A View from the Wings: My Fair Lady
After twenty-five years, My Fair Lady is back on Broadway. It’s often called the “perfect musical.” “But there’s no such thing as a perfect musical,” says Adam Grupper, an ensemble member in the Lincoln Center Theater revival. “There’s only what’s perfect for now.” The original 1956 Rex Harrison-Julie Andrews production is said to have embraced the misogyny inherent in the script. This revival, on the other hand, is something different—something perfect for now. The sexist overtones have been reoriented by director Bartlett Sher for the #MeToo era, and empowerment is on the table.
For the uninitiated, My Fair Lady, written by Lerner and Loewe and based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, tells the story of English pauper Eliza Doolittle whose coarse accent is overheard one night by linguistics scholar Henry Higgins. He bets a friend that he can transform her into a duchess simply by teaching her to speak properly. The next day she arrives at his door, ready for her lessons. The question today is: Does Higgins save Eliza, or does she save herself?
It’s a good question. It’s unfortunately not one I thought about when I was first introduced to Eliza Doolittle at thirteen in the suburbs of northern Virginia. It was the summer before eighth grade which I remember acutely to the refrains of My Fair Lady.
Then? I’m thirteen, and I’m happy. This is a big deal because a lot of the time I’m thirteen and I’m not happy. I'm not happy on the bus where Teddy is catcalling me on behalf of his creepy friend. I'm not happy in the cafeteria where everyone has delineated circles of friends and I linger on the periphery. I’m not happy in science class where Thomas heckles me and the whole class laughs except my peripheral friends who stay quiet.
But I am happy here. In the catwalk. In the fly loft. In the wings. Backstage. I'm happy, and the chorus of Wouldn't it be loverly? is floating through the air, and I'm mouthing the words and bobbing my head and imagining being a grown-up like Erin who plays Eliza (all of eighteen) and performing her part on stage and kissing Henry Higgins at the end of the play—all without a thought of feminism in my head.
My chin rests on the cold metal bar that overlooks the whole house and stage from way up high, where I can let my legs dangle down and smell the must of the catwalk and hear the actors rehearsing and the director in the house talking to the stage manager and the adults getting ready to open the doors. Feeling alive. Feeling like myself. Totally comfortable in my skin.
Of course it’s the perfect musical.
Being on the stage crew for My Fair Lady feels like being one of Santa’s elves—even when we screw up, and the wheels of a set piece get stuck and it comes flying onstage after the lights are already up. I can feel the magic in my veins. I have my “blacks” that should probably be washed more often than they are. I have a piece of glow tape stuck to my shoe. And I have my people—my best friend, my good friends, my new friends, and my crush who is only a friend. I could direct all of Eliza’s anthems at him. Slighted? “I can do WITHOUT YOU!” she belts in the last act. Thrilled by a friendly hug? “I COULD HAVE DANCED, DANCED, DANCED ALL NIGHT!” Frustrated by the confusing platonic tones? “If you’re in love, SHOW ME! SHOW ME!” (He never did.)
To me, these tunes feel like they’ve always existed. As if they’re songs the Ancient Greeks might have sung in their amphitheaters—only with Eliza as a slave girl and Higgins a god (or the disaffected son of one). I had no idea that My Fair Lady was a difficult show to write. So difficult, in fact, that Rodgers and Hammerstein couldn’t do it. They told Lerner and Loewe it was impossible. It took them years. I wonder if Lerner and Loewe danced around their living room just like Eliza and Higgins when they finally had their breakthrough. (It was returning to Shaw’s text that helped them crack it.)
This theater where these songs become second nature feels like home. I’ve come here year-round since the sixth grade. The timing is fortunate since that’s when school became a cesspool of crippling insecurity and pre-college pressure. Fall show, winter show, spring show. On stage, back stage, no difference, I’m here. The House at Pooh Corner, Narnia, Stuart Little, Meet the Creeps… (My breakout performance is as Winnie the Pooh.) I always stay after the final matinee to help tear down the sets. Turning them to scraps represents everything I’m feeling and how much it hurts. The show is over. It’s time to go.
It was pointed out to me once that the impermanence of theater is what’s so special about it. Maybe that’s why I love it so much. If nostalgia were a drug, I’d be an addict. Whatever else it may do or be, a play does not last.
But it does revive.
I hadn’t seen My Fair Lady since that summer seventeen years ago. Today, my crush is grown up with a wife and a baby. My best friend lives near me, but we don’t really talk. The old theater has been gut-renovated. My musty sanctuary is no more. So when I saw the hand-painted poster for the Lincoln Center Theater revival fluttering over west 65th street and Broadway, my heart skipped a little beat.
I was psyched. I was nervous. Would seeing it let that summer resurface? Yes. Would it make what we did feel small? Well.
It is a mind-blowing production. An experience I wish I could see and hear and feel over and over and over again. From the moment the overture began, I had chills up my spine that didn’t go away until the curtain closed and everyone else got up to go. Led by Lauren Ambrose as Eliza Doolittle and Harry Hadden-Paton as Henry Higgins, not one part of the vast body that is this show feels out of tune.
Adam Grupper and fellow ensemble members Steven Trumon Gray and Paul Slade Smith shared with me about the time when they were all out on the enormous stage, newly transplanted from their rehearsal space. They didn’t know the full orchestra was in the pit below. They hadn’t rehearsed with them yet. Suddenly the overture began, and music filled the space. They all stood there frozen, listening. It brought them to tears.
The sets, designed by Michael Yeargan, are feats of architecture. Henry Higgins’s house is massive and complex. His study has a balcony, no less than three doors, and spins on a turntable like a life-size dollhouse. I asked the guys if that blew them away too. They’d already seen a model of it, but still, when it first moved forward from the depths of the backstage, “it was like an alien spacecraft landing.”
Two moments of particular poetry stand out to me. Eliza’s breakthrough comes right after Higgins is kind to her for the first time, gently bringing her a cup of coffee. (Mr. Sher changed it from the archaic bag of ice as scripted.) Kindness, not cruelty, yields results. Later, a transformed woman, Eliza leaves him and returns to her former home of Covent Garden. But she is not welcome there. She no longer belongs. It’s a different take than the obsequious reception she is traditionally given by her former friends (another nod to Mr. Sher). It hurts more this way—and it’s the truth. We can’t go back as we move on. Even if we want to.
It breaks my heart, but I can’t return to that catwalk with my legs dangling over the house. Even if it still existed, I’m thirty now. That was a space for a lonely, joyful thirteen year old, looking to feel free. I asked the Lincoln Center Theater press team anyway if I could watch My Fair Lady from backstage somewhere. I promised I would stay out of the way. I thought it would add an interesting layer to all of this, but deep down I just wanted to be back there again. A part of it. I was saddened, but not surprised when they said no. That’s not my role in this show.
I left Lincoln Center the night I saw My Fair Lady full of music and the bittersweet taste of nostalgia. A man with a saxophone was busking at the 66th street train station playing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” as patrons from the theater trickled onto the platform. When the train came, he put down his instrument and wiped the sweat from his brow. As we pulled away, he flipped to a new page. The first notes of “I’m gettin’ married in the morning…” rang out and then we were gone, rushing through the tunnels underneath Manhattan, heading home.