Early Stages
In our new series, Early Stages, where we ask people to share their earliest theatrical experiences, KEVIN COXHEAD tells how his love of the theatre began, significantly his love of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady.

I’d been to a couple of pantomimes at the Tivoli in Melbourne which I remember thoroughly enjoying at the age of eight or so, The Wizard of Oz in 1963 with Patti McGrath being the most memorable. But my first introduction to legitimate theatre came in 1970 with the J.C. Williamson revival of My Fair Lady at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne when I was thirteen. From the first chords of the overture I knew I was in for something really special.

When the show-curtain scrim dissolved, revealing the chorus dressed in their Cecil Beaton opera cloaks and dinner suits against Oliver Smith’s superb Covent Garden set, I heard an audience applaud something visual for the first time. I found this incredibly exciting and the same excitement followed on the Ascot scene reveal, again to Beaton’s breathtaking costumes, and again to Eliza’s appearance at the top of the stairs in Higgins’ study in her white ball-gown before leaving for the Embassy Ball. The first time I had heard an audience applaud an actual costume. I knew this was something special, and that feeling of excitement would remain special every time I experienced that sound, since. The absolute wonder of watching the wonderfully theatrical onstage transitions from the Tenement set to Higgins’ study and from the study into the The Embassy Promenade set. It all certainly worked its magic on this very impressionable boy, even more so when the set transitioned into The Embassy Ballroom with its twin revolves swinging columns and stairs archways and windows into position, the four layers of chandeliers dropping in and finally the ballroom dome coming down, all while the orchestra played The Embassy Waltz.

It was also my introduction to JCW, something which would be a lifelong fascination for me. I would study the programme religiously, reading every biography and every technical credit over and over. Only a couple of years later I found a little pile of old theatre programmes which I snapped up and also read from cover to cover, noting which performers seemed to appear in JCW shows regularly. Chorus members included! Who painted the sets? Who made the costumes? Who were the Stage Managers on the different shows? What were the names featured over and over in the Williamson programmes compared to those in the Garnett Carroll programmes from The Princess Theatre? Occasionally the same names would appear for both production companies. This all fascinated me, no end! Little did I know that in five years I'd be living my dream and dancing on that same stage, working for Williamsons myself.

Jump forward forty-odd years and I would own five of the costumes from the original 1959 production of My Fair Lady which would ultimately be displayed around the country during the 2016-2017 recreation revival of the show for John Frost and Opera Australia. Along with twenty costumes from other JCW productions, they were displayed at theatre giant Sir George Tallis’ home Beleura in Mornington. How do I find these treasures? Well, somehow they tend to find me! My latest acquisition being a steamer trunk which belonged to JCW Musical Director Gabriel Joffe, “G. Joffe. JCW” painted on the side of it. Just something else to carefully restore and add to my collection of, well, unusual, JCW treasures.