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 

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