Lincoln Center’s sumptuous fourth Broadway revival of “My Fair Lady,” the supremely tuneful and witty 1956 Lerner and Lowe musical adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s pointed 1913 play “Pygmalion,” features a revelation and a looming question for those who know the musical.
The revelation is Lauren Ambrose as Eliza Doolittle, and the question is: Does the story still work if we see no romantic feelings develop between Eliza and Henry Higgins, her bullying speech teacher?
Ambrose, still best known as the oddball art student daughter in the HBO series Six Feet Under, turns out to have a beautiful soprano voice. She also starts off as an impressively off-putting Eliza, a lowborn feral street vendor with a grimy basket of flowers whose dense Cockney bleating and sniveling manner grate on highborn Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton,) who happens to encounter her outside the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.
Under Higgins’ tutelage, Eliza slowly and magnificently blossoms into a graceful, intelligent and independent woman. There is no question that at first Higgins has no interest in her, as a woman or even as a human being; he actively disdains her. He simply wants to win a bet he made with fellow linguist Pickering (Allan Corduner) that, merely by teaching her proper English pronunciation, he can pass off “this draggle-tailed guttersnipe” as a duchess at the Embassy Ball in six months’ time. It’s a nice touch that during their tutoring sessions, Higgins wears a white lab coat, as if he’s the scientist and she’s his experiment.
What happens in many productions of “My Fair Lady” is that Eliza grows fond of Higgins:
I’ll never know
what made it so exciting;
why all at once
my heart took flight.
I only know when he
began to dance with me,
I could have danced, danced, danced all night
And, although it takes longer and it’s against his nature, Higgins grows fond of Eliza:
I was serenely independent and content before we met; surely I could always be that way again—
I’ve grown accustomed to her looks; accustomed to her voice: accustomed to her face.
And then this usually leads to an ambiguous ending, which offers the audience hope that perhaps they will get together.
However, in this production directed by Bartlett Sher, a wordless action makes the ending unambiguous – they will not get together – and, despite the lyrics to “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” the actors make clear all along that there’s no amorous spark between them.
This might baffle or irk some devotees of this Golden Age musical, but it’s important to note that Alan Jay Lerner’s book and lyrics changed Shaw’s original intent. The playwright explicitly abhorred the notion that Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle would become romantically inclined. “Eliza has no use for the foolish romantic tradition that all women love to be mastered…,” wrote Shaw, a socialist and a pioneering advocate for women’s equality, in an epilogue to the published play, explaining at great length what happens to Eliza in the years after the play ends. And Henry Higgins, the “confirmed bachelor” of Shaw’s imagination, seems too immature to be able to love anybody.
So Sher’s adjustment is not an act of revisionism but of restoration, which happens to fit the values of a 2018 New York audience more comfortably than the original adaptation from the 1950s. Shaw’s pointed comments on class and gender are now brought more to the fore. It registers when Eliza says things like: “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.”
However one judges the director’s unfamiliar shift in the inner life of the characters, his treatment of the outer life of the musical is familiar from his previous acclaimed Lincoln Center revivals of “South Pacific” and “The King and I.” Sher’s “My Fair Lady” is an elaborate affair, featuring several stellar performances, the 15 songs (every single one of them memorable) lavishly backed by a 28-piece orchestra, and a lush design by his usual collaborators, especially scenic designer Michael Yeargan and costume designer Catherine Zuber. Zuber is likely up for her 16th Tony nomination for outfits that are not only lovely and period-perfect; they also often clarify the moment and enhance the tone. I’ve already mentioned the white coat. When Higgins brings nervous Eliza to Ascot to test-run her newfound upper class manner, she is saddled with a fashionable, ridiculously unwieldy hat that looks in danger of toppling to the ground, and bringing her with it.
Yeargan’s sets, which effortlessly roll off and on the immense stage of the Vivian Beaumont, can take your breath away. Sometimes, though, they take up all the oxygen. The study in Higgins’ mansion is solid, wood-lined, book-lined, two-tiered, awesome. It’s also on a turntable that rotates to reveal other rooms besides the study in Higgins mansion, which Eliza walks through as she’s singing. Admittedly impressive, this didn’t especially add anything – yes, we figured the mansion had more than one room.
Similarly, Christopher Gatelli’s choreography is lively throughout, as it was in Sher’s “King and I” and in “Newsies,” which won Gatelli a Tony. But then there’s the number, “Get Me to the Church on Time,” in which Eliza’s father Alfred P. Doolittle (the always reliable Norbert Leo Butz) has turned against his will from low class loafer to respectable member of the middle class, and is celebrating before his girlfriend is forcing him to marry her the next day. Among the high-kicking ensemble of drunken rowdy celebrants are a music hall full of can-can girls, most of them bearded men in drag. I mean…..what?
I suspect these occasional excesses are intended to bypass our cultural cerebrum to massage our theatrical limbic system, or even burrow into our Broadway brain stem.
This may help explain why, despite the director’s intellectual commitment to keep the relationship unromantic, Sher cast as Higgins an actor who on the surface seems to be more of a match for Ambrose’s Eliza than 48-year-old Rex Harrison was to 20-year-old Julie Andrews when the original production of “My Fair Lady” opened on Broadway. Harry Hadden-Paton is not only close in age to Lauren Ambrose; he is actually three years younger than she is.
Luckily, audience members at “My Fair Lady” have more straightforward outlets for any romantic yearnings. This includes stand-out Jordan Donica as Freddy, who we’re meant to see as a more apt match for Eliza; he is certainly swoon-worthy when he sings the outright romantic ballad “On the Street Where You Live.”
And then there’s Dame Diana Rigg as Mrs. Higgins, Henry’s mother, who is on a whole other level of swoon-worthy. She not only lands every one of her witty lines with seeming ease. Her very presence romantically evokes different memories for different generations — the impossibly mod spy Emma Peel from “The Avengers,” the scheming Lady Olenna Tyrell from “Game of Thrones,” or even, for those who saw her on stage in London, a certain Cockney flower girl who becomes a lady.
My Fair Lady
Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater
Book by Alan Jay Lerner; Music by Frederick Loewe; Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; Adapted from “Pygmalion” by: George Bernard Shaw; Original musical arrangements by Robert Russell Bennett and Phil Lang; Dance arrangements by Trude Rittmann; Musical Director: Ted Sperling
Directed by Bartlett Sher; Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli
Scenic Design by Michael Yeargan; Costume Design by Catherine Zuber; Lighting Design by Donald Holder; Sound Design by Marc Salzberg; Hair and Wig Design by Tom Watson
Cast Lauren Ambrose, Harry Hadden-Paton, Norbert Leo Butz, Diana Rigg, Allan Corduner, Jordan Donica, Linda Mugleston, Manu Narayan, Cameron Adams, Shereen Ahmed, Kerstin Anderson, Heather Botts, John Treacy Egan, Rebecca Eichenberger, SuEllen Estey, Christopher Faison, Steven Trumon Gray, Adam Grupper, Michael Halling, Joe Hart, Sasha Hutchings, Kate Marilley, Liz McCartney, Justin Lee Miller, Rommel Pierre O’Choa, Keven Quillon, JoAnna Rhinehart, Tony Roach, Lance Roberts, Blair Ross, Christine Cornish Smith, Paul Slade Smith, Samantha Sturm, Matt Wall, Michael Williams, Minami Yusui and Lee Zarret
Running time: 2 hrs. and 55 min including one intermission