Let’s talk about the ending to My Fair Lady. None of critics apparently want to — that is, give away the little twist that director Bartlett Sher has tacked onto the last scene of his Lincoln Center revival of Lerner and Loewe’s great musical. I understand their caution, but I don’t think you can properly talk about the production without grappling with the way it ends.
And so— spoiler alert, here goes — let me be the bearer of bad news. Eliza walks out on Henry Higgins.
I was actually pretty satisfied with the show most of the way through: not as fresh an interpretation as Jack O’Brien’s expressionistic new revival of Carousel, or as visually sumptuous as Sher’s own revival of The King and I a couple of years ago, but pleasant enough. I liked Harry Hadden-Patton’s imperious Henry Higgins a little better than Lauren Ambrose’s Eliza; she lacks charm in the opening Covent Garden scenes, and her singing voice is pretty but not especially strong. Yet my overall reaction to the revival was: fine, but what’s the point?
Well, the point comes in the last scene. In the original, you’ll recall, Eliza — after rebelling against the manipulative professor who has picked her off the streets and turned her into a “lady” — returns to Higgins, for a (sort of) happy ending. Once he’s secure that he’s won her back, Higgins plops in his chair and utters the last line — “Where the devil are my slippers?” Curtain. But Sher has decided that, in the enlightened #MeToo age, we cannot have Eliza return to being a doormat. So here, Higgins utters the final line pugnaciously, in Eliza’s face; she stares back at him silently, then gazes off toward the audience — and walks out.
Some of the critics have praised the revisionist ending (without quite describing it) as being truer to the George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion, on which the musical is of course based. To be sure, Shaw was not writing a conventional romance, and he ended the play ambiguously: Eliza running off to her father’s wedding, ignoring Henry’s blithe request that she pick him up “a pair of reindeer gloves, number eights” on her way home. In an epilogue to the play, Shaw expressed doubts that the two were destined to marry, speculating playfully that Eliza would wind up instead with Freddy, the callow rich kid who is infatuated with her. But he also noted: “Eliza’s instinct tells her not to marry Higgins. It does not tell her to give him up.”
But all that is really beside the point. My Fair Lady is not Pygmalion — it is My Fair Lady, one of the most perfectly constructed of all American musicals. True, Lerner and Loewe gave Shaw’s play a more conventionally romantic spin. But they retained a surprising amount of his cynicism and ambiguity. Yes, Eliza comes back to Higgins — but she’s full of self-confidence now, and the last line shows he as incorrigible as ever. Who knows if they will be together for long? But the musical has spent the whole evening delicately, expertly moving them toward each other — piercing Higgins’ armor of hauteur, giving him that great I’m-not-in-love song, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” To split them up at the end destroys both the romance and the ambiguity.
My suggestion: If My Fair Lady is not woke enough for the #MeToo age, don’t revive it. And if you do, don’t ruin it.