The acclaimed West End revival of My Fair Lady opened at the Orpheum last night. It’s been called “the perfect musical,” and sure, this production was great--the stage sets were gigantic and impressive and they moved around seamlessly, the costumes were pretty, Dane DeLisa’s Eliza Doolittle hit almost all the notes on “Wouldn’t It be Loverly,” and Tim Jerome stole the show as Eliza’s drunken daddy during both “With a Little Bit O’ Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
Blah, blah, blah. Of course it was great, it’s a billion dollar bash produced by Lerner and Loewe and directed by Trevor Nunn (who directed King Lear and The Seagull at the Guthrie earlier this year), with dance numbers choreographed by Matthew Bourne (who choreographed Swan Lake at the State a couple of years ago). The classiest imports in theater, ladies and gentlemen.
By now, everybody knows the My Fair Lady story by heart, right? Upper-crust gentleman trains unwashed hussy in his upper-crust ways but in the end, the unwashed hussy turns out to be the true classy broad. Even if you don’t, you’ve seen it a million times, because Hollywood loves it: there are direct adaptations such as Richard Gere as Professor Higgins and Julia Roberts as Eliza Doolittle in Pretty Woman and Freddie Prinze Jr. as Higgins and Rachel Leigh Cook as Eliza in She’s All That. And there are movies that just borrow from the Pygmilion myth, such as Trading Places with Don Ameche as Higgins and Eddie Murphy as Liza.
Do you see, I’m fairly well versed in culture both high (Ovid, Shaw) and low (Marshall, Landis). I work hard on my own life of the mind, and I believe that at this point, somebody has to stick up for a kindred spirit, poor vilified Professor Higgins.
I mean, what’s Liza’s problem? For a few shillings—a charitable sliding scale for one of London’s most sought after phonetic professors—Higgins takes this flower girl into his own home, buys her a bunch of couture and jewelry, turns her on to Milton and Keats, helps make her dropped h’s stand up for themselves, and brings her to Buckingham Palace. And she gets upset because he takes the credit for her warm reception at the ball?
Look, I realize that my Morning After readership is 90% female, but ladies, hear me out. When did this male fantasy—generously helping a woman to define and achieve her goals—become perceived as boorish?
I mean, why isn’t Liza considered the boor? When she walks out on Higgins in a pique, she runs into Freddy Eynsford-Hill, a hopeless romantic who’s been waiting outside her window for days on end, and immediately starts berating him. First, she tears up a poem he’s written and then starts singing:
Words! Words! Words! I'm so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
It sounds like a Hillary speech, and we all know how well that’s going over. (Maybe if she set it to an orchestra, and brought in Julie Andrews to sing it, she could’ve won in Wisconsin.)
Higgins gets a raw deal because he was written by a Commie in the first place. George Bernard Shaw took a decent, well-educated man, regarded as a bit of a maverick by The Establishment, and made him a sexist, capitalist pig. And then Alan Jay Werner made him sing songs like “A Hymn to Him,” with lyrics such as:
Why can't a woman be more like a man?
Men are so honest, so thoroughly square;
Eternally noble, historic'ly fair;
Who, when you win, will always give your back a pat.
Well, why can't a woman be like that?
When you put it like that, it sounds insensitive, even dastardly—dismissive of man’s capacity for evil. But we all know what he’s saying—why can’t a woman act like a gentleman? Why is Liza so prideful, so quick to resent help? Why doesn’t poor Higgins get the benefit of the doubt? Michelle Obama gets the benefit of the doubt (we all know she doesn’t really hate America), but she’s not a big mean dude with a London accent, evidently.
Higgins’ mission is not very different than say, Cher Horowitz’s mission in Clueless. Sure, maybe his pet project was chosen partly for self-aggrandizement, but his heart was always in the right place. And just like Jane Austen’s Emma, in the end, we know Higgins just really wanted to be loved, just not by, well, as he says, “a heartless guttersnipe.” In fact, Higgins almost a third wave feminist: intent on making Eliza an independent woman, who wouldn’t need the help of any man, including him. Higgins realizes that the depravity of the street can erode the values of anybody, of any gender. At heart, he’s just a good liberal. And we’re supposed to deride his motives because he picked a cute girl to clean up?
Anyway, forget the traditional Marxist, Feminist and Hollywood Populist readings of My Fair Lady. Instead, read this, dear reader, and give the good Professor a chance.
My Fair Lady plays through March 2 at the Orpheum.