Best Seat In The House: Class, sex, and race in the spotlight in ‘My Fair Lady’ at Rochester Broadway Theatre League

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — It’s been called the most beloved musical of all time.

My Fair Lady transports audiences to the streets of London, England at the start of the 20th century, when a young flower seller with a thick cockney accent meets a well-to-do linguistics professor who is determined to refine her, so he makes her his project.

This production takes a fresh look at the relationships between the classes and the sexes.

"Historically it’s been a fairly romantic plot,” said actor Sam Simahk, who plays leading man Freddy Eynsford-Hill. “But I think that the idea that a man can create a woman out of nothing is a fairly problematic way of thinking in the 21st century, and I think this production does a good job of nailing in that point."

Simahk hopes audiences develop a soft spot for his charming, persistent character.

"He’s young, he’s naïve, he’s impressionable, he really believes in himself,” said Simahk. "People will hopefully leave the show being ‘oh Freddy,’ you know, and it’s a fun character to play, sort of a loveable… sort of a puppy of a man."

He sings one of the most recognizable male songs in all of Broadway history: “On The Street Where You Live.”

"So many people have covered it famously, including Frank Sinatra, so there’s a certain amount of pressure that comes with that sort of thing,” said Simahk. “It’s this iconic song that’s one of these enormous hits for musical theatre of the 20th century."

This golden age musical by Lerner and Loewe (Brigadoon 1947, Camelot 1960), has been consistently produced ever since it debuted on Broadway in 1956 starring Julie Andrews as leading lady Eliza Doolitte. The next year, it won six Tony awards including Best Musical.

Since its original production, there have been five Broadway revivals and United States tours which is rare, even for the most successful Broadway shows. You might also remember the acclaimed 1964 film adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison.

Even if you aren’t familiar with the musical, you might know the story. It’s based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play, Pygmalion, which also served as inspiration for the 1990 Julia Roberts film Pretty Woman.

The production currently onstage at the Rochester Broadway Theatre League’s Auditorium Theatre comes to us from the world-renowned Lincoln Center Theater in New York City.

"When you see a Lincoln Center Theater production, you’re going to see the spectacle that you expect from musical theatre, but with a certain amount of class and style," said Simahk, who also toured with LCT’s production of The King And I.

Director Bartlett Sher’s interpretation ushers an ageless classic into new era – challenging societal expectations, redefining what it means to have class, examining relationships between people of different socio-economic backgrounds, and halting a longstanding pattern of casting white actors in leading roles.

Simahk is Asian American, taking on a role that is typically played by a white actor.

"I never assumed that I would be playing a role like Freddy Eynsford-Hill,” said Simahk. “A lot of things have changed since then in the industry to promote diversity onstage and to increase work opportunities for everybody, and not just the people who look the way you would expect from, you know, a show that takes place in 1912 in London."

Actor Shereen Ahmed, whose boisterous character Eliza Doolittle is at the heart of the show, is another example. She is an Egyptian American recognized for being one of 40 Under 40 most accomplished Arab Americans in the United States, playing a role that is historically cast white.

"It takes some baby steps here and there, but in the end, we do move toward progress, and I’m very grateful for that," said Simahk.

My Fair Lady is onstage at Rochester’s Auditorium Theatre through Sunday, February 27. It’s about 3 hours and 15 minutes long with intermission, and it’s appropriate for children age 8 and up.

You will be asked to show proof of vaccination when you arrive, and masks are still required inside the building. Buy tickets here.