My Fair Lady first appeared on Broadway 60 years ago, and ever since it has won the hearts of fans and critics alike. This transformation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion to this Lerner and Loewe musical was a huge success – finding a new audience for the story of a plain, poorly-spoken flower girl who learns to master the English language, thus gaining vital social capital. Julie Andrews, the original Eliza Doolittle and adored queen of stage and screen, has brought this production to life again at the Sydney Opera House, celebrating its diamond jubilee from the director’s chair.
The restored production boasts set and costume design from the original Broadway run and despite their age, Oliver Smith’s regal set and Cecil Beaton’s period costumes (recreated by John David Ridge) don’t feel like relics. It‘s an indulgent and opulent foray into musical theatre past, and, together with a stellar cast, fresh choreography by Christopher Gattelli and faithful direction by Julie Andrews that cuts right to the feelings behind the story, this production tempers the redundancies of being a 1956 facsimile with some appealingly lovely elements.
The rich, now-familiar score is a masterpiece of musical theatre and under Guy Simpson’s soaring direction it is gorgeously indulgent. The ensemble handle its harmonies exquisitely and cultivate a sense of joy in the larger numbers, handling the spirited choreography with ease.
The show has been well cast. Alex Jennings’ Henry Higgins is appropriately pompous and demeaning (he won an Olivier Award for playing the part in 2003); Reg Livermore’s Alfred P Doolittle earns plenty of laughs as Eliza’s drunkard father; and Robyn Nevin is as detailed and captivating as ever, providing a much-needed woman’s voice throughout the show as Mrs Higgins.
But the star of the show is undoubtedly Anna O’Byrne. Her frankly fierce and ambitious Eliza transforms beautifully from an intense, determined flower girl dreaming of a better life to a sophisticated, noble woman who knows her own worth (and she always sings like an angel). O’Byrne handles comic moments with ease, particularly ‘Just You Wait’ and the Ascot racing scene, but it is her nuanced transition into self-awareness in the second act that is most endearing, and exciting, to watch.
Beyond looking and sounding beautiful, as a modern audience, there are some concepts baked into the show that are well worth investigating. It’s hard now to simply forgive the misogyny lurking in the book, especially when this production seems to excuse it, focusing instead on other, more cosmetic, interests.
In the first act Higgins takes Eliza on as his student, but the way he treats her is often imperiously sexist and denies Eliza any agency of her own, forcing her to work into early hours of the morning while denying her food and rest, and prescribing to her the ideas she is allowed to talk about. Higgins’ pompous attitude seems like a mockable quality, but it’s questionable whether it’s ever really treated like that by Andrews; consequently, many of his most offensive lines receive laughs from the audience and, shockingly, there’s no clear sign whether the audience is laughing with him or at him. Most of the time, it seems like they’re laughing with him.
Despite Higgins’ reproachable attitude, there’s hope for retribution as we return for the second act. Freshly home from a high-stakes ball that would prove Higgins’ success at training Eliza (at which she does extremely well and leaves with many admirers), Higgins is congratulated by his staff, and himself, for Eliza’s efforts (‘He did it’). Eliza is completely ignored and pushed aside.
When Eliza finally confronts Higgins over his poor behaviour and utter disregard for her feelings, fully assuming her own agency for the first time, it’s a moment of relief. Perhaps this undeterred sexism will addressed by our strong protagonist? It is, and for a moment it’s triumphant – but despite her strong and confident argument, Higgins ultimately remains completely unaware of his shortcomings.
Most shocking is the final scene, in which Eliza actually, inexplicably, returns to Higgins, and all he says is “where the devil are my slippers.” This powerfully demonstrates his inability to change, and the impossibility of better things for Eliza. Worse still, in the script Eliza has tears in her eyes as she ‘understands’.
Our final moment is not one in which Eliza’s resolute shutdown of the patriarchy is allowed to resonate or even have consequence, nor is this last scene one that celebrates both characters growing and changing to be equals. Instead it is an affirmation of Eliza’s willingness to subject herself to Higgins’ sexist attitudes as though they are a compliment, and in a 2016 context this blatant sexism is not something we need to be seeing on our stages.
Could this have been different? Is it Andrews’ production that worships Higgins’ too much, or dismisses Eliza’s own personality too readily? It begs the question: can we still produce golden age musicals that are of a specific context we no longer share the values of?
The answer is yes, but we must be careful how we treat them, and how we approach them from the ground up. To stage My Fair Lady in 2016 should surely mean Higgins’ outrageous misogyny must be interrogated. His dated and potentially harmful attitudes must be plainly challenged by the direction and the audience invited to hold him in derision and laugh at him, as opposed to with him.
Of course there is only so much direction can do – inherently the book treats women as objects to be controlled by men, Andrews’ production is passive on that stance, which makes this otherwise gorgeous production feel out of touch with 2016 values.
Beauty, polish, and talent can go a long way – and in this production, they go far. But it might not be far enough. We’re left with a final question: Is a beautifully done production enough to excuse the misogyny so rife in this show?