That Awful Ending to ‘My Fair Lady’

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.

6 thoughts on “That Awful Ending to ‘My Fair Lady’

  1. I agree. I saw the production. The new endings was stupid and didn’t fit. Lerner and Lowe wrote My Fair Lady…I expected to see their My Fair Lady and not political injected BS.

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    1. Thanks I wrote that piece more than two years ago and still get more views than for anything else I’ve written. Curious to know how you happened upon it.

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    2. Thanks. I wrote that piece more than two years ago, and still get more views and comments on it than for anything else I’ve written. Curious: how did you come upon it?

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  2. I just watched My Fair Lady for the first time tonight with my teenage daughter. After a quick google search, I stumbled upon your article because I was wanting to find some sort of explanation for the awful ending. I appreciate your thoughts. The ending was so unsatisfying. I’ve always heard how amazing this musical is (and it is delightful), but it was nothing like I expected it to be. I desperately wanted to like Higgins and had hoped maybe he was some sort of a Mr. Darcy character. We couldn’t tell if the ending was sarcastic or if it was just showing that Higgins is still a jerk who can’t/won’t change. Eliza’s smile at the end threw me, because again I wasn’t certain if there was an implied meaning at the ending. While I’m still processing it all, I’ll add that I loved your suggestion at the end of this article. Thank you for your insight on this beautiful albeit unusual and frustrating musical.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I’m curious how you came across the post — it’s more than two years old, and yet it consistently gets more views than any other post I’ve written. Just wondering why it comes up so often in Google search.

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  3. Left with an unsatisfied feeling, I found your page after searching for “my fair lady ending” on my search engine, after rewatching the 1964 movie adaptation last night with my wife and eleven year old daughter. Thank you for your interesting and thoughtworthy point of view. However I would disagree. I myself think that the woke movement often is self-destructive, but in this case I didn’t even think about #metoo, until I read your piece. As you mention My Fair Lady is not Pygmalion and it doesn’t have to be as progressive as George Bernard Shaws source material. Hollywood was not and is till today not known for subtility and layered structures. But My Fair Lady is without comparing it to other works, inconsistent in the last act and gives up on all the great development done by Eliza till that point. Eliza has to walk out on Higgins, because she has outgrown him. All the scenes and songs express that and show the journey on that she embarked on lead her far beyond Higgins narrow minded world views.
    I would agree that we have to stop cancelling all the political incorrectness days bygone, cause they are a wittness of the past and can help us understand how far we have come and how far we still have to go.
    However as a man who was cheering for Eliza and who found pleasure watching her bloom, the last scene of the musical robbed me of that feeling and dimished her achievement in my eyes.
    I haven’t seen the Lincoln Center revival version, so I can not comment on it, but is it not the right of a performance artist to reinterpret and find new ways and meanings in old material?
    In my eyes a little twist that leaves the ending more ambiguous is preferable and opens it up for interpretation.

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