Young people today regard Broadway musicals Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen as solid achievements—as well they should, since they have played a role in the success of both. But younger theatergoers shouldn’t pass up a chance to see how high the bar can be set: they should take the chance to see the near-perfect My Fair Lady, one of Broadway’s greatest musicals, now playing in a worthy revival at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. They’ll find that, despite its setting in the London of 1912, its theme has contemporary resonance in today’s #MeToo atmosphere of so-called toxic masculinity.
And they will see a production in which Lauren Ambrose as Eliza and Harry Hadden-Paton as Higgins prove equal to everything the roles demand of them. Ambrose sings beautifully, and Hadden-Paton nicely departs from the tradition created by non-singer Rex Harrison, the original Higgins, by adding melody to his songs. In another departure from past productions—reportedly intended by director Bartlett Sher—the two leads look close in age, which helps us believe in their romantic pairing.
At its core, My Fair Lady is about the taming of a male chauvinist by a woman who is first transformed and dominated by him but who then becomes his equal and caring partner. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, the Broadway musical was adapted posthumously, in defiance of Shaw’s refusal to allow his play to be set to music. Shaw had been adamantly opposed to seeing Pygmalion “degraded into an operetta,” as he once put it. Luckily for the creators of My Fair Lady, after Shaw’s death at 94 in 1950, the playwright’s estate granted the rights to two Broadway professionals—Alan Jay Lerner, a native New Yorker and scion of a wealthy Jewish family, and Frederick Loewe, a half-Jewish immigrant from Berlin. The show opened on Broadway in 1956, marking the centennial of Shaw’s birth.
Had Shaw himself relented about selling the rights and lived to see the result, he might have been pleased, even grateful. Lerner and Lowe provide songs that add immeasurably to the power of the love story, capturing Eliza’s newfound feminist identity and Higgins’s newfound dependence on her. The first song that establishes the “romance” of the story—the word Shaw himself used to describe Pygmalion—is “I Could Have Danced All Night,” sung by Eliza. Earlier, she has shown her fiery nature in “Just You Wait,” in which she secretly conjures up grandiose and adolescent revenge fantasies against the authoritarian Professor Higgins, including a fantasy involving “the King,” who grants her wish to have Higgins shot by a firing squad. She sings “I Could Have Danced All Night” after she finally and triumphantly pronounces the phrase “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain” without a Cockney accent. That prompts the show-stopping, tango-rhythm song named for that line, in which Higgins dances with her. The spark this sets off in Eliza—Higgins has suddenly become her admiring teacher—inspires her to sing, to Loewe’s soaring melody, that she could have “danced all night” with this man. They dance together again at the Embassy Ball, where Eliza scores her final triumph in high society.
In the second act’s “Without You,” though, Eliza declares her liberation from Higgins: “I shall not feel alone without you/I can stand on my own without you.” But in the mode of romantic comedies since Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, she signals her attraction for Higgins in the course of telling him off. She makes a negative reference to marriage—“I wouldn’t marry you if you asked me” (Higgins hasn’t asked her)—and to sex, awkwardly declaring that her original desire when she became his pupil was “not to want you to make love to me” (Higgins hasn’t mentioned it).
Higgins signals his own attraction by admitting that he has “humbly and gratefully . . . learned something” from her, and that he will miss her. And once alone, he sings, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” perhaps the most moving love song ever from a character who has difficulty expressing his feelings. Higgins indulges in a similar revenge fantasy to Eliza’s in “Just You Wait,” gleefully imagining that Eliza will come crawling back to him after a failed marriage to Freddy, while he staunchly rejects her. But in a song whose lyrics do not include the word “love,” his love for her becomes all the more intense—beginning with the words, “I’ve grown accustomed to her face/She almost makes the day begin.“
The 1962 film version of My Fair Lady is not bad, but like most great musicals, this is a show that belongs on the stage. The new production breathes life into a familiar score. It will speak to millennials convinced that no previous generation ever addressed questions of power, masculinity, and the female voice.
Norbert Leo Butz and the company (Photo by Joan Marcus)