part of the team that created the bawdy anti-panto ‘XXXmas Carol,’ described as ‘most certainly not a show for the family’ for the WMC, complete with circus acts and a drag queen presenter, so he appreciates the crafting of a good one, while admitting ‘My Fair Lady’ is very, very different. They all, however, share one thing.
‘It’s got to have a good story at the heart of it and then the marrying up of the music and the lyrics is why people choose to write a musical. Putting the two together can say something so different, that words alone perhaps can’t. And when you’ve got clever witty lyrics perfectly matched with the music and the story, then you’ve got the makings of a great show.’
Rags to riches
The story of My Fair Lady is a classic one that takes a main character from rags to riches as Owen succinctly explains:
‘It’s the story of a Cockney flower girl who wants to improve herself is she encounters a phonetics teacher who jokes one day that he could pass her off as a duchess. She learns what she needs to and passes the test but it’s also about what happens after. When you transform someone completely where are they left?
‘It’s based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw which in turn is based on the Pygmalion myth which shows how both people are transformed in the process of transformation. It’s a rich enough play as it is but with music on top it’s a whole other level.’
Geraint is the assistant musical director for this touring production but he’s already had experience of being at the helm.
‘It came from Broadway in New York, then this tour started in London, at the Coliseum, the home of English National Opera, so I started off there as the pianist but the plan was for me to become the associate musical director and every couple of weeks I conduct the show. As I’ll be doing in Cardiff.’
Keeping it fresh
Audiences just see it the once yet the performers and musicians deliver it over and over again and so have to keep it fresh. So how difficult is it to achieve that?
‘It’s all about the way it’s set up. The process of rehearsals is about building all the foundations so that by the time you get to the night you can do it all fresh, because everything is so deeply engrained. The costume transitions are smooth, the blocking of the scenes is tight but it’s set up in way that means you can play with it each night. So, it’s always in in our minds to have a good show. Because the music is so brilliant the band, we all have a sort of duty of care towards it. We really want it to be the best it can be every night. If one of us makes a mistake we have a laugh about it but ultimately we acknowledge that we want the best. That intention hasn’t shown any signs of wavering.’
Each change of venue helps give it that freshness, playing to a completely new crowd.
‘We were in Dublin recently where the audiences were lapping it up and before that we were at the Coliseum, a massive opera house in London, which is a very difficult place to do a musical, with the scenes so far away from the musicians as the orchestra pit is so big. In the smaller venues we’re much closer to the audience. You can really feel a buzz from them every night. That keeps it exciting, keeps it alive.’
Now that the show’s opening at the Wales Millennium Centre, how good is the sound of the space?
‘Growing up with the WMC on my doorstep I quickly became complacent about how much of a treat of a venue it is. Now that I’m starting to work there the more I learn about how special it is. Apparently there’s a hole in every seat which amplifies the sound, details like that: it’s a magical venue and it’ll be the highlight of my tour without a doubt. It’s just a gorgeous building inside and out. I was worried that we’d miss the grandness of the Coliseum, miss the beauty but the WMC is a unique venue of its kind. You can’t beat it.’
My Fair Lady opens tonight and runs until the 26th November at the Wales Millennium Centre. You can buy tickets here.
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