I have seen My Fair Lady an alarming number of times but never on stage. The musical is coming to the Coliseum in London and when it was announced I learned that Amara Okereke, who plays Eliza Doolittle, has reportedly watched the film version over 200 times. Now, it’s not a competition, but I think I’m up there with those kind of numbers.
I hadn’t seen the movie in years, as I did most of my viewing in my early childhood when my grandmother was taking care of me. At the time, grandmothers were not armed with the same childcare tools. There was no on-demand children’s TV, iPad or YouTube, so she had to rely on the humble VHS to entertain a preschooler. She narrowed down the relevance of her video collection to a fairly small number of classic musicals. My Fair Lady was a weekly watch.
Other musicals in my grandmother’s collection include Carousel, Oklahoma! and Oliver! but My Fair Lady was my favorite. I think it could be because the female protagonist felt different from the others at the time. Eliza is outspoken, loud, and funny, and transforms into a princess with real poise and beauty.
Eliza isn’t treated well by the male characters but as a younger person I don’t think the misogyny really registers. A child may not have a nuanced view of Professor Henry Higgins’ treatment of women, but they are more likely to appreciate Eliza by shouting ‘COME ON, DOVER! MOVE YOUR ASS BLOOMIN!” Ass is just a fantastic word to shout for a female lead, and this moment in the movie is as joyful to me now as it was about 30 years ago.
In a replay as an adult, it’s clear that Higgins despises all women, except perhaps his mother. He’s awful with Eliza and not much better with her governess, Mrs. Pearce. He sets out to dehumanize Eliza by calling her a “presumptuous insect” or a “dragging-tailed gutter”. His treatment of her is horrible, but the writer in me can’t help but appreciate his choice of words. It sounds like the very definition of a guilty pleasure, to listen to a tirade of sexist insults that includes language such as: “You crushed the cabbage leaf, you dishonor the noble architecture of these columns, you embody the insult to the English language”. You don’t love him for the way he treats her, but he’s hugely entertaining as a word maker, and when he expresses himself through song, thanks to Rex Harrison’s performance, you still love him. more.
You want Eliza to succeed and win, but I found myself also wanting Higgins and Colonel Pickering to ride off into the sunset holding hands. The song Why can’t a woman be more like a man? seems to me to point out that Pickering might be the perfect match for Higgins, rather than Eliza not being right for him, and you want them to live in a world where they can openly explore that.
As for the show’s conclusion, it would be satisfying if Higgins met a grizzly ending, as depicted in revenge song Just You Wait. I don’t think modern audiences would want Eliza to end up with any of the male characters. You want a man for her who has the intellect of Higgins but the heart of her young love, Freddy.
Freddy has one of the best numbers – The Street Where You Live – but you can see why it’s a no from Eliza, because even a cracking song can’t save you when you’ve got the personality of a rag. I think the future that modern audiences would want for Eliza would be for her to continue to push through those class barriers and go it alone; she is ready for it.
My Fair Lady belongs to an era of musicals that spark valid discussions about whether or not they should be revived, mostly because they don’t live up to modern standards. I don’t think My Fair Lady quite falls into that category. Yes, he has his issues, but I still think there’s good reason to revive him for years to come, and I can’t wait to finally see him on stage this summer.