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My Fair Lady

Max Savage and Saya Jenks portray Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in the student production of ''My Fair Lady.'' (L.A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

Determined students overcome challenges and breathe new life into a classic musical

With 'My Fair Lady,' Stanford's Asian American Theater Project tackles race and social class in the first student-produced musical theater production in Bing Concert Hall.

Video by Kurt Hickman

"My Fair Lady" is the first student-produced musical in Bing Concert Hall.

Reimaging Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins as part of the British Asian immigrant community in early 20th century London was the first of several challenges for Ken Savage, '14, and Asia Chiao, '15, two students who don't take no for an answer.

It was fall 2012 when they agreed to join forces and stage My Fair Lady, but the kernel of the idea occurred a few months earlier when Savage, then a summer intern at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., found himself arguing with a director about her controversial casting of an Asian Eliza with a white Henry. The debate swirled around British imperialism, race and, ultimately, about how Asians are represented on stage.

Savage didn't win the argument in D.C., but he told himself that someday he would direct a production of My Fair Lady that featured Asians in both the lead roles to address issues of race, language and social class in the musical.

Returning to class in the fall, he shared his intern experience and his idea for an Asian production with Chiao, who quickly offered to be his production partner and costumes designer. As luck would have it, Chiao's favorite musical is My Fair Lady, so the production is a dream project for them both.

Over a year later, 20 actors, 25 production team members and a 15-person student orchestra will twice present My Fair Lady in loverly Bing Concert Hall on Friday, Jan. 31. Tickets for this first-ever musical theater production in the hall are sold out, but a limited number of seats for each performance of the double-header will be available at the door one hour prior to curtain. Prices range from $10-$20.

Challenges and changes

There are the normal challenges with any production – schedules, design concepts, fundraising – but all of that is exacerbated when you have to change venues.

"My original plan was for My Fair Lady to be a mainstage production in Pigott Theater, the small 200-seat theater," Savage said. "From October until December Asia and I hashed out all of the details and laid out the steps necessary to mount this complicated production in that space the following academic year." 

Chiao added, "This show is the largest design challenge that I have ever faced. On one hand, I was competing with one of the most visually iconic shows in all of Broadway history, and on the other hand I was grappling with the task of justifying the world that Ken and I have crafted together for this specific production." 

Savage and Chiao designed a production that explores the British Asian immigrant communities of London in 1912 when Orientalism was in vogue and Asian culture influenced fashion and art. Noting that Asians thrived in both lower and upper classes in England but were discriminated against because of their race, Savage and Chiao decided their production would celebrate ethnic differences but also highlight the tensions within the Asian community and between the Asian and white communities.

"I know that there will be people in the audience who will be extremely skeptical of the Asian London that Ken and I have created," Chiao said. "But my role as the designer is to make this world believable. Early on in the process, I realized that the only way in which I could do that was to draw inspiration from history, and the Asian community that lived in Edwardian London." 

Their vision and design concepts came together with the help of mentors who offered support and guidance from the very beginning. Chiao worked with Connie Strayer in the Department of Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) costume shop and Savage worked with Michael Ramsaur, TAP's head of production, and Ross Williams, the technical director of TAPS.

Research at Oxford

Savage spent winter quarter 2013 at Oxford conducting more research on the musical, while Chiao remained at Stanford designing costumes. They were applying for grants to fund a trip back to London together in the summer for more research. Then, in the spring, they learned that they would not be able to stage their production in Pigott. Savage confessed to being devastated by the news. "By this point Asia and I had spent six months conceptualizing and designing the show and we felt that it was all for nothing," he said.

"Fortunately, my advisers for the project, Harry Elam, Amy Freed, Michael and Ross, believed in our work and felt that the show should be performed at Stanford in a different venue. Then our crazy idea to pursue Bing Concert Hall appeared." 

The production partners went back to their drawing boards to redesign the entire musical for the Bing stage before approaching the executive director of the hall, Wiley Hausam, and his technical team to pitch their show. After additional tweaking, some problem-solving, assurances about raising funds for a larger performance space, plus a determined insistence that the show must go on, the students secured Bing Concert Hall for two performances.

Elam, the vice provost for undergraduate education, credited the salvaging of the musical and his decision to support the production in Bing to Savage's determination and vision. "This project wouldn't have happened without determination like Ken's and I commend his passion as well as his adaptability." Elam said. "Ken has thought  very carefully about messages and how they are conveyed in the staging of this show. Because  he has  been equally committed to the process as to the final product, his cast has truly enjoyed working with him. I look forward to seeing their work."

With their venue dilemma behind them and travel grants approved, Savage and Chiao spent two weeks last summer in London visiting sites mentioned in the musical, discovering Cecil Beaton's costume design portfolio and newspaper clippings from the original Broadway production in 1956, attending the Royal Ascot races in full dress, and exploring costume design at the Victoria and Albert Museum – all in the name of research.

The show was cast in the fall and rehearsals began in October.

"I'm not Rex Harrison."

The actors are bringing their own experiences to the stage and infusing their characters with the authenticity and originality that give the musical new life.

"What I find so exciting about working on this production as Henry Higgins is that I know that I'm not Rex Harrison," said Max Savage, '16, Ken Savage's brother, referring to the Tony Award- and Oscar-winning actor who played Higgins on stage and in the film version.

"I know that I'm a 5-foot 7-inch Filipino/Chinese guy, and as a result, my Henry Higgins is a 5-foot 7-inch Asian guy living in upper-class British society, which at the time only had roughly 1,300 native Chinese people. I've given a lot of thought as to how my race and elevated social status in this musical influence my character's objectives and behavior. Really understanding how these two specific factors work together to color my relationships with the other characters is so crucial to this production."

Lead actress Saya Jenks, '16, playing Eliza Doolittle, said that carrying out the director's vision allowed her to rediscover her own Asian identity, similarly to the way Eliza does in the production. "Instead of shoving the fact that I am half Japanese under the rug in order to get a role, my ethnic background has added depth instead of confusion to this show. Putting our cast's ethnicities in the foreground has forced me to consider how my ideas of what it means to be Asian have been shaped by the musicals I grew up with. I have also had to come face-to-face with the racism against Asians in the musical theater community that I wanted to believe didn't exist."

Jenks added, "I just hope that our audiences actively try to understand why it is important to engage Asians in American theater, and that this production will begin the process of making the experience of seeing Asian casts onstage less alienating."

Summing up his experience even before the first curtain and looking beyond graduation, Savage said, "As the artistic director of Asian American Theater Project, I am proud of this project that celebrates Asian culture in the dramaturgy and design, and that features such incredible Stanford talent. I want to be a theater director after Stanford. I'm one of those crazy people who wants to pursue art professionally and continue creating theater that allows audiences to explore race and culture in exciting new ways.

"It has been a long year and a half working on this huge collaborative piece of theater and I can easily say that this has been my favorite Stanford experience."