THEATRICAL OCTET, PART TWO: Reconstructing the Classics

I consider myself lucky to be in New York when Bartlett Sher has directed a musical. His determination to tackle the great classics of musical theatre with the same loving care he puts into opera has proven a boon to audiences. I only saw South Pacific on tour, but I caught the original cast on video. What a brilliant production! I did see The King and I at Lincoln Center, but my experience was hampered by a terrible seat and by the fact that the King – Ken Watanabe – truly couldn’t sing.

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When I heard that my summer trip would coincide with Sher’s latest interpretation of a classic, Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, I snapped up a ticket fast. I did this not so much for the show itself as for Sher and the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center, one of my favorite performance spaces in New York. The stage is so big that you can make almost anythinghappen on it! It was there that I saw the magical 1994 production of Carousel that had been imported from England, featuring a new singer/actress named Audra McDonald. It was there that, after watching World War I unfold on stage, I sobbed openly during the final moments of War Horse. I saw a giant boat float into the harbor of Siam! (I saw some of it, actually; bad seat, remember!) And so, although I have seen My Fair Lady countless times and even directed it myself, I looked forward to seeing what Sher would do with it.

It seemed surprising, then, to learn that a new production of Carousel would be opening around the same time at the Imperial Theatre, directed by Broadway veteran Jack O’Brien, who dazzled me with his work on The Nance. Carousel is one of five musicals that placed Rodgers and Hammerstein on an exalted pedestal in the pantheon of musical composing teams. To my mind, Sher had already directed the two best. Oklahoma is most famous for breaking the mold of musical comedy, but its slight story (Which guy should I let take me to the picnic: the hot cowboy or the psychopath?) is balanced by a great score and an especially fine use of dance. And The Sound of Music is . . . well, it’s kinda icky, but Julie Andrews’ performance in the movie cut through the ick factor so well that it sealed the show’s place in people’s hearts.

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However, it was Carousel that was my least favorite . . . at least until I saw the aforementioned production at Lincoln Center. Never had I seen a show so scenically glorious, so choreographically sexy! True, the actor playing Billy was weak, but everything else worked beautifully. I was sold! And so, I snapped up a Carousel ticket as well! And as it turned out, this parallel action extended to my experience of both. I managed to get the exact same ticket in two different theatres: first row mezzanine, dead center. This worked out especially well in the intimate Imperial Theatre, where I also happened to be surrounded by friendly, talkative folks with whom I bonded. I felt farther away at Lincoln Center, and the folks on either side were the snootiest folks I met on my travels. The old man on my right hummed off-key throughout the production.

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Both shows are . . . gorgeous! You wouldn’t expect any less for Carousel from the great Santo Loquasto! By comparison to the 1994 production, the scenic design was more realistic, but when it needed to be magical – the carousel itself, the scenes in heaven – Loquasto accomplished it all using less rather than more. For My Fair Lady, Sher employed his regular designer, Michael Yeargan, who knew not to stint when it comes to this show. He gave Henry Higgins a house to be proud of, and Sher made excellent use of it. When the servants sing in Act One, their commentary usually takes place in a tight tableau at the side of the stage. Not here! The house revolved on a turntable as master, servants, and Eliza Doolittle scampered around doing their work. It was breathtaking to behold. Other scenes were smaller but no less elegant and often containing a humorous touch in the way they worked, like the bar that Alfred Doolittle drank at, which packed in customers like sardines and then released them in a burst of Cockney energy.

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Both shows offer flip versions of similar couples: one person is stifled from greatness by poverty, and the other person employs their own force of will to change their partner for the better – with varying degrees of success. Carousel’s Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry) is a stud who beds his employer and flirts with the girls who flock to watch him work his wiles as a carnival barker. When he meets Julie Jordan (Jessie Mueller), she is with her best friend and he frankly couldn’t care which of them he spends the evening with. All girls are the same to him – until Julie sacrifices her job to stand up for her right to be with Billy, no matter what the evening is destined to bring. She is romantic, not carnal, and she elevates Billy from object of desire to someone worthy of true affection. And while Billy balks at the idea of saying, “I love you” back, or even demonstrating any affection, he loves Julie and their unborn child desperately enough to go down a rabbit hole of wrong choices.

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Meanwhile, Eliza Doolittle (Lauren Ambrose) is a stunning woman trapped by her class into the life of a stunted flower girl. Professor Henry Higgins (Harry Haddon-Paton) is not attracted to her form but to her diction, and he takes her into his home as part of an intellectual challenge: he will transform her into a lady simply by changing the way she speaks. (Well, a good bath, fine clothes and some lessons in walking don’t hurt the cause, either.)

Although Higgins holds all the cards to Eliza’s outward transformation, its impetus comes from her. She wants to escape her father’s tough love. She wants to work in a shop and eat chocolates when she feels like it. She has no pretensions of being a princess; she just wants to be good enough to have some choices. I would argue that the musical, like the Shaw play upon which it is based, has never been a love story, much as Lerner and Loewe might have wished it to be. The person who sees the original ending where Eliza returns to Higgins after a huge fight and fetches his slippers has to be seeing the world through very rose-colored glasses to imagine that this action presumes marital intent on either side.

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What’s so extraordinary about having new versions of these two musicals on Broadway at this time, in this political climate, has been discussed at length by professional reviewers. Briefly, neither tale speaks strongly to the #metoo movement. Only months into her relationship with Billy, Julie confesses to her best friend Carrie that, out of frustration, he hits her. Across the sea in London, when Higgins raises his hand in anger Eliza shoots back that, living with her father, she’s used to being struck by men. Julie behaves like a weak ninny throughout. Thank God her story is balanced by Carrie’s love affair with the fisherman Mr. Snow. As Julie gets weaker, Carrie becomes the grande dame of her society and every inch her husband’s equal. Eliza, on the other hand, seems to be every bit Higgins’ match – until that problematic ending. Why come back? How could she possibly sense that a man so closed off to emotion is capable of love? Why get the slippers and thus accept a subservient role in the relationship?

Only one director tries to “fix” this problem for modern audiences, and that attempt has mixed results. It’s not Jack O’Brien. I assumed that casting the wonderful Jessie Mueller might mean that this director wanted a Julie with more backbone. But Mueller seems stunted from the start, meekly accepting of the violence inflicted upon her and those she loves. Her reaction when Billy dies is loving but muted. Her reaction when her daughter suffers due to the reputation of her dead father is similarly helpless. This is all written into the script, and it’s why Carousel is Rodger and Hammerstein’s most problematic work.

I think Jessie Mueller is badly miscast here, and I have heard that she thinks so, too. She is evidently leaving Carousel in the near future and returning to Waitress, where she elevated a pretty good musical into something luminous. It might not be her fault, as I’ve explained, but even if fans of Beautiful and Waitress might be disappointed, the rest of the cast is just fine. Joshua Henry is sexy, brutal and vulnerable as Billy. When he hangs out with Jigger on a doomed mission to make some money, Henry plays Billy as too naive and hopeful of bettering himself to stop and evaluate where his “friend” is leading him.

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Lindy Mendez simply steals the show as Carrie. I loved seeing Audra McDonald on stage in this role, but Mendez fills it better. Carrie is the anti-Ado Annie: she knows exactly what she wants and she gets it. It’s almost a shame that a woman so strong and sure of herself – who refuses to let herself be dominated even by the man she loves – should be relegated to second banana status. Renee Fleming is just fine, although there is a hint of stunt casting here. We don’t need a person of her stature as Nettie Fowler, but it’s nice to have her here.

I also liked how O’Brien worked the secondary roles into more complex characterizations. Jigger is the villain, but he’s also an attractive sailor. Margaret Colin as Mrs. Mullin is also a bad guy, but we can see how her heart has led her to such a cold place. And Jacob Keith Watson is great as Enoch Snow, a comical lover in Act One who turns stuffy and almost unlikable in the latter half.

And, of course, one of the main reasons to go see this show is Justin Peck’s vibrant choreography. Every fisherman becomes both a distinct person and an athletic crew member in “June Is Busting Out All Over” and especially “Blow High, Blow Low.” Brittany Pollack as Louise makes up for her spotty acting with magnificent dancing in the second act ballet. There is so much great stuff in this production. Just don’t go expecting a solution to the problem of Julie and the fact that we are rooting from start to finish for a man guilty of spousal abuse.

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In a wonderful program note for the My Fair Lady production, lyricist Michael Corie (Grey Gardens,War Paint) talks about “stealth” love songs, where the character sings around the idea of love and then realizes with shock that he or she, in fact, doeslove. The singer may fight the feeling, leave it unresolved until later, or finally, exhaustedly, give in to it. Corie points to “If I Loved You” from Carousel– “with its big ‘if’” – as a song of this type. Lerner and Loewe wrote two great songs like this: the title song of Gigiand Henry Higgins’ ultimate soliloquy, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Corie’s interpretation of this lyric is masterful and suggests how programmed we are to find romance where there is none. Even as Higgins acknowledges that Eliza “almost makes the day begin”:

“This lyricized cadence, so masterly in its composition, is followed by Higgins’ reassertion of his sexual immaturity and confirmed-bachelor cowardice, in the belittling and shamefully sexist pronouncement “I’m very grateful she’s a woman and so easy to forget.” We immediately recognize that the statement is a falsehood, and one made in desperation as he flails to retrieve his old life from the rubbish heap where Eliza has tossed it.”

In the libretto for the show, this is followed by the moment where Eliza returns, Higgins composes himself (as only Rex Harrison could do and all his followers could only mimic) and demands his slippers. Orchestral crescendo as Eliza moves toward him. Blackout. Fini!

But Sher tries to “fix” the show’s sexist ending with a different response by Higgins to Eliza’s entrance and with a different response to Higgins’ command by Eliza. I spent a subway ride back to my hotel trying to figure out if it works. And I wondered if part of this had to do with my ambivalence throughout with Lauren Ambrose’s portrayal of Eliza. I’m a fan of Ambrose from all her television work. She is no stranger to the theatre either, although she hasn’t wracked up a list of professional musical credits. She sang the part well, although I believe she was battling a cold because after each song, she would cough horribly and because I’ve never seen an Eliza drink so much tea onstage! But there was something about her that seemed too – I don’t know –naturalistic? Odd? Stiff?

 

Yes I know, these descriptors are somewhat contradictory, but I can’t put my finger on what was off about her. In the end, when she did the new thing that she does, I sort of bought her doing it. I just didn’t quite get why she came back in the first place. I’m sorry my struggle is coming out so awkwardly. My Fair Lady was the one show I saw this past week where I left with questions. When we perform a classic play or musical whose ideas or attitudes we are struggling as a society to put aside or change, do we try and alter those ideas in the original piece? Do we present a show “as is” – the wayCarouselbasically did – and let people argue about it over post-prandial drinks after the show? Or do we put these works aside for a while – at least until their sexism or racism or whatever doesn’t make us feel so white hot?

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The latter idea smacks of censorship, I know. And no matter how Eliza acts toward Higgins, it’s a beautiful show. Norbert Leo Butz mined everything that could be mined in Doolittle. Yes, the drag queens in “Get Me to the Church on Time” made no sense to me, but it’s a tiny caveat. Jordan Donica nailed Freddy’s romantic ardor and dropped his silliness; not a bad idea. Allan Corduner was so delightful as Colonel Pickering that he made me add the role to my bucket list of “mature male” parts I’d like to play . . . someday. And Dame Diana Rigg appeared onstage, which is enough. If her Mrs. Higgins was a bit too much like Lady Olenna, this fanboy didn’t mind too much. I was lucky enough to see the original Mrs. Higgins, Cathleen Nesbitt, on a tour with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.. Sheer perfection there, so I don’t mind spending a few minutes with an only slightly miscast Mrs. Peel.

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According to his biography, Bartlett Sher is next due to direct the new Aaron Sorkin adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, followed by Adam Guettel’s new musical Millions. I will follow this guy anywhere as long as the money holds out. If he wasn’t totally able to update My Fair Lady for our times, he mined the gold out of that show. Still, if you hold me to the fire and make me tell you what my favorite shows were during this trip, both these classics would be on the bottom. Given how much I truly enjoyed each one, it says a lot for the quality of theatre I viewed that even the “problem” plays were a joy.

 

Next chapter: Social Upheaval, Broadway style

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5 thoughts on “THEATRICAL OCTET, PART TWO: Reconstructing the Classics

  1. Oh, those are two of my top classic shows, Brad! I’m so glad that, despite your questions about Eliza and that ending, you enjoyed both shows. What’s interesting is, Shaw’s Pygmalion doesn’t end on exactly the note that the show originally did. I wonder if there was some sort of connection to the original play there? Perhaps I’m quite wrong about that. At any rate, I do love both shows, and I see the links that you made. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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  2. I shared your questions over the ending of this production of My Fair Lady, and I absolutely loved the show mostly because of Norbert leo Butz: a knockout.
    I saw a production of Carousel in London last year, beautifully done, with great performances: but in the end I just can’t get on with the show, never have and never will.

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    1. I have issues with Laurie and Julie, the leading characters in R&H’s first two musicals, Oklahoma and Carousel. Their taste in men is suspect, to say the least. Of course, it’s not their fault but the fault of the men who created them. After that, the leading ladies in R&H musicals were stronger – flawed but able to think and act and stand up for themselves. Nobody needs to fix South Pacific or The King and I. But Carousel gets really bad there, and there’s nothing one can do about it. As you also saw in London, making it beautiful doesn’t mask the awfulness!

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