Skylight’s ‘Fair Lady’ uses costume to define character

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Skylight Music Theatre’s My Fair Lady will be a full-on fashion run, tapping designer Chris March’s considerable talents and wicked sense of humor to bring to life the story of phonetics professor Henry Higgins, who, on a bet, turns Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a proper English lady.

As March and fans of the 1956 Lerner and Lowe Broadway musical know, costumes are the largest visual cue for differentiating the classes of the play’s cast members. And costumes always have played a role in the history of the show.

Based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the musical, opening on Nov. 20, embraces Shaw’s socialist views and upends his era’s thesis, which said no one can escape the social caste into which he or she is born. 

With instruction from Higgins (Norman Moses), Eliza (Natalie Ford) picks herself up, dusts herself off — literally — and successfully enters upper-crust society. But not before multiple suitors, including Higgins, fall ass-over-teakettle in love with her.

What a difference a Dior — or a March — can make.

“We’re making sure the poor in the cast are dirty and disheveled and the rich bejeweled and glamorous,” said March, best known for his appearances on Bravo network’s Project Runway and Project Runway All-Star Challenge. “The show is about the differences in classes and we wanted Eliza’s makeover as a lady to show some travel between the two distinctly different aspects of her character.”

The concept of “costume as character” is not new to My Fair Lady. Sir Cecil Beaton populated the original Broadway production, starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, with frocks dazzling enough to earn him a Tony Award. 

Beaton then repeated the feat for the 1964 George Cukor film version, with Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, garnering an Academy Award for his costumes.

“You have to acknowledge Cecil Beaton’s designs for the brilliance that they are,” March said. “I used them as a jumping off point and followed on to the point of absurdity.”

March, a San Francisco native, became notorious for his trademark hats and wigs in Beach Blanket Babylon, the Bay City’s longest-running musical revue. So one can only wonder just how absurd his definition of absurdity can get.

“My aesthetic has more of a sense of humor,” March said. “I think we do a little more to have fun with and skewer the socialite class.”

But the source material is not without constraints. Consider the “Ascot Gavotte” number, a cornerstone of the musical and Eliza’s coming-out society event. Conventions of the day for the Royal Ascot horse race dictated restraint, which meant morning coats, waistcoats and striped trouser for men and subdued dresses in shades of black, white and gray for women.

But other than color, nothing was said about ladies’ hats in terms of size and style. This is where March and assistant costume designer Susanne Maroske had some fun.

“The Ascot scene is fraught with the women trying to outdo each other with their haute couture and outrageous hats,” March said. “We’re going all-out for that one.”

“All-out” means really big hats, some 3 feet tall or 3 feet wide, March notes. 

“We decided in an early design meeting that the Ascot number could be a bit surreal and a fantasy,” March said. “The entire sequence is a pretty wild departure from what’s expected. It’s a big eye-opener in the middle of the show and the point where we really turn up the volume.”

The Ascot sequence is almost immediately followed by the formal ball, which has an entirely different air. March dresses the members of London society in elegant, dark jewel tones to mirror their economic levels. Eliza emerges dressed in virginal white, a stark contrast in color and tone to the others. 

The importance of costuming in these two sequences demonstrates the importance of couture — haute and otherwise — in the execution of the show, March said.

“In some shows, the costumes can be more important than other things based on the nature of the action,” March said. “In this show, costumes are particularly front and center due to the class divisions that we need to showcase and define.”

March bridles when those in the fashion world look askance at theatrical costumes as second-class. 

“Theatrical costuming is kicked around in the fashion world like an ugly step-sister and that’s ridiculous,” March said. “Costumes go a step further than fashion in that they define the people and the characters they play. And unlike other technical aspects, that’s a distinct step further in defining those characters beyond the playwright’s words.”

On Stage

Skylight Music Theatre’ production of My Fair Lady runs Nov. 20 to Dec. 27 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. For tickets, call 414-291-7800 or visit skylightmusictheatre.org.