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.”