A Love Letter to Eliza Doolittle and the Lincoln Center My Fair Lady Revival

As a woman living in the current political climate we have in the United States (in which women are losing legal control over their own bodies), sometimes I question whether some Golden Age musicals in their original form are appropriate to revive right now. Often, the women have little agency and the relationships are worryingly unhealthy. Especially as someone with a teenage sister, I worry about the ideas that these shows can give to young girls (and boys) in their formative years.

I'm not against revivals of these shows, but I'm a fan of ones that aren't afraid to update the show a bit to alter problematic lines or to highlight the gender politics that are occurring. For example, the current Roundabout production of Kiss Me Kate hired a female writer, Amanda Green, to make some tweaks to the script to make it more appropriate for a modern audience to great success. Similarly, the 2013 Broadway revival of Cinderella was updated fairly heavily to preserve the general story and score but give the character of Ella more agency (and political awareness) and the prince more of personality.

A shining example of this in my eyes is Bartlett Sher's revival of My Fair Lady at the Lincoln Center. It harkens back to the show's original roots -- George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion -- much more than the musical or the movie based on it traditionally did. The current production plays up the gritty reality of Eliza's former life a Covent Garden flower girl and even tweaks the ending in a beautiful and brilliant way. I wasn't able to see the original Eliza, Lauren Ambrose, but I've seen the new Eliza in the show twice in the past few months.

Much of this is due to Barlett Sher's brilliant direction and some of the glory has to go to Harry Hadden-Paton for his Henry Higgins, a man every bit as changed by Eliza as she is by him. However, one has to laud Laura Benanti for what she has done with the character of Eliza Doolittle. I've loved Laura Benanti's work for years and also have a lot of admiration for her as a working mother and a woman who stands up for causes she believes in. The fact that she's a wickedly funny comedic actress and has an impressively soaring soprano voice is also pretty cool.

On the evening of this Eliza Doolittle Day (so called this for the line in "Just You Wait" which calls out May 20th), I wanted to take some time to appreciate the Eliza of this Lincoln Center revival as played by Ms. Benanti. She is the Eliza that I wished for as a little girl watching the movie and hoping that the flower girl might learn to stand on her own two feet. She's no ingenue, and not because Laura Benanti is older than the 18 years old the character is originally meant to be, but because she's wise to the ways of the world already.

For as much as she wants to learn proper elocution from Higgins, never once does she need him. She is smart and fierce from the first time we see her onstage. In fact, it's him who needs her and the show becomes a powerful statement that you can be right for someone and them not be right for you. Her bond with her young suitor Freddy (played delightfully by Christian Dante White as a Mr. Bingley sort who is utterly lacking in the cold reserve that characterizes most of the upper class characters) is less her searching for someone to take care of her and more the meeting of two outsiders in high society.

The show is a shockingly real glimpse at gender relations at the time, that often feels surprisingly modern. Benanti's scenes with Rosemary Harris's Mrs. Higgins show a connection between two women who are used to putting up with less clever men. There's a recognition of the sort of emotional labor that women often perform for men. Her relationship with her father is also given nuance, with her skittishness with him suggesting the physical and emotional abuse that the script hints at.

This Eliza Doolittle is funny and not just circumstantially. I saw the My Fair Lady panel at BroadwayCon and Laura Benanti discussed that she had done research on the conditions of life that Covent Garden flower girls experienced and decided that Eliza's humor is a coping mechanism for the life she leads. It makes sense that a woman who had survived through such experiences with her courage, wit, and determination intact would have the wit and good humor to laugh at her circumstances. It's best on show in the scene where she finally is able to pronounce her h's which drew raucous laughter from the crowd both times I saw the show.

Essentially in the right hands and with the right director, I think that a Golden Age musical can still have much to say to women today. Laura Benanti's Eliza Doolittle is everything that I could ever hope for in a musical heroine. This revival, in both its revision of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins, fixes every issue I can remember having with the show when I watched the movie over and over as a young girl. When Eliza sings "Without You" to Henry Higgins near the end of the show, I honestly believe her that she'll get on fine without him -- just as George Bernard Shaw would have me think.

 If you're going to be in New York before the show closes on June 7, I highly recommend getting a ticket as the Lincoln Center's costumes and sets can't be beat and this is obviously a very special production.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus 

Review: All is True

RATING: ★★★★

Sometimes I feel like I ought to write Kenneth Branagh a thank you note for always making films that are so oriented towards my personal tastes. Branagh is one of my favorite directors and his 2015 Cinderella one of my top five films of all time. I also have a fondness for Branagh's films as he is the president of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London which my best friend attends and he has a tendency to cast RADA students and graduates in his films.

When it was first announced that Branagh was directing and starring in a film in which he would play William Shakespeare at the end of his life, I was thrilled. Certainly, Branagh understands Shakespeare better than just about any living person, something proved to me by seeing the Hamlet he directed at RADA last year. Adding Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, and one of my all time favorite stage actors Hadley Fraser to the mix only made me more excited. The film didn't get stellar reviews after its short Oscar qualifying run in LA late last year and its release in the UK earlier this year, but I'm thrilled that it's now finally in select theatres across the United States.

This film is a fascinating look at Shakespeare like we've never seen him before on film. While it's certainly fanciful and takes lots of liberties with the facts that we do know (a bisexual Shakespeare? it's more likely than you think), it's also a far cry from the horrifically-inaccurate-if-wildly-entertaining Shakespeare in Love. Branagh brings a lot to the role of Shakespeare, the great poet and playwright, who is returning to Stratford upon Avon after two decades in London and has to reforge a place for himself in the town that he grew up in and the family he left behind, while finally dealing with the grief of losing his only son and wondering what sort of legacy he will have after his death.

It delighted me to see a Shakespeare who is less concerned about if people will remember him once he's gone and more concerned about where the money he'd spent his life accumulating will go upon his death as he has no son or grandson and doesn't particularly fancy it going to his Puritan theatre-hating son-in-law. Much of this domestic drama is centered around him rebuilding his relationships with his wife and two daughters.

While the film certainly explores gender politics and presents a Shakespeare who has constantly underestimated and pushed away the women in his life, it also doesn't heavy-handidly force modern feminism into places it doesn't fit like many period dramas are prone to doing. I don't think it's a stretch to think that the man who wrote roles like Lady Macbeth and Beatrice could come to respect the women in his life.

While Branagh is clearly the star, the supporting cast are all lovely. Judi Dench is particularly good as the weathered down, elderly, somewhat frumpy wife Anne Hathaway though she is much older than Branagh. It's a far cry from her normal period drama roles playing Queen Victoria or Queen Elizabeth I or Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but she does it beautifully.

For any fellow theatre fans, this movie is particularly exciting as Hadley Fraser plays Shakespeare's annoyingly Puritan son-in-law John. He gets a decent storyline and some really lovely acting moments, in addition to a very cool beard.

Branagh himself is utterly transformed by makeup and prosthetics to the point of being nearly unrecognizable. The production value on the whole movie is wonderful and it really transports you to life in a village in England at this time, without the flashiness of your typical film about this period. There are also some gorgeous scenery shots and the cinematography of the whole film is rather good.

As the film does move at quite a slow pace, it won't be for everyone. But I think that anyone with a fondness for Branagh's work or interest in the life of Shakespeare would enjoy it. It made me think about the way that we handle grief and how even great men (and women) often feel lost in their personal lives despite their success. I can't wait for this film to come out on DVD so I can share it with my mom.

This review is an expanded and edited version of the one written for my Letterboxd account.

My Top Five Musical Theatre Love Triangles

In honor of the Oklahoma! revival opening on Broadway last month, I thought that I would share some of what I consider to be the best love triangles in musicals of all time. I actually think that the Curly-Laurey-Jud love triangle is one of the worst in any musical. I strongly prefer that the person at the center has an actual struggle and that there's some real emotional connection between all three sides.

(That's not a hit against the Oklahoma! revival which I haven't seen yet, but I hear is fantastic but against its original material. I'm sure they've managed to make it compelling!)

When I started making this list, I realized that love triangles abound in musical theatre through the ages: Passion, Wicked, Miss Saigon, The Sound of Music, The Pirate Queen, Follies, Fiddler on the Roof, and even Frozen just to name a handful. Of course, the love triangle trope appears in lots of media but I think that there's something about it that lends itself well to beautiful duets and trios. Narrowing down my favorites was difficult, but here are my top five love triangles in a musical.

Aida, Radames, and Amneris in Aida 
Aida is definitely an under-appreciated musical, especially for its gorgeous duets and three and four part songs. Radames, though betrothed to the royal Amneris, finds himself falling in love with the captured Nubian princess Aida who has been given to Amneris as her handmaiden. Meanwhile, Amneris and Aida bond as Aida encourages the seemingly shallow princess to see herself as more than a vessel for fashion. Act II opens with the trio singing the beautiful song "Not Me," which would earn it a spot on this list alone.
Photo Credit: Aubrey Reuben

Laura, Walter, and Marian in The Woman in White 
When I first saw the musical, The Woman in White, I was a bit disappointed that a love triangle had been written in between sisters Marian and Laura and their drawing teacher Walter Hartright that doesn't exist in the novel. (This is, in addition to the less interesting love triangle between Walter, Laura, and Laura's intended, Sir Walter Glyde, which appears in both.) However, it's difficult to dislike a love triangle that brings about as gorgeous of songs as "Perspective" and "Trying Not to Notice." It also provides for some lovely melodies that weave through the show and is my favorite kind of love triangle in that the love between sisters Marian and Laura is arguably actually the strong side of the triangle.
Photo Credit: Darren Bell

Raoul, Christine, and the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera
This is likely one of the most famous love triangles from a musical of all time. Phantom, when done correctly, is a beautiful coming of age story for young ingenue Christine and I think that her feeling trapped between her mysterious and dangerous music teacher and her childhood sweetheart is a great way of building that. This is one where there's very obviously a correct choice here (and it's Raoul), but both "Wandering Child" and "Finale" are some of my favorite songs from musicals.
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy
Eliza, Alexander, and Angelica in Hamilton
Obviously, I have a thing for love triangles that include sisters. Even if this wasn't one of the most gut-wrenching triangles on the list (when Angelica says, "At least I keep his eyes in my life"? Ow), it would earn its spot just in how it uses "Satisfied" to go back and play Eliza's "Helpless" from Angelica's point of view. And once again, it's the love between Angelica and Eliza that is the strongest at the end of the day (or at least at a pivotal moment in Act II).
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Cosette, Marius, and Eponine in Les Misérables
I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that this is the classic musical theatre love triangle. Not only is it an emblem for teenage girls everywhere who listen to "On My Own" as a coping mechanism for their friend liking another girl instead of them, but it's also used in a really interesting way to show Cosette and Eponine as foils. When we see them as adults for the first time, they have essentially traded places from when we last saw them as children. Cosette is now beautiful and well-dressed and the apple of her parent's eye, while Eponine is dirty, neglected, and forced into work by the Thenardiers. The original London production even does some beautiful blocking that mirrors them to each other. And of course, this trio sings the "A Heart Full of Love" number which in undeniably lovely.

These are just a handful of my faves (I also of course love the Andrey-Natasha-Anatole love triangle of Great Comet and I can't forget that my favorite male duet of all times, "Lily's Eyes," is born from the love triangle in The Secret Garden). What are your favorites? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter. x

Review: Little Woods

RATING: ★★★★

In Little Woods, Nia DaCosta deftly directs Tessa Thompson and Lily James as two sisters struggling to survive in a drab North Dakota town. It's a very respectable directorial debut from DaCosta who manages to capture everyday problems that still feel very high stakes, even though the film can at times feel a bit meandering.

Ollie and Deb are adopted sisters struggling in the aftermath of their mother's death, with foreclosure on her house looming and no money to speak of. While Deb contends with an unwanted pregnancy with her ex, the father of her toddler son, Ollie has only a few days left on her probation for smuggling and selling illegal oxycodone from across the border in Canada. Ollie attempts to find ways to make ends meet legally despite the local drug dealer who wants her as a business partner and the people of the town who continue to ask her what she has, but things get more complicated when her sister tells her of her pregnancy.

Both Thompson and James give career highlight performances. Thompson is great as Ollie, a woman who clearly wants more from life than what she currently has, but is plagued by exhaustion that's apparent in her eyes. James is given grittier stuff to work with here than her normal roles and proves that she's a versatile actress to boot. Several of her scenes in the latter half of the movie should convince viewers that she is one of the best rising actresses working today.

The supporting cast all do their parts well, but it's certainly Thompson and James's movie. The movie is bleak and drab, not just in subject but in color scheme. It's impossible not to feel the oppressive weight of these women's world while watching it. The first part of the movie can feel a bit slow, but the second half speeds up and keeps you on the edge of your seat with fear for what will happen to Ollie, Deb, and Deb's young son.

DaCosta certainly has some interesting commentary on the healthcare system woven in, as people go across the border to Canada to receive treatment, and perhaps opioid addiction too. My favorite thing about the film though is how utterly unglamorous Thompson and James are throughout. This isn't to say that the two of them aren't beautiful women because they are. But I appreciate that this isn't one of those movies where women are trekking through the wilderness and yet have perfect hair and makeup. I'm not sure that there's a scene in the whole film where Thompson isn't dressed in a sweatshirt or hoodie.

To me, this is one of the greatest proofs of female influence in the film -- its understanding that a hard life like Ollie and Deb are living takes a physical toll. This isn't the sort of movie that will be nominated for any Oscars or maybe even be shown in the big movie theatre chains, but it's certainly worth a watch and proves that DaCosta, Thompson, and James are all women to keep your eye on.

I'm not sure what we did to deserve a superstar pairing like this in a female-directed film, but I'd sure love more like it.
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