Theater

Alive and Well, “My Fair Lady” Still Gives Audiences What They Crave

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When George Bernard Shaw wrote a fairy tale, he generally made a firm point of altering its circumstances so that it would not have a fairy-tale ending. Thus, when he invented the story of a prominent phonetics professor who teaches a plucky Cockney flower-peddler how to pass herself off as a lady, you may be sure that he was convinced they would not fall in love and wind up in a romantic clinch. Though he declared repeatedly that he never knew, when he started a play, exactly how it would end, it’s a hundred percent certain that he expected Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins would ultimately go their separate ways. He even wrote a long narrative prose sequel to Pygmalion (1913) to prove that they did so: Eliza marries Freddy Eynsford-Hill and they start a flower shop, which Eliza’s canny business sense and learning capacity rescue from disaster.

Shaw was nearly alone in finding that a satisfactory conclusion. These days, hardly anyone except Shavian scholars and GBS addicts like myself even knows it exists. For all the power with which Shaw drew his characters, the pressure of audiences’ desire for a happy ending to the Cinderella myth that underlies Pygmalion’s story was too great. His original Higgins and Eliza, Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, drove him crazy by inventing stage business to counteract Higgins’s final, airy “Goodbye.” When Shaw finally allowed the play to be filmed in 1938, its star, Leslie Howard, and director, Anthony Asquith, concocted an alternate ending, in which Eliza comes back. Shaw approved it because they hadn’t materially altered the text (they used lines from earlier in his script) and had left the moment ambiguous: no romantic clinch. Still, he complained bitterly, even while banking his royalties and accepting an Oscar for the screenplay.

And then came My Fair Lady (1956), which uses the movie’s ending — with a big upsurge of romantic underscoring from the orchestra — and has left Pygmalion far behind in terms of worldwide popularity. (The original play, however, remains one of Shaw’s most frequently revived: Bedlam staged it Off-Broadway just last month.) The public’s love for a happy ending is hard to fight. The Viennese critic Egon Friedell once said that it was very clever of Shaw to sugarcoat the bitter pill of his philosophy with comedy to make audiences swallow it, but that “it was even cleverer of his audiences to lick off the sugar and leave the pill alone.”

Not that My Fair Lady, now lavishly revived at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre, is free of the many serious flavorings that Shaw packed into his romantic comedy of diction and class distinctions. The script of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical is at least two-thirds unadulterated Shaw, and its greatest achievement may be that, when it moves from Shaw to Lerner, the shift virtually never jars on you — that’s how good Lerner’s lyrics and dialogue emendations are. And Loewe’s music has the infuriating capacity of Viennese operetta composers to create what, thanks to the Germans, we have learned to call “ear-worms”: tunes that, once heard, are extremely difficult to get out of your head.

To make comedy of class disparities in language was nothing new. Shaw’s immediate inspiration was probably Georges Feydeau’s The Lady From Maxim’s (1899), in which a respectable doctor, through the farcical circumstances typical of Feydeau, is forced to present a vulgar dance-hall girl as his wife at an ultra-stuffy provincial wedding, explaining away the coarse expressions she uses as “the latest small talk” from Paris. The inheritance from this in Eliza’s encounter with Mrs. Higgins and the Eynsford-Hills is obvious, but Feydeau had nothing like Shaw’s analytic powers. He was content to get laughs from the collision of dance-hall girl and doctor, and at the end leave each of them where they had started. Shaw proceeds differently: Eliza’s arrival at Mrs. Higgins’s tea (her box at Ascot in the musical) is not the product of awkward coincidences but a concerted plan on Henry’s part. And the comically embarrassing effect of her talk on her listeners is not the work’s substance but merely an interim stage in the larger event evolving between Higgins and Eliza. He, taking her up as a challenge, becomes progressively more involved with (and in some ways dependent on) her abilities; she, having learned from him how to escape the life of poverty she was born into, becomes progressively more her own woman. Higgins, the mother-indulged solipsist who has seen other people chiefly as scientific subject matter, discovers — too late, in Shaw’s view — that another person can be important to him. Eliza, who has struggled out from under domination by others, discovers that independence offers her new roles and possibilities. When Higgins tries to claim credit for her self-discovery, she simply says goodbye.

Shaw based Higgins on a prominent, and notoriously eccentric, linguistic scholar of his day, Henry Sweet (1845–1912). (That Shaw first offered the play for production the year after Sweet’s death is probably not a coincidence.) But it’s also possible to see, in Higgins’s thorny interactions with his mother, glimpses of Shaw’s complex relations with his own mother, by all accounts a remarkable figure. A strong-minded woman who was still careful to observe the proprieties, she might well have been driven to despair by a son whose talk and behavior flouted all the established rules. Another unspoken undercurrent is the possibly homosexual relationship of that “pair of old bachelors,” Higgins and Pickering. Shaw was quite aware of this possible reading: The 1938 film’s Pickering, Scott Sunderland, who had created several Shaw roles onstage, was the longtime lover of one of Shaw’s favorite directors, Barry Jackson. (Shaw’s letters to Jackson often end with sentences like “Mrs. Shaw joins me in sending regards to Scott.”)

Bartlett Sher’s lushly designed and largely traditional production catches, for the most part, both the romantic sweep of the musical and the bite of Shaw’s wit. It has, as we’ve come to expect from Sher’s big-ticket musical productions, some fussiness and gratuitous oddities. Michael Yeargan’s set for Higgins’s Wimpole Street house is on a revolve, which Sher uses, in the sequence showing Eliza’s diction lessons, like a child with a new toy, having the servants in the “Poor Professor Higgins” sections dash through the house while it spins. (They get rather over-busy during “You Did It,” too, sometimes stealing focus from Higgins and Pickering.) In contrast, the costers at Covent Garden market don’t seem to have anything to do except hang about and sing along with Eliza. The chorus has been heavily drilled to pronounce “Ascot” as “Askit,” which I suppose makes the song the “Askit Gavitte” instead of the “Ascot Gavotte,” and Catherine Zuber’s all-white costumes for the Ascot scene don’t make anything like the unforgettable visual coup of Cecil Beaton’s black-and-white outfits for the original. Most of Zuber’s work, however, is suitably elegant, and Diana Rigg’s Mrs. Higgins is the first I can recall to look like a handsomely dressed upper-class human female instead of a fashion-magazine illustration.

That Rigg’s performance is equally fine goes without saying. The show is generally well cast, and everyone falls smoothly into place. Linda Mugleston brings some depth to Mrs. Pearce; Jordan Donica has the strong voice and strong profile, which are all that Freddy Eynsford-Hill demands; and Allan Corduner’s Pickering, scuttling about, adds an intriguing touch of busybody to the role. The leads, curiously, all have a slightly inhibited air of self-consciousness, as if Sher had tried hard to make them uncomfortable with the simple truth underlying their roles. Norbert Leo Butz, especially when singing, seems to be willing himself into the coarseness that should come naturally to Doolittle (and has to Butz in similar roles). Harry Hadden-Paton, personable and articulate, makes Higgins almost frenetic in the early scenes. And Lauren Ambrose, in the first act, seems to be searching among many possible ways to play Eliza.

She finds one, though: Her second act is a glorious piece of smooth sailing, in which her scenes with Higgins and with Freddy lift the show to the masterful heights where this paradoxical blend of sardonic Shaw and operetta romance was designed to live. Even Sher’s final oddity — a Deconstructionist gesture in which Eliza ascends out of the play into, presumably, a higher feminist consciousness — can’t kill the emotional electricity the last scenes have built up. (Footnote: I suspect that Sher derived this curious final bit of staging from Ingmar Bergman’s production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in which Nora left the stage and slammed the auditorium door behind her, escaping the naturalistic theater as well as her marriage. But Eliza isn’t trapped and doesn’t need to escape.) As Shaw understood when he let the 1938 movie ending get by, the ending the audience desires lurks deep in both My Fair Lady and its source.

My Fair Lady
Lincoln Center, Vivian Beaumont Theater
150 West 65th Street
212-239-6200
myfairladybway.com
Open run

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