Trevor Nunn, it would appear, can do no wrong. Following his hugely successful reworking of Oklahoma! a couple of years ago, he set himself the task of staging one of the UK’s favorite musical tales, the Lerner & Loewe classic My Fair Lady, which opened to raves earlier this year at the National’s Lyttleton and has since transferred to the West End. Resisting the current trend toward ever more technically complex shows, he has stayed faithful to his assertion that all good musicals are really just plays with music, and has managed to upstage almost every other West End show in the process. While this may strike the technically minded outsider as a restrictive message, the designers working on My Fair Lady in London were glad to be associated with a director whose primary concern was the story itself.

Trevor always approaches a new show as a play—he’s a textual director," explains the National’s resident sound designer Paul Groothuis, "And since he’s concentrating on directing the words, everything around them has to be neat and tidy—whether it's the set, the lighting, or the sound."

The casting of former Eastenders TV soap star Martine McCutcheon as Eliza appeared to be an inspired move—drawing a younger audience to the theatre and bringing a genuine Cockney accent to the part. Ironically, though, McCutcheon’s prolonged period of illness (she suffered from flu, later performing to rave reviews but succumbing to a throat infection, sinusitis, and blood-clotting, for which she was briefly hospitalized) has enabled a new star to shine. Eighteen-year-old understudy Alexandra Jay, fresh out of drama school, has received nightly standing ovations. (Dennis Waterman plays Eliza’s father and Jonathan Pryce is Henry Higgins.) Jay’s only fault, according to Groothuis, is that she wears her hats at a different angle to McCutcheon—with surprisingly audible effect.

Groothuis, who, along with associate designer Colin Pink put together the show’s audio specification, asked Autograph Sound Recording to provide the equipment—partly to relieve pressure on the National’s in-house inventory, but also because of the impending transfer into the West End. All the equipment, from the Sennheiser UHF radio mic racks to the power amplification and communications gear, was racked up offsite and installed in and around the Lyttleton Theatre by Autograph. Groothuis says the installation went remarkably smoothly, with just a couple of overnight lineup sessions in which to get the system tweaked. "We always do it at night, as it’s the only time we can have real silence," he notes. "Unfortunately, even though people try to saw things or [vacuum] quietly, it doesn’t quite work during the daytime."

While the audio requirements are fairly straightforward for a show of this size, the system topology is complicated, Groothuis says. "What’s made it complex is a lack of space. We are stuck with a limited area for mixing, which means that we can only take out a few seats. Because of this, we have used a smaller Cadac console than we really need and have added two Yamaha digital mixers to save space." The main board, a brand-new, single-frame Cadac J-Type, has been diverted on its way to a permanent home in the National’s Olivier Theatre to cover the three–month run in the Lyttleton. Its 39 dual mono inputs and six stereos are kept fully occupied, handling the show’s extensive radio mic setup, as well as the orchestra’s string section. Other acoustic instruments are routed via a Yamaha 02R, which, says Groothuis, has shown the audio team the difference between analog and digital sound. "With acoustic instruments, you miss the mellowness of an analog circuit," he explains. "It’s similar to the problems that studios had when they started working with digital multitracks—they didn’t have the ‘analog-ness’ of the older system. It’s not even a measurable thing, but it does make me wonder about the bigger digital consoles—and I certainly wouldn’t use them side by side again."

The show’s radio mic system, under the watchful ears of Jo Wredden and Scott Carter, is based on DPA 4060 capsules and Sennheiser SK50 transmitters. Groothuis says the distinctly un-technical feel of the show has led him to approach microphones slightly differently. "The challenge has been to hide the mics properly," he notes. "In a theatre where the front row is very close to the stage, it’s very irritating to see the capsules and cables." Because of this, he has stipulated that, when cast members are not actually using the mics, they be removed—still on their bodies but dropped out of sight. "It’s a visual thing, a pain in the neck, but this production has to look right."

The vocal reinforcement system (driven almost independently from the band and effects feeds) is almost exclusively D&B—a center cluster of C9 and C6 enclosures for the stalls and circle, with JBL Control 1s as low-level front fills and delays at each level. Unusually, Groothuis has employed a left-right system specifically for vocal reverb. "We’ve put some [D&B] E3 speakers into the proscenium; I’ve always wanted to use stereo vocal reverb to widen the voices, but without damaging the image."

The emphasis on the show’s textual content means that its musical moments have to blend perfectly with the spoken word, which requires a level of finesse not commonly found in high-power commercial musicals. In this case, Groothuis and his team have exceeded themselves. Rarely has orchestral sound been more discreetly done—to the point where the band has been relocated to a purpose-built upstage room and is fed through proscenium speakers without any acoustic spill whatsoever. Despite appearing to be the ideal ‘band in a box’, this is not, says Groothuis’ associate designer Colin Pink, an ideal situation. "In the Lyttleton Theatre, if we want an orchestra pit, we have to take 4' off the front of the stage and lose audience seats as well," he explains. "Trevor wanted to keep the setting line downstage of the proscenium, so the orchestra had to be moved. We would have liked to have them playing just upstage of the rear cyc so that we could use some of their acoustic sound, but the show requires a serious back-projection screen, which blocks almost all sound." Undeterred, the audio team commissioned a full-scale wooden band room, complete with safety doors, lighting, and video foldback and set to work designing a system that would cope with a fully amplified orchestra.

"Ironically, for many shows, this wouldn’t matter," explains Groothuis, "but My Fair Lady is played almost completely acoustically, so it’s the worst possible type of music to hear coming out of speakers." In some ways, the controlled and very polished mix is too{IT} good: Audiences are left wondering whether the band is live or recorded until the final curtain call. In order to try to replace some of the usual pit energy, Groothuis’ design for the main band system, which consists of four Meyer Sound MSL-2s, one Meyer USW-1, and an in-house EV 2 x 18" sub per side, is supplemented by a quartet of D&B E3 compact enclosures concealed along the stage front. Not ideal, he admits, but enough to provide some localized imaging for the front few rows.

Back to the Garden

Fortunately, My Fair Lady was only scheduled for a three–month run at the National Theatre’s base on the south bank of the Thames. Because of the repertory timetable at the Lyttleton, a second home was required to extend the show’s run; several West End receiving theatres were considered before the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane became available. Not only does the venue offer a full-size orchestra pit, but, in a peculiar twist of fate, the theatre is within a stone’s throw of Covent Garden, where much of My Fair Lady is set.

The preservation (and in some areas, complete sympathetic reconstruction) of much of Covent Garden’s old fruit and vegetable market provided designer Anthony Ward with a vital link to the past. Though the story is set in 1910, the dominating architectural influence was mid-Victorian, epitomized by Covent Garden’s Floral Hall, which has recently been reborn as part of London’s Royal Opera House. The opening scene finds Eliza Doolittle selling flowers under its wrought-iron arches, which provided a very strong starting point for Ward and his team. "This period was all about elegance," explains Ward, "and the Floral Hall is becoming a well-known landmark. I was obsessed by this structure; we researched the architecture every carefully, even debating whether the supporting columns should be tapered, but I am totally happy with the result." The steel frame, which was constructed by theatrical engineering firm Weldfab, provides a skeleton around which every scene is based. The Covent Garden setting requires little else but props; however, Ward was challenged by the requirements for Professor Higgins’ study. This is a large interior, which would have been an obvious application for a conventional box set, but theatre design is rarely that simple. "Trevor wanted the study set to be very real—it had to have a feeling of great solidity and permanence about it," the designer explains. "The one difficulty with this is that the set comes in and out five times during the show!" Ward’s solution was to build a series of panels to slot between the framework of the steel arches; though still visible, the columns and spans become an integral part of the interior of Higgins’ Victorian home.

Ward’s designs for costumes caused some consternation among critics, who were skeptical about the use of black gowns and hats for the Ascot Races, normally a colorful highlight of the British fashion calendar. "I couldn’t believe that they thought this was wrong," says Ward. "I had researched this extensively, and in fact, in the year when the musical is set, the King had just died—as a mark of respect and mourning, everyone appeared at Ascot wearing black." The black Ascot theme allowed Ward to work a monochrome element into the scene, which he says shows the Edwardian sense of style to its best advantage.

The Ascot scene, coupled with the almost filmic realism of Higgins’ study, have led audiences and critics to comment on the similarities between this production and the 1964 movie, which was designed by Cecil Beaton. "Beaton’s designs were the biggest factor in the success of the film," Ward says. "The foggy London scenes, Ascot, the ball gowns—he wanted style, style, style. I remember Eliza’s fabulous white dress for the ball scene, and I knew that white was right. My problem was how to design a white dress differently; in the end, I used modern designers like Yves St Laurent as an inspiration."

Ward, however, does not feel trapped by the movie. "Trevor would never copy a previous work, but if you are working in this period, there will be a certain elegance and a strong look. There are many techniques that can be used in theatre that would never work on film, and of course we have our own constraints, too."

Loverly Lighting

Lighting design for the production came from David Hersey, who had no problem working under extreme time pressure with Nunn. "We have worked a lot together," he says," and we’ve developed a sort of design shorthand. He’s an extremely good director and I only need to watch his rehearsals to get an understanding of my brief. We don’t spend long hours agonizing over decisions."

The show’s flying requirements, and the solidity of the study set, provided Hersey with an interesting and very fundamental puzzle—how to get light onto a stage through a series of obstructions. "A lot of the design was determined by the physical limitations of the set," he says, "We only had 16" deep plotting positions, for example, and because of the height of the set, the lighting bars all trim at between 35’ and 38’ from the stage. For much of the set, I used a combination of DHA Digital Light Curtains and Vari*lite VL6s to get coherent light." Hersey also added two up/downstage trusses, which required scenery legs and portals to be ‘notched’ to permit a slightly lower trim height. Finally, a set of pivoting booms was fabricated, which allow two alternate configurations depending on the state of the stage. These are swung in and out by the show automation system during scene changes, and provide much needed side lighting.

While most of the lighting stock for the run at the National was sourced internally, Hersey also took the opportunity to provide the theatre with some upgrades; "For this set, it’s critical to be able to zoom, so the stock of VL6s was upgraded to VL6Bs. Also, we experimented with some VL7s to see if we could produce a more realistic rain effect." This involved machining the luminaire’s gobo wheel hub to allow both continuous and conventional rain gobos to be run simultaneously. Another modification was required for a key indoor lighting effect. "The curtains in Higgins’ study are a metaphor for the theatre tabs," explained Hersey; "the usual technique when someone opens curtains onstage is to fade a gobo up, but this is totally unrealistic." The solution, which is now being marketed by DHA Lighting as the YoYo-II, involves a system that allows glass gobos to be move horizontally and vertically into the beam of a ETC Source Four 19° lamp, producing the required "moving shadow" effect on a large scale. Four such lights were used on My Fair Lady. White Light and The Moving Light Company supplied lighting equipment for the production's transfer to the West End, including ETC Source Four profile spots, PAR cans, Wybron CXI color changers, Rainbow color scrollers, Iris-4 floodlights, and VSFX projectors and effects.

The show’s residence at the Theatre Royal [IS THIS THE OLD OR THE NEW VENUE?]will bring back memories to long-term theatregoers, for it was here that the original 1958 transfer from Broadway broke all box-office records, years before the movie established the musical as one of the best-loved tales ever told. With the runaway success of the National run and bookings already backed up for months at Drury Lane, it seems that, with or without its big-name leading lady, will repeat the success. Wiv a little bit’a luck, of course.