It takes Henry Higgins six months to transform Eliza Doolittle from a “draggle-tailed guttersnipe” in “My Fair Lady” to a lady who can pass as a duchess at the Embassy Ball. Now, ten months after the opening of Lincoln Center’s fourth Broadway revival, the musical itself has been transformed, with the replacement of four of the principal roles – especially Laura Benanti as Eliza.
The show of course offers the same sumptuous design, lively choreography, and lush orchestrations, with the 15 songs (every single one of them memorable) lavishly backed by a 28-piece orchestra.
The performances of the original cast members who remain with the show have also deepened with detail, from Harry Hadden-Paton as Henry Higgins and Allan Corduner as his more kindly linguist-in-cahoots Colonel Pickering to Linda Mugleston as Higgins’ subtly exasperated secretary Mrs. Pierce. The production is if anything more deserving of the ten Tony nominations it received, and particularly costume designer Catherine Zuber’s Tony win (her ninth.)
The show’s delicious score is now also, to be frank, better sung. I was surprised and delighted by Lauren Ambrose’s voice, but she was making her Broadway musical debut. Laura Benanti is an extraordinarily accomplished singer, with range and tonality that comes not just from talent but from experience; “My Fair Lady” marks the Tony winning actress’s ninth Broadway musical over two decades.
Above all, Benanti’s interpretation of the role is markedly different – and arguably far more in sync with Barlett Sher’s direction.
As the original Eliza, Ambrose was most in her element as lowborn feral street vendor, sniveling and insecure. When Higgins berated her, she squawked as if injured. When halfway through Higgins’ training, he brought the nervous Eliza to Ascot to test-run her newfound upper class manner, she was saddled with a fashionable, ridiculously unwieldy hat that looked in danger of toppling to the ground, and bringing her with it.
By contrast, Benanti’s Eliza has an inner nobility from the get-go. We see it in her almost regal bearing, even when smudged with dirt, and in the way she talks back to Henry Higgins – when Higgins commands “don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon,” Eliza defiantly…coos. Gone is the toppling hat in that scene at Ascot; this Eliza is too inherently elegant for that. There is instead some quick business with her grasping a parasol with her knees, but the scene is less slapstick now. And later, when Eliza’s outer gracefulness matches what we detected as her inner grace, there is more power behind her observation: “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.”
Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.
Benanti’s approach to the character affects the other characters as well. This is certainly true with the three other characters portrayed by the newcomers. The exquisite Rosemary Harris now portrays Henry Higgins’ mother – the 27th role on Broadway for the 91-year-old actress. When this Mrs. Higgins befriends Eliza, it feels as if she is responding as somebody she sees as an equal – or at least someone with qualities she admires. When Dame Diana Rigg as Mrs. Higgins took Ambrose’s Eliza under her wing, it felt as if she was pitying, or at least taking a kindly interest in, a social inferior.
Similarly, Danny Burstein as Eliza’s father Alfred P. Doolittle seems to treat his daughter like an equal. As Freddy her suitor, Christian Dante White is intensely swoon-worthy when he sings the romantic ballad “On the Street Where You Live.” The previous Freddy was an aristocratic dolt, his upper class imperviousness helping to explain why he would fall for somebody that he didn’t realize was outside his social class. This Freddy seems genuinely tickled by Eliza’s fish-out-of-water antics and her strong character.
Laura Benanti’s independent Eliza removes the question that I felt looming over this production of My Fair Lady when I saw it last April: Does the story still work if, as the director intends, we see no romantic feelings develop between Eliza and Henry Higgins? Yes, it still works.