Sunday, September 2, 2012

Free Eliza Doolittle!

I had the pleasure of seeing the SF Playhouse production of My Fair Lady last night with friends. It's always fun to see live theater, and I do like the SF Playhouse—it's such a plucky little theater company. If the terms "live theater" and "plucky little theater company" sound good to you, then I think you'd enjoy this production. The music in My Fair Lady is, of course, wonderful—and it's very well done in this show. But the production lacks some polish. The costumes, especially, had a "kids, search your closets" sort of feel. Henry Higgins's black shoes were very distracting: his trouser cuffs kept exposing their giant bat-shaped buckles. Were these shoes a souvenir of the actor's gothy youth, we wondered? 

That's a minor quibble, to be sure. But what's interesting is that these shoes sort of pointed to, I think, a missed opportunity with this show—a modernization or a "look through the lens of our times" that this production weakly pointed to at times. But having one of the Cockneys breakdance for just a moment didn't take this idea far enough. 

I've seen the film version of My Fair Lady a couple of times. It's easy to get distracted by the camp of it all—and the songs, which are so captivating. But the Pygmalion story, as expressed through this musical, really speaks to our country's current conversation about poverty and class, I think. There's a chance I'm still reeling from some of the attack speeches at the Republican National Convention, but My Fair Lady (this production included) almost seems sort of Ayn Rand-ian at times. That's a low insult, so let me explain: For one thing, the show seems to look at poverty as a chosen state. Professor Higgins's viewpoint is something like this: "If the unwashed lower classes would just seek out education, their problems would be solved! But they're obviously happy in their muck." And the poor wretches, as portrayed in the show, support this notion. Their poverty looks like rather a lark. Drink, drink, drink, get some change thrown at you, and then dance a happy jig. It's adorable.

When Eliza presents herself to be Professor Higgins's prisoner and guinea pig, we're led to view it as an up-by-her-bootstraps act of will. "Look—she's improving herself. Anyone can do it." But what if this moment were staged more clearly as an act of desperation, which is what it looks like to me?

There's a lot to explore in this vein, I think. And it could be clearer that Eliza's pride and self-respect are something she holds on to in spite of Higgins's experimentation, not something she gains through it.

The biggest problem with My Fair Lady is the ending, which I guess one can't do much about. I mean, obviously, Eliza Doolittle is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. How else can we explain her attraction to the the abusive, tyrannical Higgins? In George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, Eliza doesn't return to the professor at the end, as she does in the musical—in Pygmalion, she goes off to marry Freddy, who's kind of a nonentity in My Fair Lady. We get that Freddy is sort of a sap, but he loves Eliza madly (as she is), and he's nice to her. Something Henry Higgins never is. Compare the worshipful "On the Street Where You Live" with the begrudging (but still sweet, sure) "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face."

Ugh! Now I hate that ending. It'd be a cute song in the mouth of someone just a bit more self-aware. Free Eliza! Free Eliza! Free Eliza!

This could be staged a lot more convincingly and poignantly. I mean, Freddy's primary shortcoming seems to be that he's not rich. How sad! And how apropos to our times. Because that seems to be the problem that many Republicans have with poor people: they simply don't earn enough money, those rogues. People like Ann Romney seem to think that being rich is easy—after all, she and Mitt started out eating pasta on an ironing board, so why can't everyone get from that level to hers? It's infuriating, the lack of empathy—and the lack of intelligence—on display, the inability to recognize one's own great good fortune (and recognize the difference between truly being poor and "slumming it"). I'm not jealous of rich people. I'm annoyed that they think being rich is something anyone can do if they just work hard. Why can't the English learn to speak? And why can't Americans just get off of welfare?

Maybe I need to lay off politics for a while. It's just ruining musicals for me. 

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