Theatre yesterday and today



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Twenty-one year-old Julie Andrews in the original production of My Fair Lady (1956).

With My Fair Lady turning sixty-five today, does it mean this world-favorite musical has reached retirement age? With no such mandatory restrictions in the theatre it might seem a frivolous question, yet in some cases, a show can wear out its welcome over many decades. Has time been kind to one of the most successful of the Golden Age of Musicals? A subject for today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”

In 2018, when the first Broadway revival of My Fair Lady in a quarter-century opened at Lincoln Center, it had more than a few purists up in arms, offering as it did an update here and there, the omission of a line or two, and an unusual take on its ending. Arguments centered not only on these so-called improvements, but on whether any rethinking was necessary at all for a musical that was already revered in an opening night review in 1956 as “a legendary evening.”* But with a host of social issues that have become part of the conversation today no one could have imagined then, it feels as if there needs to be reminding that MFL was always a period piece and was never meant to reflect contemporary values. Compare them, yes. Three years ago when director Bartlett Sher tinkered with his revival, classical theatre was already tiptoeing through potential landmines (a decidedly scared-of-its-own-shadow Carousel had opened on Broadway just one week earlier) with changes few thought were for the better. And just consider last week’s dual announcements about sending both a Warner Brothers cartoon character and drawings by Dr. Seuss to the trash due to certain perceived insensitivities.

Yes. I’m worried whether Henry Higgins will be the next Pepe LePew.

Of course, at sixty-five, My Fair Lady is relatively young compared to its source, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which had its premiere (in German) at the Hofburg Theatre in Vienna on October 16, 1913. Six months later it had its American premiere (also in German) on New York’s Lower East Side. One of the reasons London didn’t get the production first was due to Shaw having written the role of Eliza Doolittle expressly for the actress Beatrice Stella Campbell (1865–1940), known professionally as Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Unavailable when first shown the play, she made her debut in a production directed by Shaw himself — April 11, 1914 — at the age of forty-nine, such was her star power and status with the British public. Interesting note: she and Shaw conducted a brief, yet passionate love affair at this time (though unconsummated), proof of which exist in their letters, which weren’t published until 1952, two years after the playwright’s death.

Mrs. Patrick Campbell (1865–1940).

Being over a hundred years old, Pygmalion is a tot compared to its source: an ancient Greek myth well known by virtue of the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses who repurposed it in 8 AD. As the tale goes, Pygmalion was an artist who supposedly sculpted an ideal woman — only to fall in love with the statue. This was the take-off point for Shaw, whose idea it was that Henry Higgins “sculpts” Eliza, a common flower girl into someone he could pass off as a duchess due to his ability to alter her speech and bearing, which represented to him — and to then society’s image — of an ideal woman. Although Higgins’s love is never boldly declared, his declaration at having “Grown Accustomed to Her Face” is one of My Fair Lady’s most appealing strokes of genius musically (and lyrically, a lift straight out of Shaw’s dialogue).

Pygmalion and Galetea, as painted by Jean-Leon Gerome (1824–1904).

This was part of what librettist Alan Jay Lerner accomplished in his adaptation which many who came before him thought impossible. He took Shaw’s essentially unromantic story and turned it into something ravishingly r