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.