"My Fair Lady"--The "Most Perfect Musical" Is in Search of an Ending
by John Aquino on 01/16/20
For its recent run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., My Fair Lady was promoted as "the most perfect musical." This is grammatically incorrect because perfection cannot be improved on. There cannot be two perfect musicals with one more perfect than another. But even describing My Fair Lady as "the perfect musical," which has been done, is overreaching. It is an enjoyable musical, it is an expertly-packaged musical, it is a lucky musical, it is the perfect storm of a musical. And it is a musical in search of an ending.
My Fair Lady
is the 1956 musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play Pygmalion
, which is itself a riff on the classical Greek story of an artist who creates a statue of a beautiful woman that comes to life. In Shaw's play, Professor Henry Higgins, a misogynist teacher of speech, takes a bet that he will be able to teach Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl, to speak properly and then pass her off a real lady. After weeks of lessons, having won his bet, he finds that Eliza is angry, complaining that she has no real place in the world now because she really isn't a proper lady and no longer speaks like a flower girl. She had enjoyed the excitement of working closely with Higgins and now finds the teaching process has ended. To my mind, Higgins' dilemma is similar to that of Mary Rose in James Barrie's 1926 play of the same name about a woman who has seemingly come back from the dead decades later and has not aged, although her family has. Alfred Hitchcock, who struggled and failed to make a film version of the Barrie play in the 1960s, described the play's theme as he saw it: If the dead were to come back to life, what would we do with them? In Pygmalion
, the theme is, If a man who doesn't like women recreates a woman into a completely different person, what happens to her? Shaw's play ends with Eliza telling Higgins that she is thinking of marrying Freddie Eynsford Hill, a callow and poor young man who really loves her, and not Higgins and then she walks out on Higgins. Shaw added a prose epilogue to the play that described how Eliza did marry Freddie and set up a shop of her own (see https://www.bartleby.com/138/6.html
). In the original production, the actors Beerbohm Tree and Mrs. Patrick Campbell tried to suggest with stage business that Higgins was in love with Eliza at the end. Tree, as Higgins, tossed a rose to Eliza, who caught it, sniffed it, and exited smiling. But when Shaw heard about this, he shut down their efforts. He insisted, not unreasonably, that, while Higgins had grown to depend on Eliza, he was incapable of loving her.
In 1938, Shaw agreed to a film version of Pygmalion on the condition that only his dialogue would be used and authored the screenplay to which he added a number of scenes that were not in the original play. The filmmakers, feeling that they needed a romantic ending but were hampered by their contract with Shaw, came up with a solution that Shaw didn't learn about until he saw the completed film at the premiere. In the film, Eliza leaves Higgins. He returns to his home alone and turns on the recording her made of her speaking in her Cockney dialect, and Eliza returns, turns off the machine, and repeats what she had said. Higgins clearly wants to run to Eliza but, instead, smiles and says to her, "Where the devil are my slippers?", something he had said earlier to her. No new dialogue was added, the wording but not the spirit of the contract was honored, and the implication was that Eliza had returned and would marry Higgins. Shaw, who received a substantial amount of money from the film, was said to have smiled weakly while watching the ending but said nothing about it. His screenplay received the Academy Award for that year, and the film was a great international success.
In 1956, composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner, wrote a musical version of Pygmalion. They were required by Shaw's estate to use a certain percentage of Shaw's dialogue. (Shaw is sometimes written off as a rhetor or polemicist rather than a playwright, but he created incredible stories like Pygmalion, Don Juan in Hell which follows the characters of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni to a debate in hell where Don Juan was sent after murdering his lover's father, and The Devil's Disciple, which is set during the Revolutionary War and ends with a minister switching roles with a colonist rebel. If he was just a polemicist, he was an incredibly imaginative one.) Rather than feeling restricted by these contractual requirements, Lerner ended up having access to not only Shaw's original play but to added scenes Shaw had written for later printings of the play and also Shaw's 1938 screenplay with its additional scenes. The play had already been "opened up" by a gifted playwright, and lucky Lerner made good use of the material at his disposal.
This is not to say that Lerner and Loewe didn't utilize considerable skill in adapting the play. The music is sweeping and luscious, and Lerner's lyrics and dialogue generally channel Shaw well. But the requirement that they keep Shaw's words and plot gave them a major, albeit now dead, collaborator. It was a perfect storm of ingredients that is unlikely to be repeated. (Lerner and Loewe certainly weren't able to repeat it. They followed it with the 1958 film Gigi, which, in spite of attempts to put it on the stage, is unplayable today with its plot of a young woman who is forced by her mother, grandmother, and aunt to be a mistress to a rich man, and Camelot (1960), which has a marvelous score but, again, structural problems with its book. Lerner tried to work with other composers and produced a long string of mostly failures.) Lerner's work on My Fair Lady sometimes betrays his lack of familiarity with the period and subject matter. He has Higgins sing, "By rights she should be taken out and hung/For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue." The playwright and actor Noel Coward told him it should be "hanged" and not "hung," and Lerner replied that "hanged" didn't rhyme with "tongue." A strange response for a man writing a play about the proper use of language.
As to the ending, there's Shaw's original ending, the film's collage ending that was foisted on Shaw, and the musical's ending that is borrowed from the film with the background music of "I Could Have Danced All Night" from the show. But the director and producers of the 2018 Broadway revival that toured at the Kennedy Center were concerned about how Eliza's crawling back to the misogynistic Higgins would play amidst the "MeToo" movement against male domination of women through sexual harassment and assault. (SPOILER ALERT for those who have not seen this production.) Their solution was to replay the ending of the film and the original musical production but, at the point where Eliza turns off the machine and says in the Cockney dialect, "I washed my face and hands before I came in" and Higgins says, "Eliza, where the devil are my slippers," Eliza strokes his face sadly and then walks away.
It played very strangely. The meaning, as best I could figure it out, is that, either, having given him yet another chance to treat her with respect and even love that he muffs, she walks away with finality, or Higgins is trapped in a hellish time loop and condemned to repeat over and over the misogynist things he once said to her. What it comes down to is that, from a musical comedy perspective, the story has never had a satisfactory ending and never will. In many ways, the 2018 production reverts to Shaw's sequel ending in which Higgins and Eliza do not get together. Actually, Tree's tossing of a rose to Eliza might actually have played better as a musical ending than the 2018 production's ending.
As for the rest of the Kennedy Center production, as has been the case of many recent touring productions I've seen such as Hello, Dolly!, I found that it lacked energy and that the direction was perfunctory. The leads were not well cast, the Eliza having a pleasant but not a strong voice. For her grand entrance in her gown as she and Higgins leave for the ball, she entered through a door and was blocked by the couch. Her entrance down the staircase at the ball was from the side and not the center toward the audience. For the ball, there were three couples dancing, clearly a issue of costs for a touring production. The scenery was mostly a revolving structure of Higgins' flat that revolved for no clear purpose. They had Higgins' mother advise him not to bring Eliza to the ball while standing with him outside his flat in the street, presumably to avoid a scenery change for such a brief conversation. And the choreography of the few numbers that danced was mostly nonexistent--the actors mostly moved around or strutted.
On the plus side, they retained the magnificent Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations in which the percussion bangs as if struck sharply by a ball-peel hammer, and they depicted the gradual evolution of Eliza's transformation to better speech more realistically than I have ever seen. But other audience members of the audience also appeared to have problems with the production. My wife heard one woman say to another in the restroom, "I thought the pace picked up in the second act." "Yes," her companion answered, "but I think that was because the conductor went rogue."
Copyright 2020 by John T. Aquino