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When Dame Julie Andrews asked Christopher Gattelli to choreograph the 60th anniversary production of Lerner and Loewe’s musical My Fair Lady, which she was to direct at the Sydney Opera House, he was so excited he couldn’t believe his bloomin’ luck.
“Oh my God! It was one of the top three highlights of my career,” says the Tony Award-winning choreographer from New York.
“I had worked with Julie before on a production here in the States called The Great American Mousical. It’s based on a book that she and her daughter wrote. That was turned into a musical so I met her on that and we got along great. And so when she asked me to do My Fair Lady with her, that was too good to be true.”
Andrews, of course, was the original Eliza Doolittle in the 1956 Broadway production and wanted to essentially recreate that version so that audiences could experience the show pretty much as it was when it was first staged.
Produced by Opera Australia and John Frost, the production featured Oliver Smith’s original set design, with some additions including a car, and Cecil Beaton’s legendary costumes. Gattelli was brought on board to choreograph. The original dance numbers were staged by Hanya Holm, who choreographed 12 Broadway shows including Kiss Me Kate and Camelot.
Andrews’ 60th anniversary revival opened in September 2016 and was a smash hit, selling more tickets than any other show in the history of the Sydney Opera House. It returned this year for a national tour and is currently playing in Melbourne before winding up with a return Sydney season at the Capitol Theatre.
Gattelli, who won a Tony Award for his athletic choreography on the Disney musical Newsies, had worked at the Opera House before, choreographing South Pacific there (another Opera Australia/John Frost co-production) for director Bartlett Sher in 2012. The Limelight review described his work on South Pacific as “terrific, always stemming from character and dramatic situation and never falling back on dance for dancing’s sake.”
Gattelli also choreographed a revival of The King And I for Sher on Broadway in 2015. More recently, he worked on the Broadway musical War Paint about rival cosmetic queens Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. And in the northern spring, he tells Limelight, he is to choreograph another production of My Fair Lady in the US. Asked if Andrews is involved, he is evasive saying: “We’re not sure yet.”
Gattelli admits he hadn’t anticipated working on so many revivals. “But I have grown to love looking back at these classics and having that challenge where you have to honour what people remember and what they love about them yet put your own stamp on them.”
“My Fair Lady was the perfect example of that. I had never seen it before, other than the movie. I had never seen it on stage and I didn’t really know it, so to jump onto it with Julie and all of her knowledge and her history – it was an experience I will never forget. I understand now why it is considered a masterpiece,” he says.
“It was great on a bunch of levels because Julie knew the show so well and there were key moments that she knew she wanted to retain and preserve but Hanya’s work wasn’t as clearly documented as the rest of the show.
So I [tried] to honour Hanya in ways that I felt upheld her vision and kept the show as people knew it, but there was enough creative license for me to have a new pass at it, which was great.”
The Sydney Morning Herald praised his creation of “marvellous stage pictures in the almost still life of Ascot Gavotte” and “the joyous movement of Get Me To The Church On Time,” while Limelight, in a four-and-a-half star review, appladed the way he “resisted the temptation to soup up the dance numbers”.
The dancing ranges from a mad tango when Eliza finally masters The Rain in Spain to the rollicking Get Me To The Church On Time. “The cast was incredibly helpful in putting it all together, wanting to do a great job personally, for us, and for the show. They were just fearless. We went to them with every idea and they contributed so much,” says Gattelli.
“Get Me To The Church on Time – putting that together with them in the [rehearsal] room was wonderful – it’s one of the highlights of my career so far. Having had such a joyous time in the rehearsal room, and such a collaborative process, I feel that what the audience gets is that feeling of joy that we had when we were putting it together. The cast captures it so well. It’s sheer joy coming off the stage. It’s really special.”
My Fair Lady plays at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, August 24 – September 24