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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the May 5, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

From PHS to My Fair Lady’s Center Stage

The story of the musical "My Fair Lady" goes back a long time, but that does not mean there isn’t any news in the current and reconceived production now being presented at McCarter Theater. But first the background:

In the beginning there was the Greek myth about the sculptor Pygmalion, who abhorred women. He made a statue, Galatea, whom he called his wife. The goddess Aphrodite brought the statue to life and the two live happily ever after. The Roman poet Ovid retold the story.

George Bernard Shaw transformed the myth into a play published in 1912. In Shaw’s "Pygmalion" the snobbish Professor Henry Higgins teaches Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl, to speak English properly; once she has abandoned her lower class speech she is accepted in high society. In 1956 lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe used Shaw’s play to fashion the Broadway musical "My Fair Lady," which called for a cast of more than 70 and a full orchestra. "My Fair Lady" set a record for longevity, running for six and a half years. Movies treated the story in 1938 and 1964.

A sanctioned two-piano version of the musical was prepared by Trude Rittman, the "My Fair Lady" dance arranger for Broadway. Trinity Repertory Theater of Providence, Rhode Island, presented it some five years ago. In 2002 Chicago’s Court Theater put on the small version using a cast of 10 with the instrumental support of two pianos.

The Chicago "My Fair Lady" is now in residence at McCarter’s Berlind Theater until Sunday, June 27. Gary Griffin, who directed the Chicago version, directs at McCarter. He calls the Chicago vehicle a "distilled version" of the musical. Thomas Murray, the Chicago music director is the Berlind music director.

Murray conducts the show, but not in the traditional sense, since he also is one the pianists. The other is a story in himself. Charles Sundquist, director of the Princeton High School choir, is a man who previously has been heard often but seldom seen at McCarter. As musical director of McCarter’s "Christmas Carol," he has worked on 11 annual productions. In "My Fair Lady" he is very much seen and heard. Sundquist and Murray play two seven-foot Steinway pianos brought in from Philadelphia for the show. Dead center, on a platform above the actors, the pianos are part of the set.

The two pianists, Murray and Sundquist, took a break from their rehearsal schedule to talk to U. S. 1 by telephone. "The original reason for reconceiving ‘My Fair Lady’ for a smaller cast was to have an intimate examination of the show," Murray says. He gives an example of an intimacy-driven change. "In the original ‘Get me to the Church on Time’ number," Murray says, "the entire chorus carries Doolitle [Eliza’s father] off and has a big party. In the two-piano version Doolittle goes through a moment of wanting a big party. Then he thinks, ‘Migosh I’m getting married,’ and he explores that. It’s more introspective."

"When a big chorus comes out in the original, we go in and explore," Murray says. "There’s no sense to have 10 people on stage and 20 in the pit." The Chicago-Berlind version of "My Fair Lady" uses 95 per cent of the original material, he says.

Murray confronts the opportunity to compare the pluses and minuses of the large and small versions of the piece by saying, "That’s the wrong question. They’re different opportunities. If the audience thinks that one is better than the other, we haven’t achieved our goal. The small version is a lateral move."

Chicago-based free lance musician, arranger, and director Murray was born in El Paso, Texas in 1966. He started piano at seven. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University he wasn’t sure about majoring in music. "I thought it would be good to have something else," he says. He took a double major in music and computer science, and worked as an artificial intelligence programmer at Northwestern. Through a chance performance as a pianist, and later directing a show, he started to feel at home in the world of theater. After three or four years he left computer science. "There was enough music work coming in, so I had to choose," he says.

For a time Murray thought that he was interested in opera, but a year in Graz, Austria changed his mind. "I I had a good time, but not doing music. Opera has a lot of conventions: Do it this way because it’s always done like that. In music theater there’s a lot of that also. But it’s OK because music theater is more contemporary and more American."

Charles, Sundquist, the other pianist, has been playing began piano studies at age six. Born in Duluth, Minnesota in 1956, his undergraduate University of Minnesota degree is in organ performance. His master’s and doctoral degrees in organ are from Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Amid his American training he spent a satisfying year in Paris studying with Marie-Claire Alain. "She’s internationally-known," Sundquist says. "I applied to study with her in 1981, and finally got to go in 1984. It was one of the best musical-cultural experiences I’ve ever had. I played for ballet classes, was a piano accompanist, and was assistant organist at the American Cathedral."

Director of the Choral Department at Princeton High School since 1993, Sundquist’s conception of his duties exceeds the expectations of any school district. He saw to the release of five CDs by the Princeton High School Choir, and led the group on international adventures. Since 1997, when the choir went to Russia to celebrate the city’s 850th anniversary, Sundquist has overseen their performances in Germany in 1999; in St. Petersburg, Novgorod, and Berlin in 2001; and in Budapest and Vienna in 2003.

Meanwhile Sundquist was providing piano accompaniment at McCarter, and was introduced to Murray last summer. The germ of the relationship was McCarter’s listing of "My Fair Lady" among its offerings for the 2003-’04 season. Sundquist escalated his wish to be in the performance into a meeting with Murray in New York. The two played some of the "My Fair Lady" music together, and they clicked so well musically that Murray chose Sundquist from among the contenders. "Duo-pianists need to have the same sense of musical nuance. The two can’t be fighting musically," Sundquist says.

But to play in "My Fair Lady" Sundquist had to make his school schedule compatible with the arduous rehearsals for the musical. Luck played a part. Sundquist starts teaching at 7:50 a.m. and had time to teach three of his five classes before rehearsals for the musical began at 11. When necessary, he delayed arriving at rehearsal until 2 p.m. By arranging for only seven professional half days off, he was able to meet all the demands. "The school is supportive of faculty doing things in their profession," he says.

"I’m having a ball," Sundquist says. "I did keyboards for my whole life and it’s great getting my fingers back in shape. The conducting track has taken me away from keyboards. But one supports the other, and helps the growth process."

"I’m learning a lot to bring back to the High School from Tom’s work with the actors vocally. He works on musical nuance, and how to handle phrases. It’s good to hear someone else talk about these things and see how he gets them across. It’s a little sabbatical."

For the early stages of preparing the show Sundquist was the sole rehearsal pianist while Murray devoted himself to the vocalists and the balance, polishing the performance in ways he couldn’t do if he was stationary at a piano. "One of the valuable things about Chuck playing at rehearsal," says Murray, "is that he gets to know the show as well as I do."

Murray and Sundquist agree that the small-scale Berlind Theater, which opened last fall, is the ideal venue for the lean version of "My Fair Lady." Murray says, "The Berlind allows us to present an intimate version of the show on an intimate scale." Sundquist agrees, and adds, "In the Berlind Theater ‘My Fair Lady" you get to know its 10 characters beautifully. And having the two pianos adds a new dimension to the sound."

– Elaine Strauss

My Fair Lady, Berlind Theater at McCarter, 91 University Place, 609-258-2787. Previews. Opening night Wednesday, May 12. $32 to $50. Through Sunday, June 27.

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