Tuesday, July 31, 2012

UFO, part two: My Fair Lady, the worst good musical ever

So we were there, in Logan, at the Utah Festival Opera, a beautiful theater watching first-rate productions of Kiss Me Kate, and My Fair Lady.  And so, now, I want to make this case: My Fair Lady is the worst good musical ever.  I think seeing a terrific production of it--which UFO gave us--makes the flaws of the material all the clearer. 

Look, there have been lots of horrible musicals in history.  I've heard stories about the musical based on Stephen King's Carrie that would curl your back teeth. Most awful musicals, in fact, aren't produced.  I saw one at BYU a few years ago, a musical based on Casey at the Bat that was lively and energetic and fun and completely terrible.  My Fair Lady came out the year I was born, and ran past my sixth birthday.  It was a huge, huge, massive popular hit.  It's the definition of a great musical.

I also think it's rotten to the core, that the book is an obscene profanation of a great artist's work, that it only has one good song, that it took everything that was unique and smart and subversive in its source material and turned it into the most insipid of romantic comedies. 

George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion in 1912.  We all know the story: Henry Higgins, a linguist, vows to teach the flower girl, Eliza Doolittle how to speak properly, promising that she can pass for a duchess under his direction.  Higgins is a bully and a misogynist--worse than that, he's a rotten linguist.  Linguistics is about the study of language; a good linguist loves language, loves the differences between dialects, loves pidgins and coinages and slang. Higgins is the worst kind of class snob--someone who thinks lower-class dialects are just wrong.  He's not actually a linguist at all--he's an phonetician, an elocutionist, someone who wants to teach people who talk 'wrong' how to talk 'right.'  Instead of recognizing that everyone is multi-lingual, that everyone tailors speech to various social circumstances, Higgins tells Eliza that she's wrong, and that he'll make her 'right.'  And uses various approaches, including Pavlovian conditioning, to improve her.

It's a smart, sophisticated critique of class and the link between social class and language.  Best of all, Shaw intentionally structures the play like a romantic comedy, to strengthen his critique of how language constructs class and gender.  Eliza is a child of poverty, a slum girl.  She clings to some kind of pride, some sense of self: "I'm a good girl, I am," she says repeatedly.  A statement of personal integrity, given how many girls from her culture ended up, in 1912, in prostitution.  Henry turns her into a lady; language becomes, for her, the path to upward mobility.  And also limits her options.  An upper-class woman, in Shaw's society, can really only marry.  That's about the only career option open to her.  As Nora learns in A Doll House--a play Shaw loved and admired--women are in essence forced by their culture to trade sexual favors--marriage--for economic security.  Eliza, who managed to cling to her own sense of self-definition as a 'good girl,' has become a duchess, whose only career choice is prostitution.  And so she does marry, marries Freddy, a sweet, somewhat empty-headed young upper-class gentleman who she is rather fond of, but never in love with, knowing that marriage can only diminish her, but seeing it as the best of her poor options. 

The musical is by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.  And here's my problem with it--it turns Pygmalion into what Shaw never meant it to be, a romantic comedy, in which Eliza falls in love with and marries Henry.  Shaw structured the play as a romantic comedy on purpose, to critique the form, to attack gender stereotypes, as a platform for his assault on everything romantic comedy stood for.  And Eliza married Freddy, and it's not a happy ending.  It's bittersweet, emphasis on bitter--it's Eliza surrendering her independence, giving up on her own best self and her own best ambitions.  It's a tragic ending.  An Eliza 'in love with' Henry, is an Eliza succumbing to Stockholm Syndrome.  All that nuance, all that social commentary, disappear in the musical, are turned into cute songs and neat comic bits.  It takes an anti-romance and turns its heart to romance.  It mutes Eliza, it infantilizes her, it shuts her the hell up, by giving her pretty songs to sing.  It's cute and fun and clever, instead of disturbing and transgressive and bold.  It dances a lively waltz on Shaw's grave, with nimble choreography and lovely costumes. 

Precisely because the UFO production was so good, it depressed me more than ever.  And my back was killing me.  I couldn't sit there and watch cute Eliza marry adorably rude Henry, a Henry that hides his basic decency with bluster, which she sees right through.  Blarg.  I left at the interval. 


  1. I still remember my 11th Grade AP English teacher, Mrs. Helgeson, presenting the idea to our young impressionable minds, that Shaw's Pygmalion was actually commentary on communism and capitalism. Watching the musical through that filter is kinda fun too.

  2. I grant all you say about the changes to Shaw's play. But I do disagree a bit about your interpretation of the ending. One of the things I like about it is that it's so very fluid. A director and actors can interpret that ending many, many ways. With blocking and subtext, it can be very powerful. It's not clear at all that Eliza will marry Higgins. In fact, I think the text of the play rather argues against it. And Accustomed to Her Face shows that Higgins has changed. He has been humbled and reformed quite a bit. I'm also not totally sure it infantilizes her. There are some lines at the end that give her a great deal of strength. Her confrontation with Higgins at his mother's house completely inverts the situation leaving her very much in charge.

  3. Eric, I could not agree with you more. I remember watching the BYU production of this when I was still a student, having never seen the movie or play, nor read either the book or Pygmalion. I was flabbergasted by the ending structure, and moreso, by the near glorification of what was sure to be a demeaning, if not abusive, relationship.

    An episode of the sitcom "Will and Grace" came up with what I consider to be an ultimately more satisfying ending. Karen sings "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" about her maid, Rosario. She then delivers the immortal line, "Rosie, where the hell are my slippers," to which Rosario replies, "Have you checked up your *** you drunken cow?" (Rosario exits stage left. Fade to Black) Now THAT'S a resolution I could get behind.

  4. What sort of perverted production of My Fair Lady did this backwoods theater produce? Eliza absolutely does not marry Higgins, and the final state of their relationship is ambiguous. It's safe to say that they can finally accept the other for who she/he is by the end of the story, but trying to infer anything further than that is just your own opinion (unless some director took far too much license).

  5. I never read the book, but I've seen the musical many times. I like your assessment of the issues at stake. In light of what you said, I did always get the feeling from the musical of Eliza being trapped even tighter by her high class status. And without thinking clearly about it, I always saw her return to Higgins as a way of stepping out of the upper class construct of herself and back to a place where she could retain a bit of her freedom, if only because Higgins didn't buy into his own con. I agree that the strength of Shaw's point is sorely diluted, but parts of it do come through.

  6. I think you completely missed the point. There is nothing in the text that suggest that Eliza indeed does marry Higgins. Nor does the Utah Festival Opera production imply that at all. At the very end of the show, Higgins is in his study listening to his recordings of when Eliza first came in to ask for english lessons. Eliza then comes in mocking what she used to be, but indeed has returned. Higgins says "Eliza, where in the devil are my slippers", and the curtain is drawn leaving you with that image. Yes, it was indeed left up to interpretation on what happens after, but where did you find that they got married?

  7. I disagree with your interpretation. I think that after she gives Higgins his slippers, she mentions that she was only coming back because she left her bird cage and her chinese fan there. She then leaves and takes out a loan (from Zions Bank) and starts her own small business - a book store. After a few years of booming business, she, empowered by the knowledge garnered from Henry Higgins, travels around to poor neighborhoods in London getting at-risk girls interested in classic literature, teaches them the importance of refined speech, and guides them on the path of self-empowering upward mobility, thereby making herself the mother of the early English feminist writers movement. Truly a triumphant ending for both Eliza, and women every where.
    ..... at least, thats what I got out of it.