This review contains spoilers. If you don’t want to know what happens at the end of this new production of My Fair Lady, stop reading now.
The majestic My Fair Lady has been given a #MeToo makeover. Or, more accurately, it has reclaimed the ending that George Bernard Shaw intended for Pygmalion, the play it is based on, in 1913.
This “Go Eliza!” moment comes at the very end of Bartlett Sher’s lushly orchestrated, and beautifully sung and staged production at Lincoln Center. Eliza Doolittle finally leaves Professor Henry Higgins; and she does so with a smile on her face and a mixture of bruised peace, equality, and resignation thrumming between them.
The ending should make you applaud louder for Eliza (a truly transcendent Lauren Ambrose) than Alan Jay Lerner’s original book, which ends with implied coupled contentment for the former flower girl and her queeny abuser Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton), who undertakes a linguistic, style, and personality makeover of her.
The “happy” ending that producers would try to fix to Pygmalion, and which My Fair Lady—originally staged in 1956—enshrined, with Eliza and Higgins together, has been jettisoned.
Higgins, who Hadden-Paton presents at his most sniping, misogynistically vicious in Sher’s production, is the one who will come to regret not taking a lesson in manners. Under Sher’s direction, you do not wish for Eliza and Higgins to be together; you want her to get the hell away from him.
This raises a more fundamental question: even with the corrective ending and its wonderful songs (lyrics by Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe), why stage My Fair Lady in the first place, especially in a year when men’s abusive treatment of women has been so center stage?
It’s not a question resolved by the surprise climax, or the appearance of a group of silent Suffragettes holding “Votes For Women” signs in the ensemble.
Setting cultural politics aside for a moment, the show is a beautifully mounted success. The Ted Sperling-led orchestra is rousing and ferocious, and also smooth and soaring. Designer Michael Yeargan, tasked with filling the huge Vivian Beaumont stage, gives Higgins a beautiful home which advances out towards us from the shadows, a two-story cluttered marvel of books packed on to wooden shelves, and a gramophone. The structure rotates to different parts of the house. It feels a little too far away from us, but it is impressive.
We also have the scene outside Covent Garden at the beginning when flower girl Eliza first makes herself known to Higgins and his more benign accomplice Pickering (Allan Corduner). You can feel the coldness of the night as much as those poor, be-mittened working folk grouped around a warming fire. Donald Holder’s lighting is never more sumptuous than in the light-blue drenching he gives the scene at Ascot racecourse.
It is time to jettison your image of Ambrose as sulky, perennially side-eyeing Claire Fisher in Six Feet Under, for which the actor received two Emmy nominations. She begins the musical speaking convincingly guttural Cockney, and yowls when offended like a cat stepping on hot pins. Higgins immediately condemns this: “A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere.”
Eliza has, he says, “no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech; that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.”
The challenge for Hadden-Paton and Sher is how Higgins should phrase his battery of insults to Eliza, and how we are supposed to receive them. They are supposed to be funny. During the performance this critic attended, some in the audience tittered. Most sat in stony silence. These may have been laugh-lines once. But they are not now.
Of Higgins, Lerner’s character notes state, “The only distinction he makes between men and women is that when he is neither bullying nor exclaiming to the heavens against some feather-weight cross, he coaxes women as a child coaxes its nurse when it wants to get anything out of her.”
Hadden-Paton bravely levels the insults as insults, not waspish, jaded, posh, bitchy backchat. He says them as they are written. When Rex Harrison said them in the 1964 film version, they sounded almost avuncular; Hadden-Paton gives them a truly intemperate, sneering edge.
Higgins decrees that Eliza is a “squashed cabbage leaf” and an “incarnate insult to the English language.” In “Wouldn’t It Be Lovely?” Eliza dreams of “someone’s head restin’ on my knee, warm and tender as he can be.” So, Higgins sees Eliza as a dehumanized object; Eliza is looking for a male safe harbor: the perfect conditions for an abusive relationship.
Indeed, these two fractured people come from two fractured parent-child relationships: one of the less-explained relationship dynamics in My Fair Lady is between Eliza and her father Alfred (a reedy, chaotic, morally ambiguous Norbert Leo Butz), who doesn’t really want to have her around; and Higgins and his mother (Diana Rigg, at her most serene and deadly-dry) who views her son with grimacing disapproval, not least for his treatment of women.
Eliza’s makeover is often posited as a simple bet between Higgins and Pickering, and yes, the men’s wager is over if Higgins can make Eliza over into a seeming duchess at the forthcoming Embassy Ball.
Oft-overlooked is that early on she has her own skin in the game: she wants to be “a lady in a flower shop,” rather than a flower girl herself. She notes immediately that he is treating her “like dirt,” and insists the relationship be transactional: “I know what lessons cost as well as you do; and I’m ready to pay.”
Higgins is not interested in a quid pro quo; he wants to both shape and destroy her. His insults continue: “She’s so deliciously low—so horribly dirty!”, “I’ll make a duchess of this draggle-tailed gutter-snipe!” Violence is airily invoked; Eliza is nothing to him: “Take her away, Mrs. Pearce. If she gives you any trouble, wallop her.” And at the end of all this? “When I’m done with her, we can throw her back into the gutter…”
Higgins addresses and cajoles her as a stupid child, promising and rewarding her with chocolates for good work, and claiming if she refuses the men’s offer it will make her “the most ungrateful, wicked girl; and the angels will weep for you.”
When we meet Eliza’s father, he’s just happy to have her off his hands. “If you have any trouble with her, Governor, give her a few licks of the strap. That’s the way to improve her mind.”
Higgins claims to Pickering he is not sexually interested in Eliza, and that is “a confirmed bachelor” (Higgins’ sexuality isn’t stated)—and perhaps the most notable aspect of Ambrose and Hadden-Paton’s relationship is on stage is that it is comically miserable, as opposed to nervily flirty. In Sher’s production, they are yolked together, but it’s less opposites attract than opposites repel but need each other. She imagines him drowned and being shot in the song “Just You Wait.”
The comedy of teaching Eliza to say “the rain in Spain” is full of bouncy silliness; and then wait for the heart-swelling treat of Ambrose singing, “I Could Have Danced All Night,” with beautiful, honeyed mellifluousness (the best kind of echo of Julie Andrews who originated the role), and yet this song—a declaration of interest in Higgins—sounds and is staged as a dance of autonomy.
There is wonderful comedy when Eliza goes to the races in a first test of her new-found linguistic and social-grace skills; her poshness is tested via a lot of drawled “How are you?”s, and then bawdily broken by her excitement over the horse she has a bet on: “Come on Dover, move your bloomin’ arse.”
Mrs. Higgins recognizes that her son and Picking are “playing with your live doll,” and Eliza acquires a suitor, Freddy (Jordan Donica), who sings that winsome standard outside Higgins’ house, "On The Street Where You Live."
He is as kind and accommodating a love interest as Eliza could wish for, but she isn’t that interested. And Higgins doesn’t appear that jealous.
Catherine Zuber’s flawless costumes reach their zenith in the sparkling, flowing, rippling gown Eliza wears for the Embassy ball. She looks as if she is made of the flecks of sunlight on a still pond.
Eventually, there is a confrontation between them both, with both claiming injury—yet it is only Higgins who is guilty of anything, and he recycles “heartless guttersnipe” as a final insult.
It is significant that in their next songs, Eliza begs Freddy to show her what he means, not sing or say anything to her; and Higgins in “A Hymn To Him,” rails that women are “exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening and infuriating hags.”
In between these songs Harry Doolittle and the ensemble break the tense mood with a riotously executed rendition of “Get Me To The Church On Time”—choreographer Christopher Gattelli has characters keening and dancing off and on table tops, swigging beer from glasses. But listen to the words: this is a song about fatalistically surrendering to inevitable nuptials rather than embracing love.
It would normally follow that Eliza would follow musical and cultural tradition and surrender to the power of the man she calls a “motor bus.”
But Ambrose in her exquisite performance shows us instead an increase in anger and self-command as time goes on; Hadden-Paton folds in on himself just as effectively as the scared and outplayed bully losing his control, who also relishes the flash of anger he sees in Eliza: this sicko claims to love her pugnacious spirit even as he crushes it.
Eliza’s real desire is not for romance but equality and kindness; an equality between social un-equals. In this, Ambrose's accent confused this critic. She keeps her utterly fabricated posh accent even after she and Higgins reach the end of the line; the new Eliza has not much time for the old one, yet would the real Eliza, seeking to escape Higgins’ control, not own her original accent as a sign of rebellion, or combine old and new?
We also have to accept her saying, “I don’t care how you treat me. I don’t mind your swearing at me. I shouldn’t mind a black eye: I’ve had one before this. But I won’t be passed over… I know I’m a common ignorant girl, and you a book-learned gentleman; but I’m not dirt under your feet.”
Eliza’s song, “Without You” is the most cheering thing sung on stage, her own overdue sneering at Higgins’ self-importance and bullying. In response, he sings “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face,” which is the most revealing song in the whole show; a weird mix of attraction, hate, self-reproach, and frustration which sums Higgins up well.
He doesn’t seem to be attracted to Eliza, but he seeks to possess her. This critic wondered if Higgins was not just a bullying snob, but also a screwed-up, closeted man who knows that social norms would dictate he should feel something for Eliza, and instead he only feels fury towards this person he cannot love or possess. Hadden-Paton plays him so well as an opaque ball of nastiness his character can certainly bear the weight of interpretation.
Whatever, it is brave of Sher, Ambrose, and Hadden-Paton to play Eliza and Higgins as fundamentally ill-matched. As this critic left, an elderly-looking woman said to her husband of Higgins, “Why would you want to stay with him? He’s so abusive.”
She’s right, and the production illustrates that prettified abuse for nearly three hours. This is a beautiful, gorgeous-sounding show—and Ambrose deserves a Tony nomination for her performance—but its presence, particularly at this cultural moment, still feels bizarre.
Perhaps My Fair Lady 2018 wants to say something current in its fancy 1913 drag. Its climactic, radical moment is certainly a resounding qualifier, but it cannot cancel out the toxic misogyny—once played for laughs and now to an audience's hostile near-silence—that has preceded it.
My Fair Lady is at Lincoln Center Theater, NYC. Booking to Jan 6, 2019.