Arts Review

Reviving Romances: Carousel and My Fair Lady on Broadway

Shortly after the original production of My Fair Lady opened in 1956, a man lucky enough to score tickets found himself sitting next to a woman of a certain age. The seat next to her was empty and, at intermission, the man turned to the woman, introduced himself, and asked her if she was enjoying the show. “Of course,” she said, “it’s absolutely marvelous!” “I couldn’t help noticing that the seat next to you is empty,” the man said. “Yes,” said the woman. “It was supposed to be filled by my dear husband, but he passed away last week.” “Oh, I’m so sorry,” said the man. “But after all, this is the biggest hit in years. Surely you could have found someone to join you in your husband’s place. A friend? A relative?” “Oh no,” said the woman. “They’re all at his funeral.”

This joke has been told, over the years, about many smash hit shows: Fiddler on the Roof, A Chorus Line, The Producers, Hamilton. But as far as we can tell, it seems to have originated with My Fair Lady, and this tells us something about just how epochal it was. “The Show of the Century” was a typical designation and, for years, the title was synonymous with “the perfect musical.” Until about 1990, any poll asking for the greatest musical of all time would have found My Fair Lady comfortably on top. And then (as in our wider culture), tastes began to fragment, and now there is no clear champion. Various factions might pick Gypsy, Follies, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, Sweeney Todd. And also Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Carousel.

Carousel was never as successful, as culturally pervasive, as My Fair Lady. It was never even the most popular of the big Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. But at a certain point, a consensus emerged that it had the finest of their scores and, arguably, the finest score ever written for a musical. It was certainly Rodgers’ favorite and clearly his most ambitious work, operatic in scope, with long, intricate musical sequences that exploded the standard 32-bar AABA template that had long dominated the genre. Carousel’s content dictated its form: adapted from Ferenc Molnár’s once-popular 1909 play Liliom, its story is dark, emotional, and tonally heterogeneous: a sober melodrama with lashings of humor and fantasy. My Fair Lady was adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s still-popular 1913 social satire Pygmalion, and its score by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, while glorious from first note to last, is not as complex as that of Carousel. It is original, yes, particularly in the famous Sprechstimme numbers for its leading man, but not structurally innovative.

Both shows were revived on Broadway last spring in lavish, richly cast productions that struggled, with varying degrees of success, to balance the works’ storied legacies with their relevance in the modern era. Carousel played the Imperial Theatre and My Fair Lady the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center. Much handwringing preceded, specifically over gender politics. Carousel’s female protagonist, Julie Jordan, marries ne’er-do-well carnival barker Billy Bigelow. He is emotionally distant, unreliable, and, in one instance, physically abusive, but Julie stands by her man, revering his memory even after his death. My Fair Lady’s lower-class flower girl Eliza Doolittle asks upper-class language professor Henry Higgins to teach her how to speak like a lady, enabling her social ascent. Henry is also emotionally distant and verbally abusive to his pupil, but their relationship develops into a kind of romance—albeit a complicated one that has varied in the story’s diverse incarnations. In the #MeToo era, can we tolerate works that celebrate women who put up with bad male behavior? On the one hand, it’s an absurd question: holding historical art accountable to modern political judgment would leave very few great works of the past in the repertory. On the other hand, theater is a living experience, and re-creative artists need to acknowledge contemporary expectations.

In the event, the Carousel revival, directed by veteran Jack O’Brien, was disqualified from serious consideration by the massive cuts to its book and score. A full 30 minutes of material went missing, including two entire numbers in the second act (“Geraniums in the Winder” and “Stonecutters Cut It on Stone”), as well as big musical chunks from other numbers, the entire final scene of the first act, most of the second act comic scene among the secondary characters Carrie Pipperidge, Enoch Snow and Jigger Craigin, and on and on. The cuts did not just desecrate an immortal score, they also made hash of much of the show’s carefully constructed symmetries, as well as its combination of class commentary and psychology. This was not a matter of the producers trading fusty curation for a modern, vital approach (Carousel doesn’t need to be “fixed” in that way), but rather of senseless choices that gutted what can be one of the musical theater’s most powerful works.

Hammerstein created strong contrasts among the rough, lower-class Billy and Jigger, the working-class Julie and Carrie, and the bourgeois Enoch, but the evisceration of most of the comic material in the second act destroyed the sense of how these characters navigate those differences. Similarly, the cut of the entire musical ensemble leading up to Julie’s aria of willful resignation, “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?,” removed the crucial point that Julie’s claim is a counter-response to the chorus women, putting her in opposition to the community. For her, the experience of love overrules her husband’s destructive behavior, but the price is ostracism. There was virtually no sense that Julie, even after Billy’s death, was an outcast, living on the wrong side of the tracks with a feral daughter who is shunned by the other children. In the final high-school graduation scene, Hammerstein clearly indicates in his stage directions that only Julie and a half-hearted Carrie clap when the daughter’s name is called, but in this production, the whole town warmly applauded.

Equally problematic was the pacing of the show, particularly the music direction, which rushed through every number at breathless speed. This hurt most in the famous “Bench Scene,” the long musical sequence which includes that most wonderful of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s conditional love songs, “If I Loved You.” The lickety-split pace prevented any sense of growing chemistry between Billy and Julie. There was no time for meaningful, held looks, no electric hesitations. As a result, there was no sense of an ineluctable sexual bond, an essential component of the subsequent way their relationship plays out. Just as damagingly, O’Brien tried to impose a framing device (imported from a similar approach that mucked up the 1956 Carousel film), opening the show with a brief appearance by the dead Billy and his heavenly judge, the Starkeeper, and then flashing back in time. The Starkeeper (the superb classical actor John Douglas Thompson) wandered unseen through many of the subsequent scenes to confusing and distracting effect. Anyone unfamiliar with the plot would have found this concept baffling.

As for the sexual politics, O’Brien ultimately ducked the issue. The sticking point for many people today is Julie’s seeming defense of Billy’s physical abuse. In the second act, Billy’s spirit appears to their now-grown daughter Louise, and, in a fit of frustration, he slaps her. Louise asks her mother, “Is it possible for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and for it not to hurt?” Julie replies, “Yes, darling, it is possible for someone to hit you hard, and for it not to hurt at all.” O’Brien cut this exchange entirely, walking away from a challenging but potentially productive moment. Hammerstein was not condoning spousal abuse. But in 1945, the year of Carousel’s premiere, the subject was not automatically regarded with horror, as it is today. It was certainly something to be uneasy about, but also something that might be excused, or even winked at. How do we confront this historical reality? Ignoring it seems like pretending it never existed.

A braver director might have found a way to force the audience to face this now-dated attitude and all the complexities it engages. In the acclaimed 1994 revival of Carousel, directed by Nicholas Hytner, the invisible spirit of Billy shouted “No!” at Julie’s response, agonized that his actions had caused her to feel this way about physical abuse. One might even argue that the exchange is, in some ways, central to Carousel’s major theme: that romantic love, in its irrational messiness, trumps all, even death. It’s Tristan und Isolde, but with clambakes and cable-knit sweaters. In fact, Julie and Louise’s exchange (in even more objectionable form) is the final moment in Liliom, the moral of its story. O’Brien and his team seem afraid to put uncomfortable, even distasteful, thoughts into the mouth of a sympathetic character, but surely this is part of what makes for adult, complex drama: the contradictions inherent in the human condition, especially when passion overwhelms an otherwise sensible person. I don’t pretend that there is an easy solution to this component of the show, especially in the current cultural moment, but O’Brien and team should have tried harder to find one.

One of this production’s star attractions was acclaimed ballet choreographer Justin Peck, making his musical theater debut. Superb dancing was the result, but at the expense of a sense of balance and momentum. Far too many numbers were over-choreographed, includ­ing an extended “Blow High, Blow Low,” already a narratively superfluous number that here devolved into lengthy divertissement. Peck fully choreographed the opening “Carousel Waltz,” distracting from the developing connection between Billy and Julie which typically plays out in simple pantomime. And the famous second-act ballet was a misfire, ending as it did with the pas de deux for Louise and the Barker Boy, rather than with the confrontation between Louise and the Snow children, which was inexplicably cut, thereby implying that her despair was the result of a failed romance, not from being shamed for her family background.

The overemphasis on choreography led to problematic casting, particularly in the case of ballet dancer Amar Ramasar, who simply could not convey Jigger’s rough malevolence. Opera diva Renée Fleming played Nettie Fowler, and it was nice to hear her creamy voice in “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” although I could have done without the spurious extension of the song into a highly-decorated second verse; this is meant to be a moment of quiet consolation, not a vocal showcase. Fleming does not have the acting skills to convince as a hearty clam-shack proprietress, and much of her dialogue was cut (for once, a mercy). Alexander Gemignani sounded great as Enoch, making the loss of half his music even more shameful. Lindsay Mendez, as Carrie, had vivacity and a wonderful comic touch. This role typically steals the show, and Mendez carried on that tradition, bringing as well a sterling soprano. Jessie Mueller, a vibrant and soulful actress and singer, struggled to make an impact as Julie. She was ultimately a victim of the surface-level staging and conducting.

The casting of the superb African-American actor Joshua Henry as Billy left me uncomfortable in a way that I don’t think the producers intended. I applaud the color-blind casting, but the fact that Henry played the role with modern vocal cadences, whereas the rest of the cast seemed grounded in the nineteenth-century period setting, created what felt, to me, like a racially-charged caricature of a modern, angry, wife-beating black man. Henry is an excellent actor and singer, and I certainly acknowledge that his casting worked well for many, including The New Yorker critic Hilton Als, who carefully parsed the implications of the decision and concluded that we are meant to read it literally. I’m not so sure: the fact that Billy is an outsider, rejected by the rigid New England community, squared with the actor’s race, but, at the same time, a marriage between a white woman and a black man would not have passed without comment or indeed prosecution in 1873, as it seems to do here.
After this dispiriting Carousel, the virtually uncut and generally well-conceived My Fair Lady revival, directed by Bartlett Sher, felt like a gift. I wish the production had more energy, especially in its first half. As well, some casting and staging issues meant that certain numbers didn’t quite land, but at least, with this production, you really got the show (it lasted three hours on the dot), not the series of highlights that passed for Carousel. My Fair Lady’s evergreen thrill lies in the electric clash of two brilliant, egomaniacal, strongly opinionated principals, a formula that has worked since at least Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Such conflicts of will always carry a sexual undercurrent, and most works follow through on this, but My Fair Lady, much like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, which preceded it by five years, plays with this sexual energy but doesn’t foreground it. My Fair Lady skirts its potential romance and focuses instead on intellectual passion—although in this revival, the two leading roles were cast with actors of roughly the same age, breaking with tradition and somewhat upping the sexual stakes.

Shaw—and then Lerner—wrote about two people fighting each other but also themselves, or rather their own perceptions of themselves, their own senses of agency and limitation. Each of the great alternating solos for Henry and Eliza that mark the progression of the score is a sortie in this great battle, each saying, “THIS is who I am—and you are WRONG,” followed by “No, THIS is who I am—and YOU are wrong.” Note, in fact, how carefully Shaw and Lerner make it clear, from the start of the show, that Eliza, despite her humble origins, has enormous potential. Whereas most young women in her position would retreat from confrontation and avoid drawing attention, she is aggressive, talkative, inquisitive from the first moments. What makes the story so satisfying is the revelation that this woman, who might otherwise have gone through her life ignored, turns out to be brilliant, incisive, witty, empathetic, and a keen social critic. There’s a reason that, halfway through the first act, the two successive songs, “The Rain in Spain” and “I Could Have Danced All Night,” never fail to stop the show. These are songs about the explosion of possibility for a character we’ve quickly grown to love. The latter song, in particular, thrills in a way that a simple “I just fell in love” song never could. Eliza is experiencing an awakening that yes, has an erotic component, but mainly is tied to a sudden glimpse of an unlimited future, a realization that she will now be able to do “a thousand things I’ve never done before.”

The problem Eliza faces is that the man she eventually recognizes as her intellectual equal is not built for romance. Today, we would say that Henry Higgins presents with classic Asperger’s symptoms: he lacks emotional intelligence, has no sense of how to pick up social cues and engage in civil conversations, and is obsessed with arcane subjects (here, linguistics) that he commands with savant-like virtuosity. If the show’s first act focuses on Eliza’s journey, the second act turns to whether Henry will be able to break through his limitations and truly evolve. Can he learn empathy? Can anyone? The answer seems to be no. He is verbally abusive to Eliza and then dismissive of her once she has triumphed at the Embassy Ball, leading to a massive fight in which she tries to express how his cruel neglect wounds her. But Henry can’t see it. He can feel sorry for himself, but he never understands why Eliza is upset. He can’t see the world through her eyes, which is, of course, the definition of empathy. At most, he realizes that he should modify his behavior in order to satisfy his desire for her companionship, even if that modification seems senseless to him. So the question then becomes: will an insincere attempt at kindness and empathy be enough for her?

One way to read the arc of the story is that it is about the creation of an alternative family. Henry invites his colleague and fellow bachelor Colonel Pickering into his home and, once Eliza joins them, they form a sort of sexless familial trio, sharing meals and outings, variously criticizing and supporting each other, subject to the squabbles and affection of any family unit. In this reading, Eliza’s problem is that she is expected to be wife-without-benefits or, rather, Mother to these two men. Lerner underplays this—although his personal romantic history, which encompassed eight marriages, was a lifelong quest for a wife/mother to solve his many neuroses—but Shaw calls it out, making it quite clear that Henry has a mother fixation. Today, we see this situation as a raw deal for Eliza, particularly since her contributions to the family unit are met with at best indifference and at worst callous abuse. Today, we might wonder that Eliza puts up with this as long as she does, but let’s not forget that her point of comparison was the very real physical deprivations of lower-class life in Edwardian England. What’s more, she recognizes the underlying intellectual camaraderie as well as the tacit warmth and need that fuel the faux family—Pickering, at least, is cordial if a bit oblivious. Again, her climactic struggle comes down to whether that unspoken dynamic will be enough for her.

Sher clearly relishes digging into these complexities, and he’s cast his show with two actors who bring significant chops to the two big scenes in the second act in which the Shavian dialectic plays out: the fight after the Ball and the negotiation in Mrs. Higgins’ solarium. Harry Hadden-Paton (you’ll remember him as Lady Edith’s eventual husband on Downton Abbey) is far more vulnerable and wounded than Rex Harrison, the original Henry, whose landmark performance was immortalized in the 1964 film. Harrison was deliciously petulant and angry, whereas Hadden-Paton is at first blandly, almost charmingly ill-mannered, then increasingly beleaguered and frightened. “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” the great extended soliloquy at the end of the show, becomes a true dark-night-of-the-soul, with Henry genuinely overwhelmed at how Eliza’s presence has become a habit that he finds himself unable to break. Hadden-Paton doesn’t quite land his first two solos in the first act but grows as the evening goes on. He also sings more than any previous Henry I’ve heard—a mistake, perhaps in that the numbers don’t feel quite as pointed and vigorous as when they’re rhythmically spoken.

Lauren Ambrose, with plenty of previous theatrical experience but none of it in musicals, was a surprise choice for Eliza. She’s a thoughtful actress who brings original and intricate shadings to her dialogue and great comic timing to the Ascot scene. She brought off Eliza’s breakthrough moment in the first act, when she first correctly pronounces “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain,” better than in any previous production I’ve seen. Rather than an instant flick-a-switch moment of enlightenment, which always strikes me as rather unbelievable after weeks of utter failure, Ambrose really played the struggle, working out each vowel with physical intensity, showing just how difficult it is to retrain vocal cords and to do so with consistency. Her transformation, in fact, was never quite complete. Ambrose showed Eliza continually working to keep the accent correct and the manner aristocratic, unlike Audrey Hepburn in the film who, once she puts on her ball gown, becomes elegance incarnate and never looks back. With Ambrose, you understand what Eliza means when she says that after her transformation she doesn’t belong anywhere anymore, that she’s not fit for one world or the other. With Hepburn, you feel like all of Mayfair would be at her feet. (Note, by the way, the clever and rarely recognized pun in the show’s title which is how the pre-trained Eliza would pronounce her goal of being a “Mayfair Lady.”)

Ambrose’s physicality can be strange; she spends much of the first act twisting and bending her arms and wrists, an attempt, perhaps, to convey Eliza’s awkwardness that just comes off as mannered. Her singing was tentative at first—again, this may have been a deliberate character choice—and she has a distressing habit of singing just a bit behind the beat, as if she can’t quite feel the rhythms that give the songs their momentum. Still, by “I Could Have Danced All Night,” she came into her own and delivered the song with confidence. Her pitch is excellent and her tone engaging. Sher had her step off the set to the front lip of the stage for the final verse and, as the lights dimmed behind her, a spotlight isolating her lovely, rapturous presence, she flung the song’s thrilling final phrases into the darkness—a true musical theater goosebump moment. Does she sing with the crystalline purity of Julie Andrews? Of course not. But she brings something of her own. The supporting cast was strong, highlighted by Dame Diana Rigg as a splendid, if somewhat physically frail, Mrs. Higgins, and marred only by Manu Narayan’s offensively caricatured Zoltan Karpathy.

Sher’s staging of the first act montage of lesson scenes is detailed and very funny, and his work on the dialogue scenes in general is rich and nuanced. Where he falls short, as always, is in his perpetual fear of vulgarity, of the “too much-ness” that sometimes kicks a show into high gear. This approach, not uncommon in directors of musicals who come primarily from straight play backgrounds, shies away from the show-business vitality that powers even the most elegant musical plays of the golden age. Sher’s My Fair Lady simply lacks vigor, especially in the first act and most especially in the music hall-soaked scenes involving Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, here Norbert Leo Butz (generally well cast, although the music lies too low for him). One imagines Sher in rehearsal constantly asking the actors to “tone it down” and “make it real”—an approach that fatally sabotaged actor Danny Burstein’s Tevye in Sher’s Fiddler on the Roof. On the other hand, Michael Yeargan’s lavish set shows off just a bit too much, revolving to the point of distraction throughout much of the first act.

What does happen at the end of My Fair Lady, or Pygmalion for that matter? Shaw ends his play with Eliza walking out and Henry put in his place. Yet, to his horror, the playwright saw on opening night that his leading actors, the legendary Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, were playing the final scene with winking subtext, clearly signaling their romantic intentions. The audience was so sure that romance was in the cards post-curtain that, several years later, Shaw famously felt the need to write a postscript essay in which he asserts that Eliza marries her dippy, aristocratic suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and that she remains cordial with Henry although their relationship is always somewhat prickly. Eliza, Shaw posits, has the occasional daydream about getting Henry alone on a desert island and making passionate love, but she knows that never will, nor should, happen as they are too wary of each other, too aware of how to push each other’s buttons. “Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion,” Shaw explains. And anyway, what’s wrong with cordiality as a happy ending? Why does every comedy have to end with romantic love?

Lerner disagreed. In his prefatory note to the published script, he notes that Shaw intended Eliza to end up with Freddy and says, “Shaw and Heaven forgive me, I am not certain he is right.” Following the lead of the hugely popular 1938 Pygmalion film, he ends My Fair Lady with Eliza returning to Henry’s house, to the Professor’s great relief. Henry doesn’t give away his satisfaction, pulling his hat over his head and asking, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?,” as if to indicate that he’s going to stay as irascible as ever. “There are tears in Eliza’s eyes,” say Lerner’s stage directions. “She understands.” The orchestra plays the lush climax of “I Could Have Danced All Night” as underscoring.

Is this the final word on Eliza and Henry? For several generations of theatergoers, this unlikely romance felt inevitable. Listening to the cast album certainly enforces that conclusion as the music is sweepingly romantic (Loewe couldn’t really write any other way). But the two lengthy dialogue confrontations between Eliza and Henry in the second act, lifted virtually word-for-word from Shaw, complicate the picture. Minutes before the end of the play, Eliza asserts clearly that friendship is her goal. She tells Henry that she stayed with him for so long “because we were pleasant together and I come—came to care for you; not to want you to make love to me . . . but more friendly like.” In this revival, Sher interpolates a line from Pygmalion into this scene that Lerner had not used, making it clear that Henry at least intellectually acknowledges her need for an equitable relationship, saying, “I think a woman fetching a man’s slippers is a disgusting sight: did I ever fetch your slippers? I think a good deal more of you for throwing them in my face.” This scene is about Eliza and Henry trying to decide what their relationship is going to be. And so, once again, we ask: can she live with him, knowing that he will not be able to change the way he is? Shaw said no. Lerner said yes (“she understands”). Sher says: probably not.

In the 2001 revival, directed by Trevor Nunn at London’s National Theatre, Henry delivered his final “slippers” line as a challenge, standing with his arms crossed. Eliza responded by mirroring his defiant stance, and then the two broke into warm laughter as the curtain fell, indicating that, despite their recognized incompatibility, their mutual attributes of intelligence and wit would help them make some form of relationship work, one way or another. In this new production’s final scene, Eliza comes back to find a chastened Henry, who asks about his slippers in a tone both hopeful and frightened. “I’m not going to be able to change, to become a fully empathetic and kind person,” he seems to be saying, “but can you still find a way to love me?” She walks over to him, caresses his cheek tenderly, then turns and walks out of his house, off the stage, and up the center aisle of the theater. This seems a definitive exit, but it’s possible that Sher simply means to shut down any hope of romance.

The bigger question is why Eliza comes all the way back to the house, only to walk out a moment later. Is she giving him one last chance to say the right thing? I think not; she has made up her mind in the previous scene. Rather, she regrets their previous parting, which was full of bad feelings and unresolved questions. She wants him to understand that she cares for him and, more, that she honors and thanks him for saving her from the despair of poverty. And perhaps to let him know that “she understands” his limitations and doesn’t blame him. Yes, Loewe’s underscore here is sweepingly romantic, but let us not forget that “I Could Have Danced All Night” is her song, not their song. The romance is in her sense of possibility, which may or may not contain erotic connections with the various men in her life. It is this interpretation that gives me hope that they will find a way to remain friendly, however contentiously so: two people so smart, so opinionated and so passionate should surely have that pleasure.