Tuesday, February 12, 2019

My Fair Laura

When I was in New York I saw the recent revival of MY FAIR LADY. It’s my all-time favorite musical. I just think the music is spectacular beyond belief. If a musical has one song that ultimately rises to the pantheon of American Standard it’s considered a triumph. MY FAIR LADY has like six.

And the truth is I had never seen a really first-rate production of it. Jane Powell at the Valley Music Theatre in Woodland Hills, California done on a stage the size of a manhole cover didn’t really cut it. But even then, if you can get people who can sing and an orchestra that’s a grade above middle school the magic is still there.

The current production at Lincoln Center is gorgeous with all the Broadway bells and whistles you now come to expect when tickets cost what you paid for your first house. Rotating stages, elaborate sets, terrific cast, a multitude of dancers, and in the case of MY FAIR LADY — street lamps.

But the highlight was seeing Laura Benanti star as Eliza. One of the true thrills of live theatre is seeing an extraordinary performance, one you remember, and that’s what this production offers with Laura Benanti. (If you’re unfamiliar with her, she’s a Broadway mainstay, has done a lot of television — was Supergirl’s mom for one — and appears frequently on COLBERT as Melania Trump.).

My only problem with the show was that they changed the ending. I’m not going to spoil it but will just say it’s more in line with current sensibilities. And although I agree with those sensibilities I don’t see the need to alter something that was of its time so it could be more PC today. And looking around at the audience, I was probably the youngest person there. I submit that 90% or more of the audience knew the story and knew the ending. No one had a problem with the original ending going in. And to accomplish this they had to adjust Henry Higgin’s character, making him a little less sympathetic. To me it was a case of don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.   Yes, this was the original ending in Shaw's play PYGMALION, but it's not Lerner & Lowe's vision and MY FAIR LADY is their take. 


Fortunately, no one leaves a theatre humming the ending. And as long as they didn’t mess with the songs (which they didn’t — no “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Facebook”) I can heartily recommend you see MY FAIR LADY if you’re in New York. Who knew Melania Trump could sing so well?

36 comments :

Annie C said...

You mean they allowed her on stage in black face like Mary Poppins? In this day and age? Oh my.

VincentS said...

The changed ending conforms to the ending of the original source material, the play PYGMALION, Ken. Moreover, Shaw was adamant that Eliza and Higgins not end up together. Some say it was because Shaw, who was gay, saw Higgins as homosexual. Others, Edward Albee (who was also gay) among them, argued that there was a more logical reason: HIGGINS WAS A JERK! Yes, it could still be argued that the current ending was in consideration to current tastes, but by the same token, I think it could also be argued that the changing of the ending in the original production of MY FAIR LADY - which occurred after Shaw's death - was made for similar reasons.

Glenn said...

When they did the live TV version of "Sound of Music", Laura Benanti played a small part. All I could think was that she should have been Maria. Carrie Underwood (who I get it, is a huge star and sold the event) sang just fine, but had the acting chops of a mushroom.

Rock Golf said...

I don't know what ending was on the My Fair Lady you saw, but I'd suspect it was closer to the version in GB Shaw's original play Pygmalion.

So really, they may be going with the "original" version, while the one you remember is the one that was re-written to be more PC and of its time.

FRIDAY QUESTION: Kelsey Grammer was on The Late Late Show with James Corden and discussing a possible Frasier revival. He claimed to have been talking with "a group of writer" about getting this going.

So a two part question: Are you one of those writers? And do you think a Frasier revival would be a good thing?

E. Yarber said...

I'm not sure of the exact changes made to the musical this time around, but they may actually reflect the ending of Shaw's original play PYGMALION, which had even been softened as soon as the original production starring Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree back in 1914. Eliza and Henry broke up at the end and Shaw explained in a prose epilogue that she married Freddy. Shaw hated Beerbohm Tree's kinder approach to Higgins and his more romantic attitude toward Eliza, which the actor carried off mainly through his behavior on stage. Audiences seemed to like that more conventional relationship, however. That approach was also applied to the 1938 film, which won Shaw a screenplay Oscar though he still didn't like the pairing at the end.

Michael said...

ONLY six standards? Please, Ken. Every song in it is a standard!

My favorite musical, too--and, like you, I haven't seen it live (I saw "Hamilton" live, and it may come close, but it's a different breed of cat). And here's the thing about the ending: it's the original ending by Shaw, not the one that Lerner did.

I do have a bit of an issue with "sensibilities." At the end, Higgins gets that wonderful final line. But what happened before? Eliza certainly "got her own back," and pretty much turned him inside out. She's back with him, but it's no longer just a mentor-pupil relationship, and they both have to know it.

Ficta said...

Interesting. I generally disapprove of monkeying with a classic for political reasons, BUT, it is Broadway, and musical producers mess around with the book all the time since it's a rare musical that doesn't have "book problems" of one sort or another, AND, it is Shaw's original ending. I had read the Shaw play first and was slightly startled by Lerner's changed ending the first time I saw My Fair Lady.

Anonymous said...

Consider that Julie Andrews made her Broadway debut when she was 19 and became the biggest star on Broadway with My Fair Lady playing opposite Rex Harrison.
Not many people have done that before or since.

Anonymous said...

I meant to add when she was 20

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Bernanti also had a recurring character on NASHVILLE, where she played a country singer/songwriter. Pretty versatile!

I am lucky enough to have grown up in NYC at the right time to have seen the original production of MY FAIR LADY...and also CAMELOT, SOUND OF MUSIC, and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

wg

Curt Alliaume said...

Glenn: Benanti played Maria off-Broadway (The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ) when she was 19.

Benanti also appeared in two short-lived television series: The Playboy Club (as an "older" Bunny), and Go On, the Matthew Perry show where his wife dies and he's in therapy. To see the aftermath of these, check this clip from the Tonys a few months later: https://youtu.be/JZv_FORXv88

Rob Dames said...

I'm not a fan of changing a work for current sensibilities. It feels like an insult to the audience as if one is saying -- "You're not smart enough to recognize the difference between then and now." Yes, this ending is more in tune with Shaw's ending but if 'getting back to Shaw' is the justification then Freddie should have been cut back. He is a minor character in "Pygmalion". His song "On The Street Where You Live" only existed to create a radio song in advance of the show opening to attract audience attention. Very common in those days when radio still mattered. Vic Damone recorded the song and it was a radio hit same year show opened.

Ken Levine said...

"On the Street Where You Live" is one of my all-time favorite songs. It's real purpose in the musical is to give Eliza the change to change wardrobe. When placeholder songs are classics you know you've got a winner.

tavm said...

I loved Ms. Benati's take on the First Lady, especially last December when she did a number as her!

Mike Bloodworth said...

Speaking of lavish, Broadway musicals. Since the trend has been to take movies, TV shows, non-musical plays, etc. and turn them into musicals...
FRIDAY QUESTION: Have you ever considered turning one of your existing plays into a musical? Have you ever considered writing a musical in general?. One of you ten-minute-plays would be a good start. Less pressure.
Of your TV series, "CHEERS" would make a great musical. The setting, the characters, the conflicts are all there.

I don't know if I would go to see it since I'm not really into musicals, but I'd think about it if you could get me some discount tickets.
M.B.

Andrew said...

Am I the only one who thought that the movie ending of My Fair Lady was ambivalent? Every time I've seen it, I don't feel like the question of whether they're back together is actually answered. After Higgins says his last line, she could have just walked away. We'll never know.

I agree with those who say that virtually every song in My Fair Lady is a hit. Musical and poetic perfection. When I was a kid and first saw the movie, I thought Eliza's dad stole the show.

My Fair Lady is a musical I come back to when I need pure, unadulterated joy. (Probably my second favorite musical is Fiddler on the Roof, but I rarely watch it because it rips my heart out in so many ways. Maybe it's because I have daughters.)

Andrew Krigel said...

I had the pleasure of seeing Ms Benanti in Gypsy with Patti Lupine. They were both outstanding as one would expect. The didn't change the ending.

Donald Benson said...

Benanti also starred in an outstanding revival of "She Loves Me", broadcast on PBS and still available on Amazon Prime Video. If you loved "My Fair Lady", you'll probably enjoy the heck out of this.

"She Loves Me" is a 1960s Broadway version of "Little Shop Around the Corner", and it's head and shoulders above the other remakes ("Good Old Summertime" and "You've Got Mail"). Keeping the movie's 1930s Budapest setting, it's about quarreling coworkers in a perfume shop who don't know they're romantic pen pals. The songs are endlessly charming, and the script keeps just enough of Lubitsch's edge.

Michael said...

Friday question: Caught the first episode of FRASIER on COZI and as Frasier was rattling off all the expensive apartment furnishings to Martin, it got me wondering how much did first time radio hosts make in the early 90s? Just the apartment alone had to be expensive given the location and size and I am sure he also had to be paying child support to Lilith,

Peter said...

I liked Laura Benanti on Law and Order SVU. Cute actress. I'll have to look up her Melania.

Friday Question

Ken, the Academy have revealed the four categories that will be announced during ad breaks: cinematography, film editing, live-action short and makeup & hairstyling.

I think this is outrageous. If they cut the stupid skits, they'd have time to show all categories. Some of these will be first time winners who may never win another Oscar and their special moment has been stolen from them before it's even happened.

Do you think it's only a matter of time before they relegate the screenwriting awards to ad breaks too?

flurb said...

I've been lucky enough to play Higgins in both PYGMALION and MY FAIR LADY. The latter's songs are wonderful, but Lerner's script was awkwardly structured and is today problematic, as it effectively makes Higgins more of a jerk than Shaw did, and a lot of work has to go into making him palatable as a romantic lead. Shaw's Higgins has a huge ego, and is heedless of other's feelings, but he is no snob. He knows the accents of all those people in the first scene because he's hung out with them. He has no problem, for example, admitting Doolittle into his house - and according to Mrs Pierce, it's far from the first time he has encouraged such visitors. He's contemptuous of class - as his mother's comments make clear (even her remaining ones in MFL), he alienates all her well-to-do friends - and he is fascinated by blurring class lines, which is one of the reasons he takes Eliza's case. He wants to prove that class is only a false construct.
MFL's Higgins is contemptuous of people who don't speak the King's English, as if that were merely a matter of choice. He is very rich, with a gigantic house and a chorus line full of servants. PYGMALION's Higgins is nowhere near so flush, as he apparently has only Mrs Pierce, as has been making a living teaching American heiresses and the like to speak better.
Crucially, the very first reason Eliza feels protected by Higgins in PYGMALION has been removed in MFL, mostly to make Doolittle a harmless, adorable character. Shaw's Doolittle is a great talker, but he is not a nice man. At the end of his first scene in the play he threatens - not just verbally but physically - to beat Eliza with his belt. Higgins comes roaring to her defense, and throws him out of the house - not because he has bad breath or is dirty or poor, but, crucially, because of his actions. This is Eliza's introduction to Higgins' better side. The violent life of the lower classes, particularly violence against women, is one of Shaw's main concerns in his play, and though some lines referring to it remain in Lerner's version ("a thick pair of lips to kiss you with, and a thick pair of boots to kick you with"), they are without context, and seem today extraordinarily cruel things to say in a would-be lover's spat.
Frederick Loewe is the real hero of MFL, I think. Alan Jay Lerner was a talented lyricist at times, though he often is more clever than deep. But as a book writer he's never been great. BRIGADOON is okay, but as theatrical narratives, PAINT YOUR WAGON has no shape, CAMELOT is a mess, and ON A CLEAR DAY is a disaster. All of them have great songs, I rush to add, but no sensible producer would mount them today without tinkering with the books, and with good reason. In MFL, Lerner kept the "happy" ending from the Gabriel Pascal movie, but didn't sufficiently move Higgins into the romantic lead for today's audiences. The ending change wrought by Bartlet Sher in the current version is just a copout.
If Emma Thompson ever gets her film version of MFL made, I hope she addresses the weaknesses of the book while keeping all the good parts of the music.

Ken Levine said...

No Peter. The WGA won't allow it. And they won't approve any clips unless writers are honored on camera. The Emmys tried to do this and were similarly thwarted.

Cap'n Bob said...

I saw MFL in Seattle with Richard Chamberlain and a cast of unknowns (who were far more talented than Richard). But if Shaw wanted gay, Chamberlain filled the bill.

Peter said...

Thanks for answering my question!

Chris said...

There is an excellent analysis from a musical point of view of MFL here: https://www.fromscoretostage.com/
The writer makes the point that from the way Eliza and Higgins are written in the music, they are NOT MEANT TO BE TOGETHER (read it--it's amazing and I'm using it in my college-level class) and it was never really played that way, even in 1956.
Ken, it's my favorite musical, too, and given a choice I'd have chosen Benanti over Ambrose any day. Her voice is better trained. She's amazing.

Kaleberg said...

Changing the ending is a time honored tradition. Look at Shakespeare tacking an unhappy ending onto Geoffrey of Monmouth's version of the tale. In the original Lear and Cordelia came back and kicked ass. Shakespeare had to satisfy a different kind of audience.

Mike Schlesinger said...

I've seen this magnificent production twice: Last April with Ambrose, and then in November with Benanti. But here's the odd part: Benanti's show ended the same way as Ambrose's, which means the newer ending came into play sometime within the last three months.

BobinVT said...

Interesting to see this post immediately follow one about the Grammys. There is no doubt in my mind that MFL is the greatest musical ever. Every song is strong, and as you point out, at least six are immortal. The show is long, but so good that it seems to fly by. There are stories about the Broadway premiere where the audience cheered so long and loud after many of the songs that the cast was somewhat nonplussed. They couldn’t proceed with the show because of the raucous cheering, they couldn’t react by bowing, etc., so they just stood there awkwardly waiting for the noise to die down so they could continue. Unprecedented. Every song is a triumph of melody and lyrics. Current popular music on the other hand, embodied by the Grammys, features songs with virtually no melody. It is all about beat, sensation and “edge”. I get it, I am not young, and every generation rejects the next one’s music as not as good as theirs. But melody has been an important part of popular music from early Broadway, through the big band era, doo wop, rock, r and b, etc. But that seems to have ended with hip hop, rap and whatever else was celebrated the other night.

BobinVT said...

David Benson. PBS recently aired a Great Performances honoring Harold Prince. In relating how he got started, Prince tells that as a young director he was offered what was to become Hello Dolly by David Merrick, then one of Broadway’s most powerful figures. Prince turned it down because he didn’t care for the material. Instead he opted to direct She Loves You. It lasted three hundred performances while Dolly ran for seven years. But Prince stood by his decision. I’ll have to check out She Loves You.

Chris said...

@BobinVT: Prince is a great director (maybe the greatest) but he is drawn to more serious and even darker material. Had he directed "Dolly" it could not possibly have been the success that Gower Champion made of it. Yes, Prince had directed "The Matchmaker" (which I believe is what prompted Merrick to offer "Dolly" to him), but the tone of even that piece is different that what "Dolly" eventually became. Champion knew he had what was essentially a cartoon and proceeded accordingly--check out the color palette and designs of the original. Prince's attempt at that style ("It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman") missed the mark. Again, brilliant director, wrong material. Champion knew the casting of "Dolly" had to be...off. Thus Eileen Brennan and Charles Nelson Reilly as the lovers. Say what you will about Gower Champion (and that could be a lot), I don't think a "Hello, Dolly!" without him would have lasted more that a season on Broadway. The right director at the right moment of his career. David Merrick gave an interview in which he was asked who was responsible for the success of "Hello, Dolly!" Over and over again in every category (sets, costumes, songs, casting, etc.) he credited the guiding hand of Champion. When asked what he, David Merrick, the producer contributed to "Hello, Dolly!" he answered: "I hired Gower Champion."

gottacook said...

I've seen relatively few Broadway musicals but did see It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman in the spring of 1966 (I was 9) and I hardly blame Prince for its failure. Most of the songs were weak, unlike Bye Bye Birdie from the same team, and the audience had to spend too much time with unfamiliar characters (including one played by Linda Lavin, who got to sing the only memorable song, "You've Got Possibilities"). The top-lined star was Jack Cassidy as the previously-unheard-of Daily Planet columnist Max Mencken. Really, no director could have made that show work.

emmphx said...

In 2016, Julie Andrews directed a revival of MFL at the Sydney Opera House, for MFL's 6th anniversary. The hubby and I flew to Australia for our vacation that year, and saw Ms. Andrews' production. They recreated the 1956 production... it was fantastic!
http://www.playbill.com/article/julie-andrews-directed-my-fair-lady-breaks-sydney-opera-house-record

Andrew Krigel said...

That was excellent. I happened upon it one evening and loved it. And her.

Norm said...

Ken, sorry you missed the MFL revival that appeared at the PANTAGES Theatre (I believe in the 70's) in which Rex Harrison revived his starring role.

It was tremendous.

Steve Mc said...

I saw The Waverly Gallery shortly after you. I loved the show and Elaine May was amazing. She really nailed the rhythm of the dialogue without it seeming like a caricature. Joan Allen is wonderful but her character felt a little one dimensional until well into Act 2. Will you be posting your thoughts? I’d love to hear them.

Richard Hatem said...

I completely agree -- "My Fair Lady" is maybe the best musical of the Golden Age of musicals. It's incredibly durable -- I'll even sit through a mediocre high school production and love it. But weirdly, the best production I've ever seen was at a community theater in Bennington, Vermont. Go figure.