Wednesday, December 07, 2011


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.


Frank Creasy said...

Wow...well Dave, I admit I've not seen My Fair Lady (going Saturday), and certainly you offer a perspective of what you enjoyed along with what didn't click for you. Still - you're thinking of "income disparity" and Occupy Wall Street while watching people dance on stage? Really? Gosh, maybe I'll take in my local elementary school Christmas pageant (oops - HOLIDAY pageant, so sorry) and ponder the debacle which is Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac!

Dave, I'd love to save you a visit from old Marley one night soon, so tell you what: Next tall one on me. I have a hard time getting my holiday cheer on as well, perhaps it would do us BOTH some good. Cheers!

debra wagoner said...

Women often get dissed in musicals. Unfortunately. In Annie Get Your Gun, Annie has to pretend she is less talented to get her man--and promise to be more frilly and flowery. Real equality there. In Grease, Sandy decides it is better to dress like a ho and be a ho if it means Danny will be hers once more. Who cares what her beliefs are?
It's a tug of war, because I love all the older musicals, but once you pull at that thread, it all unravels. I have to agree with all the points you make about My Fair Lady. No, there are no happy street people living in London singing about how happy they are to be living in their own filth,lol. And Gloria Steinem would make mincemeat of Henry Higgins, and rightly so. So would I, in real life (IRL in text? hee hee). But the first time I ever saw My Fair Lady was the film version, and the music and the costumes swept me away. Forgive me, I was a little girl then. I don't know what I'm saying unless, how much your point of view can change as you grow older....

Bruce Miller said...

When George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion in 1911, he wrote it as a very early feminist, fighting for the respect and dignity which he so firmly believed was due to the lower class in general, and women in particular. He wrote Higgins as a misogynist because he wanted his audiences to see the error of Higgins's ways, not because he wanted anyone to celebrate those errors. The fact that you were disturbed by Higgins's attitude toward women means that you were reacting in exactly the way Shaw wanted you to react.

Throughout his writings and throughout his life, Shaw fought on behalf of disrespected women. That is why Shaw makes it crystal clear in all of his writings that Eliza doesn't end up with Higgins; she marries Freddie. Ever since the movie, which made a happy, romantic ending out of what is intended to be ambiguous and conflicted at best, some people come in expecting to see a happy, romantic ending like the one they remember from the film. And by gum, that's what they see, even when it isn't there.

The words happy and romantic do not describe the ending that is written, nor the ending that is performed in this production. The ending is, to my tastes, satisfying, but certainly not happy nor romantic.

As for the production being old fashioned, that's exactly what we wanted, so I'm glad it came off that way. This is the 100th Anniversary production of the oldest major theatre in Virginia. The style of this production is consciously 1911, celebrating the year in which the play was written and the Empire was built. There are footlights, for Pete's sake. We use two baby grands on either side of the stage because British music hall style used a baby grand stage right and a pump organ stage left for years, before switching over at the turn of the century to two baby grands. All the scenery is moved by stage hands, many of whom are visible--there are no moving lights and no mechanized scenery.

I know some people like to see great classics updated. I like that sometimes. But I also enjoy seeing shows go in the other direction, consciously echoing stage traditions from the year in which they take place--in this case 1911--rather than the year in which they were first musicalized--in this case, the Mad Men era of the 1950s.

The bad boys of the Mad Men era needed to learn a little respect for women just as much as pre-WWI bad boy aristocrats like Higgins did. So musicalizing Pygmalion in 1956 was a great idea, not only artistically but also sociologically. Plenty of tired NYC business men went to see My Fair Lady in the mid-fifties, and, God willing, left the theatre with previously undiscovered respect for their secretaries and wives.

Anonymous said...

Dave, I can't believe you're suggesting to text while at Fair Lady... :)

debra wagoner said...

But I DID think of this after an, average to so-so night's sleep. Eliza goes back to Henry and not to Freddie. She follows her heart and not her instinct. It's a common thing, when we're in love, to run back to the person who doesn't treat us well. C'mon...we've all made that mistake in our youth haven't we. She knows her story with Henry hasn't played out yet. She holds out hope that he will SEE her, she can make him love her make him change. And then she is going to climb Mt Everest without oxygen. In the film, the last two lines are Eliza: I washed my face and hands before I come I did. and Henry: Eliza, where the devil are my slippers. And both look amused, but devilish as if thinking, oh no, you have no idea what I have in store for you. So you have hope, that at least on Eliza's end, that she'll give the profressor the challenge of a lifetime. Purely my interpretation. Not perfect, a smidgeon more hopeful.

Dave T said...

@Frank: I have the occasion to have thoughts of income disparity rattling around in the back of my head nearly all of the time these days, thanks. And yes, even at my son's Hanukkah party. And given Shaw's involvement with the Fabian Society, I expect a lot of thought of income disparity went into the primary source material for MFL, as well.

@Deb: I think you summed things up nicely, i.e., it's curious and sometimes surprising how your point of view can change as you grow older.

@Bruce: I appreciate you offering your thoughts. It seems like this production might be a case of you getting exactly what you wanted on stage and me just not fully embracing the results (and I say 'fully' because I certainly would love your actors singing these songs on repeat on my iPod). So it goes. I'm sure scads of people are embracing this show and, if anything, perhaps a couple will read my review and go see it just so they can say that Timberline guy with his stupid forest metaphor didn't know what he was talking about.

However, I still see some pretty fundamental tensions in this show that are unresolved and therefore uncomfortable. I've read up a little about this since writing my review (not nearly enough) and feel like Shaw might not embrace the way his work was adapted, his anger about how the ending was misinterpreted being well documented. I also came across some fairly intense rants about MFL productions in the past, of which this blog post is my favorite. It's not my favorite because I agree with everything it says (I'm not a Shaw scholar so don't have the background to make the judgments this writer makes) but because it is so hilariously over-the-top in its disdain. Talk about someone who gets worked up about theater...

Frank Creasy said...

I realize I slathered far more sarcasm than necessary Dave, so please accept my apologies.

My more serious (and hopefully well intended yet poorly articulated) meaning was this: We can all, critics and patrons alike, attend theatre with as many filters as we choose. This can color our perceptions in positive and negative ways. We can mull over our financial, relationship, career and health problems as we take in a production; we can compare it to social issues of the day or put it the context of the time it was originally written.

Personally I'm an advocate of using theatre first, foremost and by far over other agendas as entertainment and escape FROM our daily worries and concerns, not a reflection or commentary OF those problems. All that baggage will be there shortly after we leave the theatre. Hopefully, if a production serves its' primary purpose of entertaining us, it goes further in prompting us to reflect a little differently, perhaps a little more favorably on our own lot in life. I would hope we've shared many of the same emotions as the other humans in that space for those few hours and come away with an affirmation of life that can help us return to our regular activities with a fresh, perhaps healthier perspective.

I feel when we come to the theatre with so many outside concerns very much present then we lose the opportunity to gain something special from a production. A critic, I know, has to bring a somewhat more detached perspective, and consider more carefully all production elements than the average patron, who has the luxury of letting it all wash over him/herself (or taking a nap if they so desire). That doesn't mean, in my mind, any one of us can't find ourselves getting lost in the performances or the plot or other production elements. Locally, I can't see a show without seeing a friend or acquaintance on stage, someone whose personality I know well apart from their character; so I can't help thinking about the choices they've made in creating and performing a role. When I forgot about assessing those choices, find myself completely charmed and engrossed in their performance, I know they've done something extraordinary in my mind. The person next to me who knows nothing about that actor may have a very different response. But I purposefully set aside outside concerns when the house lights go down. This is not to say I'll love everything I see: Just this week I saw a popular church production presented this time each year. While I enjoyed the production, it was too long by about 20 to 30 minutes, and I found my enjoyment disappearing as the intermission-less production approached the 2 hour mark. Let's wrap it up, I thought!

And now I'll do the same by wrapping this up. But hopefully I've made my point herein that while a discerning perspective is expected and appreciated, I'm a believer in checking baggage at the theatre door and assessing production elements on their quality alone, and leaving external concerns back at the car for the return trip home.

Bruce Miller said...

My favorite thing about theatre is that different people can see the exact same production and react in different ways. I don't disagree with a word you or any of the critics have said about "My Fair Lady" in general or this production. Theatre would lose all interest to me if everyone reacted in the same way. And my favorite thing is to discuss theatre with others whom I respect. Thanks for always giving me that opportunity.

Stacey said...

Dave and others,
Please consider joining Joe Inscoe, Jason Marks and myself for Coffee and Coversations on Tuesday, December 13 at 9:30 a.m. at Willow Lawn. I, for one, look forward to a rousing and respectful discussion about Shaw's dialectic, the differences between Pygmalion and MFL, and the semiotics of the ending. I hope you'll join us.

Thespis' Little Helper said...

Just to throw out an opposing thought to Frank's words (not that I would EVER throw out an opposing argument just for fun haha):

It's rather impossible to not view theatre through one's own lens and with one's own baggage. It's what makes us who we are and shapes how we think and view things.

Some theatre is created to give us an escape from all that (The Stinky Cheese Man, and Other Fairly Stupid Tales for example [shameless plug]), some is created to tap directly into those things (Brecht and Parks and many, many more) and the really, really good stuff (in those delightful and fleeting moments) can manage to do both (My Fair Lady I think certainly endeavors to do both).

For my time, if I had to choose, I'd prefer to be challenged and leave with a slightly different perspective (or at least a fuller one) when I leave the theatre than when I entered it. Or in the words of Luella in Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them: "You know, I don't really know what normal is. That's one of the reasons I go to the theatre. To learn that."

Susie said...

I so agree about one's own lens and baggage. "My Fair Lady" was the first show I ever saw; my grandparents took me to the touring show in Chicago when I was five. I danced around their living room to the original cast album; my high school did the show when I was a junior; I saw it on Broadway with Richard Chamberlain. There's almost no way I can fail to love it. I'm pre-sold on all the emotional points. I think the lyrics of "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" explain everything. By the same token, I didn't see "Pajama Game" till I was an adult, and it's always seemed silly and dated to me. My high school did "Brigadoon" and "The King and I," and when I see any version of those I'm in tears as soon as the first song starts. That's just how it is for me.