Based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion, My Fair Lady had an arduous road to fruition. Shaw had no interest in seeing it turned into a musical (and it wasn’t, until after he died), and the play lacked certain elements considered crucial to a romantic musical— including a straight-up happy ending. The fact that Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s show is now widely considered the most perfect musical of all time not only speaks to the brilliant storytelling and songs (“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” among the gorgeous classics), but its originality and complex characters have made it forever cool. That’s not to say the 1956 show has aged flawlessly — it is compassionate toward its heroine, but not exactly enlightened on the subject of gender equality — but as a musical, and a product of its time and place, it is a masterful piece of entertainment.
Without it, we might never have had Julie Andrews, who became a star as Broadway’s original Eliza Doolittle, the flower girl plucked from the streets of Covent Garden and transformed into a “proper” lady by Professor Henry Higgins. And we wouldn’t have those indelible images of Audrey Hepburn as Eliza in the lavish, Oscar-laden 1964 movie version. In the sumptuous, thrilling new revival at Lincoln Center, director Bartlett Sher (who won a Tony for the 2008 revival of South Pacific) has chosen a most surprising Eliza — Lauren Ambrose, best known as Claire Fisher on Six Feet Under. It’s not really fair to compare her to Elizas who’ve gone before, but those performances — especially Hepburn’s — are so deeply seared into our brain, most viewers can’t help but do so. Though Ambrose sings beautifully, her voice doesn’t have the power of Andrews’. And there’s no one on the planet with Hepburn’s sheer star quality (Hepburn is so enthralling she gets away with having her vocals dubbed by Marni Nixon). But Ambrose is a bold and electrifying actress, and her Eliza is more human than any Eliza we’ve seen before — a woman scarred by life but intent on finding joy. She’s frightened and erratic, but her soul is indestructible. Like the production itself, her performance is a thing of beauty.
The men in Eliza’s life are everything you want them to be, including Harry Hadden-Paton, who plays Henry Higgins (the role made famous on stage and screen by Rex Harrison). Higgins is as always a comically insufferable narcissist but Hadden-Paton (who played Bertie Pelham on Downton Abbey) gives him a shot of sex appeal, which helps. Norbert Leo Butz, as Eliza’s foolish father, gives a showstopping performance. But this revival really seems to draw its energy from the women — from Ambrose’s damaged and determined Eliza, as well as Diana Rigg (Diana Rigg!) as the dry, wise, seen-it-all queen of common sense, Mrs. Higgins. Their spirit, and their refusal to allow the ridiculous impulses of men go unchecked, points to the irony in the title: Sure she’s fair, but she does not belong to you. A