The ongoing clash between what Broadway actually is and how it thinks of itself was particularly notable in the season just concluded—the first of the #MeToo era. Large theaters demand to be filled with patrons willing to pay, on average, more than $100 per ticket. With few exceptions, only musicals can fill the bill: come January, upon the closing of the slapstick farce The Play That Goes Wrong, the longest-running straight play on Broadway will be Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two. The previous sentence will still be true in 2028, but that play dates only to April 22. All other long-term occupants of Broadway theaters are what the trade papers used to call “tuners.” Yet is there any art form more difficult to pull off than a Broadway musical? In a typical season, zero to two new entries manage to stay on the boards for more than a year. There are forty-one Broadway theaters.
Revivals, having presumably attracted an audience at least once before, have the advantage of being pre-sold to the older audience that attends Broadway shows. Many of these shows have had multiple beloved iterations, including iconic film versions known to the masses. The problem is that Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, while reliably liberal for their time, are, by today’s standards, not at all “woke.” So the theater community of very severely woke producers and directors and actors is in a bind. They want to keep working, but to do so they have to pluck from the shelf musicals whose sexual and racial politics make them gag. Work conflicts with woke.
Work conflicts with woke.
One popular solution is to put more black performers on the stage. This serves the dual purpose of satisfying the racially obsessed and placating feminists, whose movement is more or less defined by its absence of focus. Every feminist gathering of two or more quickly devolves into fretting about homosexuality, class, and especially race—the emperor of worries on the left, even at a disturbing moment when scores of prominent men in the media and entertainment have been unmasked as serial abusers of women. The protagonists of both The Iceman Cometh (which recently closed after a limited run at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre) and Carousel (at the Imperial Theatre through September 16) are guilty of physical attacks on women, so casting black men in these parts (Denzel Washington as Hickey in the former, Joshua Henry as Billy Bigelow in the latter) seems ideologically counterproductive. As for My Fair Lady (through February 17, 2019, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater), the director Bartlett Sher has nudged events in a feminist direction, notoriously by changing a famous, funny, and satisfying ending to a senseless, inconclusive, and dismal (but feminist!) one.
Except in Carousel, these supposedly bold moves don’t really change things much; the current take on My Fair Lady may end on an unexpected sour note, but otherwise it’s an unblemished rhapsody, a delight from beginning to three-minutes-before-end. The Iceman Cometh remains what it always was, a pretentious morass of soggy, sentimental speech-making for which Eugene O’Neill’s corpse should annually be exhumed and given a sound flogging in the interest of deterring any potential imitators.
Casting a black actor as Billy Bigelow does add some interest to Carousel, though. The 1994 Lincoln Center production was praised for giving the sidekick role of Carrie to the black actress Audra McDonald, but though McDonald sings angelically and deservedly won a Tony for the role, it seemed odd to suppose that no one in nineteenth-century Maine would take any notice of her race. The audience is left to assume that McDonald is simply playing a white character, and leave it at that. Fair enough; it would be a shame to be deprived of McDonald’s prodigious talents just because classic musicals contain few roles specified for black characters. Yet no reversal of the proposition is currently granted; cast a white actor as Othello, and you had better be prepared for a pounding. Even casting a white actor as a white character can, under certain circumstances, get you tagged as racially obtuse. A year ago, there was an uproar on Broadway because Mandy Patinkin was hired to play Pierre in the musical adaptation of War and Peace: Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Because the role had temporarily been played by an (obscure) black actor, persons of color working on Broadway and other liberals complained of insensitivity, and a chastened Patinkin was forced to back away meekly. Which in turn caused the show to close and cost scores of people associated with the play, of all colors, their jobs.
In the current Carousel, at least, the casting of a black man in the lead role makes some dramaturgical sense: Bigelow is a classic outsider, and though it is discordant that a person of color could work at a carnival in 1873 Maine without anyone remarking on his race, carnivals are notoriously places of escape, where staffers are expected to have come from a wide variety of backgrounds, some of them perhaps unsavory. If there’s any group whose members are less than eager to inquire into one another’s pasts, it’s probably the carnies. Moreover, being black provides Billy with a plausible basis for his congenital feeling of never fitting in anywhere. The willingness of Julie and her mother to make excuses for him as they discuss his habit of belting her feels like the most contemporary detail of the show.
Alas, Carousel remains defined by its least contemporary aspect, which is its irredeemably moronic second act. The musical has been with us for seventy-three years, undergoing adjustments all the way. Perhaps in another seventy-three years they’ll fix it, but I’m not optimistic. Of all the great American musicals, none is burdened by such a clunky story. Richard Rodgers’s gorgeous, indeed empyrean, compositions are held down by what amounts to a rusted anchor of a book and mostly banal lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.
Anyone familiar with the disastrous 1956 movie adaptation or other productions of the show knows the drill: Billy is a hot-tempered, charming carnival barker when he seduces the innocent Julie Jordan in a coastal New England town and, losing his job, is driven to desperate straits. After they marry and she tells him she’s pregnant, he succumbs to the enticements of a local ne’er-do-well to rob and murder a local boarding-house owner. This goes badly, and Billy kills himself (with a knife!), but in an unusually forgiving purgatory, he is invited to return to Earth for one day to make amends. He shares some greeting-card-style platitudes with his now- sixteen-year-old daughter and the show closes with the maudlin “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Who thought this story (adapted from the Hungarian Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom) was a winner? As Julie sings in the show, what’s the use of wonderin’? As we get further from 1945, the childish theology (kill yourself after attempting to take part in murder, and you still get a mulligan?) becomes ever more difficult to stage with a straight face. The Nicholas Hytner–directed 1992 Royal National Theatre production, the same one that arrived at Lincoln Center in 1994, was praised for exposing the American breadwinner as physically abusive and tormented by doubt. Darker than the other R&H musicals, it was therefore pronounced superior to them for flipping over the rock of the American psyche and revealing the wriggling squirmy things beneath. In fact, its plot machinations would embarrass the average soap opera dramatist. It’s best to think of Carousel as a collection of songs broken up by increasingly inane plot contrivances.
Ah, but what songs! “If I Loved You” is as entrancing a ballad as has ever been written for the stage. The upbeat “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” a celebration of late spring, matches Hammerstein’s hearty good cheer with an unusually bouncy Rodgers melody. The instrumental opening number “The Carousel Waltz” is splendid. “When I Marry Mister Snow,” in which Julie’s loyal best friend Carrie sings of her somewhat stolid beau, is sweetly endearing, as is the Act II opener “This Was a Real Nice Clambake.” The plaintive “What’s the Use of Wonderin’ ” is nearly as beautiful as “If I Loved You.” In short, the score is one deathless number after another.
So there is much to appreciate here, even if this production isn’t ideal. Notable for this go-round is that the cast is largely made up of performers renowned primarily for their singing, especially the soprano Renée Fleming, who has appeared only once on Broadway before and plays Julie’s older confidante Nettie Fowler, affording her the opportunity to belt out “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” The baritone Joshua Henry, though, proves more stentorian than engaging as Billy. Between his Billy and the demure Julie played by Jessie Mueller (who starred in both Waitress and Beautiful, two long-running Broadway crowd-pleasers) there is no frisson whatsoever: he is all gloom and self-absorption, she lightness. Both are in their thirties and at least a decade too old for their parts. Though Henry is only thirty-four, he seems ten years older, and in any case his character is supposed to be the very picture of brash, heedless, lusty youth. Picture 1950s Frank Sinatra and you’ll get the idea, as indeed the producers of the movie version of Carousel did when they hired him to play Billy. (Sinatra, according to legend, appeared on the set after two months’ rehearsal, learned the movie was being shot in two different formats of CinemaScope and was piqued that this would mean filming each scene twice. Surely he would be paid twice the agreed amount? No, he was told. So he got on his plane and left. Gordon MacRae was pressed into service to replace him alongside Shirley Jones.) Henry, thickly built, seems more middle-aged burgher than impetuous youth, and his acting is weak. His notoriously windy Act I closer “Soliloquy” (the worst song in the show) carries no emotional charge. If the director Jack O’Brien chose Henry for the part because he brings an angry, frustrated, alien quality to it, he was too clever by half; this Billy is as off-putting as Rodgers’s compositions are enveloping.
To a lesser extent, there is also a void at the heart of Sher’s production of My Fair Lady. Sher’s lady is Lauren Ambrose, best known as the little sister on the hbo show Six Feet Under but not an established Broadway presence. To be scrupulously honest, this particular lady is only fair. Ambrose turns out to be a very fine singer and a more-than-adequate actress, but stepping into a role that was originated by Julie Andrews on Broadway and put indelibly onto film by Audrey Hepburn brings up unflattering, indeed disastrous, comparisons. Unlike her predecessors, Ambrose simply isn’t beautiful. She brings no sparkle to the part. She doesn’t make you love her. The more twinkling jewels and gorgeous gowns that get layered upon her as the show proceeds, the less convincing she is in the part. She is not a star, and yet this ugly-duckling story is manufactured for a star as surely as a Mercedes is manufactured for a driver.
She is not a star, and yet this ugly-duckling story is manufactured for a star as surely as a Mercedes is manufactured for a driver.
Sher is, as usual, to be commended for his keen appreciation of the show’s delights, notably using sumptuous sets as he did in The King and I, also at Lincoln Center, in 2015, and by deploying a huge twenty-eight-piece orchestra that gives him the depth against which to stage his most imaginatively crafted numbers (notably a beer-hall “Get Me to the Church on Time”) with maximalist vigor. The London street where the flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Ambrose) sells her wares is evoked by a few lampposts and superb costuming for the passersby, such as Colonel Pickering (Allan Corduner), who strikes up a conversation about speech patterns with the linguist Henry Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton), only to discoverthe two had an appointment to discuss such matters. Eliza, the guttersnipe whose inflections fascinate both of them, becomes the subject of a bet. Higgins says he can clean up both her speech and her appearance and pass her off as a duchess at a society ball in a few months’ time.
Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw’s 1914 source play, remains his best-known work thanks mostly to Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical adaptation. I like to think of the old Fabian socialist being a bit baffled or, preferably, infuriated by what became of his work, which, as My Fair Lady, is a simple fairy-tale fantasy about a pretty proletarian getting seduced by and successfully joining the haute bourgeoisie. It’s the Pretty Woman of its time, and that 1990 film comedy about a prostitute and a plutocrat has also been adapted into a Broadway musical that hit the stage this summer, accompanied by much protestation on the part of its creative team that the story has been cleansed of its retrograde sexual politics. I haven’t seen it yet, so I’ll reserve judgment.
Sher, restoring a bit of Shaw’s vision for Eliza, has given the character more agency, hinting that she is not merely the plaything of Higgins and Pickering but is in fact a schemer who nudges them into doing what she wants while convincing them it was all their idea. The problem here is that Eliza doesn’t really work as a feminist icon; if she walks away from Higgins, what then? The best she can hope for is to graduate from selling flowers in the street to selling them in a shop (an ending Shaw himself pitched in a later essay on Pygmalion)—and to await a suitor like Higgins who will save her from such labors and turn her into a wife and mother.
Ending the play with a defiant Eliza on her own, having learned to pass as a member of the upper classes without actually being one of them, isn’t satisfying. Freddy (Jordan Donica), the suitor Eliza meets first in the rain at Covent Garden and then at her comically inept trial outing at the Ascot horse races, isn’t the man for her. He becomes a likely candidate for a restraining order as he devotes the better part of his existence to singing “On the Street Where You Live” on her doorstep. He’s a brainless, spineless fop who is far too earnest to suit her after she becomes accustomed to the slash-and-parry amusement of dealing with Henry. We need Eliza and Higgins to settle in together at the conclusion. Otherwise what’s the point of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”?
I’d already forgotten every song in the show by the time I got in my cab.
Sher’s twist doesn’t much matter, though. The attempt to spin Eliza as a proto-feminist who stands up to a domineering male and strikes out boldly on her own amounts to a spoonful of castor oil as the price of three hours of gorging on sundaes. To compare My Fair Lady to even a perfectly competent, splashy contemporary musical—say, Mean Girls, which is likely to stay on the boards for a year or more and has won a number of awards—is to measure a giant against a midget. The species is the same, the body parts are the same, and everything works. But one is a standout and the other disappears instantly in a crowd. The tenth-best song in My Fair Lady—say, “Show Me”—is better than the best song in Mean Girls, whatever that might be. I’d already forgotten every song in the show by the time I got in my cab. Mean Girls, notably, carries a lightly worn but nevertheless “important” female-empowerment message, even though the villain of the piece is a female who has too much power. Admirable, perhaps, but between competence and genius there is no contest. Broadway’s old “problematic” musicals will remain big business for years to come.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 1, on page 28
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