Measure a great musical in terms of the durability of its songs, and My Fair Lady excels. But if the real test of a great show lies in its universality, then this wonderfully familiar Lerner and Loewe classic truly earns the recently bestowed accolade of “the greatest musical of all time.” This is because, if you subtract the dated trappings of those goofy elocution lessons, which were clearly fun and games even back when the show premiered in 1956, you encounter the most archetypal human challenge — how to produce a credible social identity.
I spoke recently with Aurora Florence, the 22-year-old actress who portrays Eliza Doolittle in the Theater League production of My Fair Lady, which plays at the Granada Theatre for two nights this week, and she reawakened my admiration for the show and its grand themes, which seemed as fresh coming from Florence, a newlywed and a recent graduate of the musical-theater program at Brigham Young University, as they do coming from her character, the loveable and lover-ly Cockney girl Eliza. Currently touring the western United States and playing the first major lead role of her post-college career, Aurora Florence is living the musical-theater dream and sharing it as a kind of working honeymoon with her husband, who is a member of the ensemble.
The great themes in the Broadway musical are often hidden in plain sight, tucked behind a more obvious but less pressing concern. In My Fair Lady, which is based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, a relatively harsh and unsubtle skepticism about class distinction in British society distracts from a more nuanced and bittersweet view of the emergence of women into the public sphere.
Henry Higgins is the elocution teacher who wagers that he can transform a working-class girl into the toast of London’s snobbish high society, and Eliza Doolittle is his statue, half woman, half performance-art project. The questions raised by Eliza’s overnight success are very nearly as pressing for Aurora Florence as they are for Doolittle herself.
Florence described Eliza as “a very smart girl who’s in circumstances that she wishes would change. While she learns more about who she is, her destination is still not clear at the end of the play, because the ending is open to interpretation.”
When I asked her to disclose how she sees the ambiguity of the ending, Florence said that she sees it “as a coming back to be a normal person, just to be friends, rather than this great love affair” between Higgins and Doolittle. Florence went on, saying that “it seems like Shaw was showing that the Pygmalion way of changing someone was unsatisfactory for both parties, Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. They mistake each other because the fantasy they’ve created together doesn’t alter the reality of who they are underneath it. Even when Eliza succeeds at the ball, she still doesn’t have the home or the security that she was yearning for in the first place. It’s all about respect, and she’s still not feeling that she has that.” All of which could easily be transposed into an aria of concerns shared not only by the heroine of this show, but by all of the people, men and women, who struggle to maintain a belief in themselves as they come out in society.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a show at all without the songs, and My Fair Lady has an abundance of great ones, all of them perennial piano-bar favorites. “I Could Have Danced All Night,” with its irresistible waltz time and sentiment of after-party ecstasy, works in almost any situation, and the gentle melancholy of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” rends the heart with self-satirizing understatement. There’s loads of fun for the ensemble dancers, as well, including both “Get Me to the Church on Time” and “With a Little Bit of Luck.”
Enjoy this permanent monument while you can, and you’ll no doubt walk out of the Granada with the inclination to sing along that popular musicals were born to produce.
My Fair Lady, Tuesday-Wednesday, January 24-25, 8 p.m., Granada Theatre, 1224 State St. For tickets, call (805) 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org.