Over the summer, I had the honor of seeing the musical “My Fair Lady” at the Baystreet Regional Theatre in Sag Harbor, N.Y. I brought a hesitancy with me as I went to see the golden age Broadway musical for the second time in my 18 years. I carried with me an aversion to the show’s portrayal of feminist issues, misogyny and the weak view of women it creates.
Eliza Doolittle, the protagonist, is a cockney flower girl taken in by the extravagant Henry Higgins, who bets he can turn Eliza into a “proper lady” in six months. Higgins successfully transforms Eliza through misogynistic and tiring tactics which diminish her personality and qualities, ladylike or not. Higgins celebrates his success selfishly, completely leaving Eliza out. This leads to the creation of her polemical argument against Higgins at the end of act two. Despite Eliza’s anger, the show ends with a reconciliation of sorts between the two. The end begs the audience to accept that Higgins is a decent guy, disregarding everything he did to Eliza throughout the musicaland poses her as rather weak.
Somehow, in the production I saw this summer, director Michael Arden (Director of the Broadway revival of “Spring Awakening” 2015) was able to take the original text and completely transform its meaning. Through stylistic choices (the use of set, thrust style staging and mood blocking) and a tweak of that infamous ending scene, the show transformed from the story of a glorified misogynist being forgiven for his wrongdoings to that of a woman going through a terribly oppressive time and walking away from it stronger. The show ends with Higgins alone on the stage while the cast stripped his entire home away from him until the stage was bare. Eliza appears in the doorway, takes one look at him and defiantly turns the other way.
I wonder a lot about the implications of these classic golden age musicals on society. Pieces of theatre like “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “The King and I,” “Damn Yankees,” are all well-known, continuously produced pieces from that era. Yet they all harbor undertones of misogyny and aren’t successful in providing the view today’s female audience needs. Each miserably fail the “Bechdel Test”–– a test created by artist Alison Bechdel to monitor the role of women in film and theatre. A piece passes the test if it includes a scene between two women in which they discuss something other than a man. It is appalling that these pieces of theatre, and countless others, cannot include dynamic roles for women.
One could argue that the 1950s, the time in which most golden age theatre premiered on the great white way, are to blame. Being a decade of massive oppression for minority groups and women, it is inevitable that the theatre of the time would reflect such injustices.
There is something very relevant and important about the material Arden adopted and how he was able to transform it into something strikingly different from the original piece without changing the text at all. The piece provided hope for the musical theatre I’d like to see in 2017: less reliant on the strong, central male figure and more poised to give women an empowering role in a time during which they were objectified and pushed down.