On the occasion of the recently published review in Style, I’ve tried to write an expanded consideration of “My Fair Lady” about a half-dozen times and, every time I try to organize my opinions and reasoning into something straightforward, it boils down to this: I didn’t buy it. By the end of the show, I didn’t believe that Henry had fallen for Eliza, and I certainly didn’t believe Eliza had fallen for Henry.
What I might believe is that Henry has started – and just started – to stop thinking of Eliza as a “thing” or a “project” and begun to think of her as an individual. I wouldn’t even necessarily go as far as saying he thinks of her as a person because, since she’s a woman, she’s not quite a true person in Henry’s antiquated vision. There are lyrics in his big breakthrough song that reinforce this: “I’m so grateful she’s a woman and so easy to forget / Rather like a habit one can always break…” I know the lyrics speak to the tension Henry is feeling about this but still, the words reflect only the spark of recognition of Eliza’s personhood, certainly not a complete embracing of it.
And Eliza, well, it seems to me she makes a calculation based on her various options, ultimately leaving the potential for “true love” with Freddy behind. There is something fundamentally frustrating to me about celebrating a woman who chooses a man that has repeatedly demonstrated his disdain and disrespect for her, versus choosing someone who – while ineffectual and also swimming in misguided notions – at least seems devoted to her.
Thinking of the show as having these conclusions – a man get an inkling of a clue that lower-class women are people and a woman makes a better-of-two-evils decision – hardly makes it an endearing musical for me. I’m sure people can provide all sorts of alternate analyses of this, but that’s how it came across to me.
The show has some extraordinary songs and, while others have commented on the lack of a full orchestra, I actually enjoyed the more spare orchestration because it let me luxuriate in voices like those of Stacey Cabaj, Jason Marks, and Ben Houghton. The compelling delivery of these great songs certainly makes the production worth seeing…but they still didn’t diminish my discomfort with the show.
Besides the relationship issues, there were niggling class issues that I was annoyed with. I guess there’s something further discomfiting about watching “happy street people” dancing around the gutters of London while Occupy protesters are still in the street protesting income disparity. Also, the endowment being granted Alfred out of the blue made for a fun turn-about at the end but also kind of defies logic. I know, I know: it’s just a show and you are supposed to suspend that whole real world thing while in the theater. Sometimes I am better able to do that than other times.
Side note: I had a similar reaction while watching “Guys and Dolls” recently. It’s also a Broadway classic and tends to sweep the viewer up in its wonderful musical world. But never before had the song “Marry the Man Today” bothered me as much as it did this last time. The fact that the show’s two key romances pivot based on that song doesn’t really fit. Adelaide has wanted to marry Nathan all along, it’s been Nathan who’s been resisting, right? So how does her deciding she can accept him as he is (for now) change that?
Anyway, I’m aware I’m over-thinking things and taking pot-shots at classics while I’m at it. I guess I’m just in a mood.
But, to end on a positive note, there were several moments from this production of My Fair Lady that I will remember very fondly…in addition to just about everything Stacey did. Lauren Leinhaas-Cook’s slow burn during “Why Isn’t a Woman More Like a Man” was a perfect piece of non-verbal acting that totally made that scene for me. Also, the harmonizing among the male ensemble members was really great. To paraphrase Eliza, I could have listened all night.
And just to acknowledge that the “tweeting in theaters” conversation was picked up by yet another national media outlet, you can check out the Washington Post blog post on the issue, written by the lovely and very talented journalist, Maura Judkis (a fellow USC Institute fellow). She’s included some interesting quotes from theater folks. I also enjoyed the comments that the theater professionals on the 2AMt blog have to offer on the subject. Of course, you can check out Andrew Hamm’s post on his blog if you want to read even more thoughts, linked to over there on the right.