How Do Carousel and My Fair Lady Fare in 2018?

With their themes of female subjugation, the plays have always had unsatisfactory endings. Two musical revivals attempt to complicate the equation.

The cast of 'My Fair Lady'
The cast of My Fair Lady (Joan Marcus)

“My ending makes money,” Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the original Henry Higgins, wrote George Bernard Shaw in 1914 after the 100th performance of the first London run of Pygmalion. “You ought to be grateful.” Shaw had deliberately not injected romance into his rewriting of the Pygmalion–Galatea myth, which ends with the statue come to life marrying her sculptor. Tree started a century of “corrections” by having a lovelorn Higgins throw bouquets at his pupil Eliza as the curtain came down. “Your ending is damnable,” Shaw wrote back. “You ought to be shot.”

The endings of both My Fair Lady, the 1956 musical version of Pygmalion, and Carousel, the 1945 musical version of the Hungarian Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom, have been problematic from the start. Audiences want one thing, the original playwrights another—and, in both cases, the adapters something else. The question of who should get which wishes satisfied is still unanswered, and in an era in which abuse and disrespect of women are everywhere discussed, audiences today are likely to leave both theaters as dissatisfied as they have ever been.

The problematic endings might help explain why the current revivals of both shows—each the work of teams jam-packed with artists high on anyone’s A-list—came away with startlingly few Tony awards in June, despite multiple nominations. In a complete surprise, the revival of Once on This Island, a 1990 musical whose current production celebrates love that crosses class and race barriers, won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical.

Certainly, both shows are worth seeing—and, particularly, hearing. My Fair Lady has a complement of 29 in the orchestra, many more than the standard Broadway show. Frederick Loewe’s creamy, Viennese-accented tunes (he was born in Berlin to Viennese parents) have seldom sounded more lush. Carousel has been sumptuously, meticulously reorchestrated by Jonathan Tunick, the original orchestrator of many of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals; the musical supervisor is Andy Einhorn, who has deep experience in conducting classics of the musical theater.

Richard Rodgers himself thought Carousel his best work, as the longtime political writer Todd S. Purdum recounts in his brisk, thoroughly reported, very readable new account of the Rodgers–Hammerstein partnership, Something Wonderful. “I think it’s more emotional,” Purdum quotes Rodgers as saying, decades after the show opened. “The whole subject matter cuts deeper. I feel it has more to say about human relationships. And I also think it’s the best score we’d ever written.” Indeed, the beautiful orchestra readings alone make a trip to each revival essential for anyone who can afford a ticket—it’s hard to imagine Carousel, in particular, sounding so good again.

But then there are those themes about women. The pupil in My Fair Lady will be forever dependent on her teacher, however impassioned her telling him off before she goes back to him, not quite servile but not free of him, either. The notorious and now-cut Carousel finale has the daughter ask the mother, “Is it possible, Mother, for someone to hit you—hard like that—real loud and hard—and not hurt you at all?” The mother’s reply: “It is possible, dear—for someone to hit you—hit you hard—and not hurt at all.” How could enlightened audiences put up with either form of subjugation?

Shaw had endowed his flower girl with a much greater gift than a good ear: the ability to be free of her own sculptor. The stage directions for the opening scene specify that Eliza is 18 to 20, “hardly older” (never mind that Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the actress Shaw wrote Eliza for, was about 50), and Higgins about 40; Freddy Eynsford-Hill, the “wet around the ankles,” impoverished but genteel and good-looking young man looking for a taxi in the rain outside Covent Garden, is also said to be 20. The similarity in Freddy’s age to Eliza’s, and the difference in hers to Higgins, is supposed to make the distance unbroachable from the start—even if Shaw, who clearly modeled much of Higgins on himself, couldn’t resist calling him a “robust, vital, appetizing sort of man.”

Infuriated by Tree’s and subsequent directorial desecrations of his clear intentions, Shaw wrote an epilogue to a 1916 edition of the play in which he reiterated that Higgins would never marry—as any sensible man with a sufficiently rich, cultured mother, he said, would never bother to do. Instead, Eliza married Freddy, and Higgins’s friend Colonel Pickering set up the newlyweds in a flower shop that lost money for years until the couple introduced vegetables and went into the black as greengrocers. What’s more, in their impoverished state the couple moved in with Higgins, who barely took notice of Freddy as long as Eliza kept helping and sparring with him—as she did, stubbornly. Galatea, Shaw concluded, “never does quite like Pygmalion: His relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.”

(Shaw himself married an Irish political-activist heiress, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, moving out of his mother’s house at 42 only after she proposed and bought the wedding license; their marriage, which owed its success to their shared ideology and her helping him with his work, was apparently unconsummated, even if kissing was involved.)

Nobody liked the ending—apparently including Shaw, who wrote a version of the last scene showing a married Eliza but left it out of an authoritative text he published near the end of his life. And certainly not Gabriel Pascal, who made the 1939 film with an iron-willed, keenly intelligent Wendy Hiller as Eliza and a charismatic but sexless Leslie Howard as Higgins. The film originally had a final scene showing Eliza working with Freddy in their flower shop, but the studio scrapped it for the new scene in which she returns to Higgins’s study. Even with that added romantic ambiguity, the film remains a much more convincing rendering of the play than the musical, which opened just six years after Shaw’s death at 94. My Fair Lady sealed the modern perception of the story: Eliza appears at the lonely and distraught Higgins’s door; he is overjoyed and, as Alan Jay Lerner wrote in his script for the musical, “would run to her” if he “could but let himself” but instead contentedly utters, “Where the devil are my slippers?”

The musical had spectacular success not just because the production, designed by Oliver Smith with stunning Edwardian costumes by Cecil Beaton and impeccably directed by the playwright Moss Hart, was flawless and had two very magnetic leads in Rex Harrison, who in his earlier film career was called “Sexy Rexy,” and the magnetic newcomer Julie Andrews. It succeeded because it showed the Broadway audiences coming into the prime of the postwar American century that they, too, could storm the formerly closed doors of the WASP aristocracy. My Fair Lady was Cinderella for the meritocracy—particularly the Jewish meritocracy that was a large part of the Broadway audience and whose members, with only a few exceptions, invented the Broadway musical.

Harry Hadden-Paton, Lauren Ambrose, and Allan Corduner in My Fair Lady (Joan Marcus)

However ingenious the lyrics by the Choate- and Harvard-educated Lerner, and however shrewd his elision of the play (very), with few exceptions Lerner’s book and lyrics are Gilbert and Sullivan wordplay by way of the Hasty Pudding shows Lerner contributed to in college. Lerner came close to matching the play’s diamantine dialogue in several lyrics, particularly “A Hymn to Him” (which everyone understandably assumes is called “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?”) and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”; these songs are wistful and pensive in a way that honors Shaw’s character while extending Higgins’s emotional range. But the brilliance was Shaw’s.

The casting of the current production at the Lincoln Center Theater makes the teacher-student confrontation more a battle of equals: Lauren Ambrose, who plays Eliza, is three years older than Harry Hadden-Paton, who plays Higgins. Ambrose brings sharp intelligence and fierce determination to her part: You never doubt for a minute that she intends to rise above her station, and will succeed at her lessons. The wrenching moment before she pronounces “The rain in Spain” with long as is a triumph of the will; we watch her apply exactly the facial and mouth movements Higgins has taught her in a slow, agonized effort, as if it’s the last and very long step up a mountain.

Both Ambrose and the director, Bartlett Sher, have thought a great deal about class identity and women’s rights. The shower scene, in which Higgins’s sensible housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce (who immediately raises concerns about what will come of Eliza once she has won the bet to be passed off as a duchess), shoves a screaming Eliza under a shower to clean her, does not come off as comic in any way. It comes off as a violation of Eliza’s personhood. She has her dignity and is “as clean as she can afford to be,” as Shaw describes her. Showers are alien and menacing, and the huge showerhead seems to be stripping off not just dirt but also her spiritual skin.

Once Eliza correctly reels off the exercises Higgins drilled her in, the dismantling of her identity is complete; she has shed one identity for good but has no new identity to leap toward. As Ambrose, both confident and apprehensive, plays Eliza, it’s more a painful than triumphant moment. And though Sher injects notes of feminism somewhat gratuitously—suffragettes clomp across the stage at one point marching to give women the vote, and there’s an odd turn of events when five men in stubble and bustiers join the music-hall revelry of “Get Me to the Church on Time”—we don’t know what to make of the last moment. Eliza touches Higgins’s cheek, turns sharply away from him, and, true to Shaw’s original note that she “sweeps out,” resolutely strides up the aisle, eyes raised toward a very uncertain future that will not include him.

We believe in Eliza’s need for autonomy; the spiky Ambrose sees to that. And we believe that Higgins cares for her, but only as much as he can care for anyone else, which is as long as they intellectually engage him. Hadden-Paton plays Higgins just as Shaw wrote him: vital and appetizing, and attached mainly to his mother—who is fondly wary of him—and his companionable comrade in phonetics, Pickering. In Sher’s production there is no sexual spark between Eliza and Higgins. They will ever lead parallel lives, if always tied to each other by having mastered an enormous challenge together—all as Shaw intended. The audience’s natural desire to see the two pair off is undercut by Higgins’s firmly clamped-on armor and Eliza’s angry intelligence. There’s no cozy romantic fairy tale, but no clear idea of just what Eliza has in mind: This ending isn’t particularly satisfactory, either.

Carousel is another order of achievement—immeasurably more artistically ambitious than My Fair Lady, with swirling, dark themes that play below the surface of the dramatic action, often far below, and music that seeps into the unconscious and stays there. The music packs an emotional depth charge no other Rodgers score does—from the melancholy, sour-sweet, irresistible first bars of “The Carousel Waltz” to the dream ballets that follow the opening ballet, which set Freudian ideas of the unconscious to a lilting score. The show’s inescapable power comes from the emotionalism of great music, and in the current production every bit of its depth charge sounds.

The mother-daughter exchange at the end is, as Purdum writes, revolting. But Oscar Hammerstein never condoned violence against women. He wanted the protagonist’s conversion to show his theme: redemption, something in which Hammerstein, a secular Jew and heart-on-sleeve liberal, believed strongly. Nothing and no one, he wanted the audience to see, was beyond change and moral improvement. As Hammerstein adapted the Hungarian original, Billy Bigelow, the sexy but dangerous carnival barker in an 1870s Maine mill town, strikes Julie Jordan—the millworker who falls in love with him as if seized by an unknown force—out of clearly drawn feelings of frustration and anxiety. He kills himself in a bungled robbery to provide for his unborn daughter, and is granted one day back on Earth afterward to try to atone. It’s the day his unhappy, defiant, shunned daughter graduates high school. When she won’t obey him (she can’t hear him but is astrally aware he’s there), he strikes her—proof of just how badly his character needs to grow and change.

Does he? Not really. Hammerstein didn’t bother to spend much time on the ending, assuming that Billy’s telling his daughter he has always loved her will keep her happy for the rest of her life. Indeed, after he yells that in her ear, the snobbish son of her mother’s best friend reaches over to take her hand as the music soars to a reprise of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and the curtain falls. The outstretched hand from a previously alienated and snobbish peer is an innovation of the current production, and meant to end the evening on a far more upbeat note than the original oh-beating-can-be-lovely exchange. It’s not particularly convincing.

Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry in Carousel (Julieta Cervantes)

But there’s that music. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s propensity for hymns—“Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is the same song with different words and music—is easy to parody. But it was heartfelt, the key to their songs’ endurance; in Something Wonderful, Purdum gives the pair far more complexity and feeling than they are generally credited for. As played in the revival, the score carries us through the show’s emotional arc. And it helps that it is gorgeously sung. Jessie Mueller, who won a Tony for her smashing performance as Carole King in Beautiful, brings a trancelike mystery and sadness to Julie Jordan, as befits an unknowable character. (She was also, rightly, nominated for a Tony for her performance as Julie.) When she sings “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’,” criticized as being a defense of marital assault but really a defense of love however and wherever it comes, her soprano pierces to the audience’s core, and has the power grand opera does for its devotees.

The theater world took note of both the potential for race-blind casting and the arrival of a stupefyingly talented newcomer when Audra McDonald played Julie’s friend Carrie Pipperidge in a gritty 1994 revival that brought the play much closer to Molnar’s street-tough original. McDonald, who won the first of her six Tonys for the part, also made audiences appreciate Carrie’s earthy humor and vim. Lindsay Mendez, a Tony winner herself, gives the current production what humor there is, and is a tonic; but it is Alexander Gemignani (son of the original musical director of Sweeney Todd and other Sondheim shows) who is the revelation as her stuffy suitor, Mr. Snow. His melting baritone fills the theater and, like the score, melts into you.

The race-blind casting this time is Joshua Henry as Billy, and it initially came in for criticism: stereotyping an African American man as an instigator of domestic violence. (Wife-beating figures in the still-running Waitress, though it is offstage and audiences and critics seldom comment on it). But the issue with the casting had nothing to do with race. Henry has a body that would turn any millworker’s head, and his booming, beautifully controlled voice turns “Soliloquy,” the eight-minute first-act finale in which Billy first realizes his responsibility to his wife and child, into a power ballad. The problem is that Billy should seem as seedy and menacing as he is sexy. Henry, whose casually friendly hey-there bearing seems dropped into the 1880s from the 2010s, is a sweetheart; his threats don’t seem very threatening, and his redemption comes as no surprise.

Carousel will always be problematic, mostly because Hammerstein didn’t take the time to make the ending convincing. But this production, with its new choreography by the widely hailed New York City Ballet choreographer Justin Peck—who makes a usually ignore-it-till-the-next-number for the men’s chorus called “Blow High, Blow Low” into a joyous, thrilling, manly ballet that is the apex of the first act—is a visual and in places emotional feast, for the voices and the orchestra. And My Fair Lady is instructive for anyone who wonders why it set so many records—Lerner and Loewe, surprising as it may now seem, knocked Rodgers and Hammerstein out of first place as the hottest team on Broadway. Both productions are unable to resolve the tensions that have in various ways disturbed audiences. But they show the power of spectacle (My Fair Lady) and visceral music (Carousel) to keep those audiences mesmerized—at least until the morning after.