The relationship between the two main characters asks us to wonder whether “My Fair Lady” is a romance or a treatise on class and gender.
How did Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle leave it?
One of the great, enigmatic endings in musical theater divides theatergoers along several fault lines: Is there romance, grudging acceptance, hard feelings, or a steely friendship forged through a fractious relationship?
“She is coming back to the house, and he is a friend, nothing more,” said actor Helen Anker, who portrays Eliza in the Guthrie Theater’s production of “My Fair Lady,” opening Friday night in Minneapolis. “She would stay living there with him, but have relationships of her own. He’s more of a father figure.”
Jeff McCarthy, who plays Henry, sounded less sure: “Who knows what will happen? I think he really falls in love with her in a deeply romantic way. Not with Higgins would know what to do with that.”
When Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe crafted this gorgeous musical in the early 1950s, they allowed for a much “happier” ending than Shaw’s “Pygmalion” — that is if your idea of “happy” suggests Eliza has returned to be Higgins’ lap dog. That interpretation feels as anachronistic as a houndstooth fedora these days. All that has gone down in the preceding two acts suggests a tenuous truce between two people who each have been made better in their odd dance through the plains of Spain, the balls, the brutal diction lessons and the opening race at Ascot.
“She wants to succeed, even though this is hell that she’s going through. It’s no fun,” Anker said. “But she wants to work in a flower shop, to get out of the gutter. She’s gone from the lowest rung of society to the highest.”
Higgins discovers that he has a heart locked away beneath his smug arrogance. He took on Eliza’s betterment as a bet and ended up in a fully human encounter.
In a postscript to “Pygmalion,” Shaw offered his opinion that Eliza moved on to marry Freddy Eynsford-Hill (“On the Street Where You Live”) and operate that flower shop. As for the relationship between Eliza and Henry? Shaw saw it this way:
“She knows that Higgins does not need her, just as her father did not need her. The very scrupulousness with which he told her that day that he had become used to having her there, and dependent on her for all sorts of little services, and that he should miss her if she went away, deepens her inner certainty that she is ‘No more to him than them slippers,’ yet she has a sense, too, that his indifference is deeper than the infatuation of commoner souls.”
Joe Dowling is directing the Guthrie production, with music direction by Andrew Cooke. The cast mixes New York talent with local actors. In addition to Anker and McCarthy, Broadway veteran Tony Sheldon plays Col. Pickering, and Donald Corren (“Torch Song Trilogy” on Broadway) portrays Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle. Twin Cities actors Melissa Hart (Mrs. Higgins) and Tyler Michaels (Freddy) lead the local entrants.
British-born Anker has lived for the past four-plus years in New York. Most of her credits are on London’s West End. She played Miss Olson in the 2010 Broadway revival of “Promises, Promises” that starred Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth.
Anker said she had no time to prepare an audition when the Guthrie asked to see her for this role. Just as the invitation was swift, so was the selection.
“I want to bring a real earthiness and weight to her Cockney identity so the transformation is that much greater,” she said. “I feel this passion for this show. I have never done a show where every scene or song moves it forward. It doesn’t feel like it was written years and years ago.”
McCarthy, a Broadway veteran who created the role of Officer Lockstock in “Urinetown,” appeared at the Guthrie in “The Misanthrope” and “Anything Goes” in the 1980s. He does a lot of musical theater — including an engagement next year in “Music Man.” Though he’s known primarily as a musicals guy, he dislikes getting pigeonholed. Last year, he played the defense lawyer William Kunstler in “Kunstler,” which was essentially a one-man play.
“This has been the hardest role I’ve done,” he said. “Last spring I did a 50-page monologue [as Kunstler], and this is harder. This is a complicated guy.”
In his best elements, Higgins has a brilliant mind, an exhaustive storehouse of knowledge about idioms and vocabulary. “He sees language and communication as the glue that holds us all together,” McCarthy said.
His preening confidence, though, masks traits that would enrich a psychologist. He is very much in the shadow of his mother even as she scolds him disapprovingly, and his primary relationship is with Col. Pickering, the genial military officer who shares Higgins’ passion for phonetics. His definition of love tends more to the love a man has for a good book rather than the butterflies of sexual romance.
And he is content, oh so content and sure and confident about his intelligence and his superiority — until the day he casts his eyes on a “guttersnipe” and makes a casual bet that he can change her. Young Eliza Doolittle will change him, too. As they reach the final tableau in “My Fair Lady,” we should be left to wonder about the next chapter in this transformative relationship.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299