Musicals, News & Commentary, Stage

If Julie Andrews thinks My Fair Lady is sexist, why aren’t we talking about it?

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Over the weekend a wonderful but surprising new interview with Dame Julie Andrews was published in Fairfax. Andrews was recently back in Australia overseeing the production of My Fair Lady she directed for Opera Australia when she opened up about the show.

In the article, journalist Elissa Blake asks Andrews a question that’s been widely debated in Australia’s performing arts community for the last year but, as far as I can tell, hasn’t yet been publicly put to Andrews: is My Fair Lady sexist?

Andrews responded rather emphatically: “Oh gosh – it is very, very sexist … Young women in particular will and should find it hard.”

She then went on to say that she was tempted to tweak the ending of her production a little to empower Eliza, the role she played on Broadway 60 years ago. She eventually decided to stay faithful to the original production.

I was shocked. Perhaps I hadn’t given Andrews enough credit, but I had assumed she viewed the show — which made her a star — with rose-tinted glasses, and didn’t see some of the flaws and uncomfortable gender politics thrown forth by the musical.

And tweaking the ending? Well, that’s something I suggested might be appropriate in my review, only to be met with a comment saying I should be “put in prison for wanting to change and destroy history AND theater history.”

I wonder if that particular reader would suggest a similar punishment for Dame Julie if she’d given into the temptation to rejig the musical’s final moments?

“Why had no other journalist asked direct questions about the gender politics of a 60-year-old work?”

I’m certainly not the only person to suggest that the ending doesn’t work as well as it could from either a dramaturgical or political perspective — it’s been controversial since its premiere — but the interview with Andrews threw forth a few bigger questions about how we talk about the arts in Australia, particularly when it comes to musical theatre.

Why hadn’t an opportunity presented itself for Andrews to speak on this subject before? Why had no other journalist asked direct questions about the gender politics of a 60-year-old work? Understandably, given Andrews’s enormous popularity and public profile, she was in huge demand with Australian media and a niche publication like Daily Review wasn’t given an interview. Given the opportunity, I hope we would’ve engaged with the live issues of class and gender in the text.


But if the work is to be presented as it appeared 60 years ago — and this is a replica of the original Broadway production sold entirely as a sumptuous, nostalgic escape to the Golden Age of musical theatre — where was the opportunity for debate? Where was, as Sydney critic Cassie Tongue questioned on the weekend, the essay in the program, or the Q&A, or the roundtable discussing how the work sits for audiences in 2016/17? These are actions frequently taken by subsidised arts companies in Australia to further the conversations started by a work and contextualise their work for curious audience members.

“Shaw exposes Higgins for the hypocrite and misogynist that he is, but the musical choices in My Fair Lady sometimes let him off the hook.”

If the director of one of the biggest theatrical productions to tour Australia in the last 12 months — from a major commercial producer and our biggest subsidised performing arts company — believes that there’s clear sexism at play in the piece, why are we only finding out about it now, ten months after the production’s premiere?

The gender politics of the piece have been discussed widely — in many, many reviews, across all social media, and even in a letter to the editor in The Age objecting to the musicals overtly misogynistic content — but thus far nobody intimately involved in the production has publicly engaged with these central questions.

They are rather complex issues to address, and made even more complex by the differences and similarities between My Fair Lady and George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, upon which the musical is closely based. The nature of the relationship between Eliza and Higgins is rather different in My Fair Lady because of the musical’s structure.

Shaw’s original text is one of the most witty, insightful and influential works of theatre on the performative nature of class and identity, and much of what he wrote is retained in My Fair Lady. Unfortunately a lot of its impact is diminished by the broad, romantic sweep of the musical — Shaw exposes Higgins for the hypocrite and misogynist that he is, but the musical choices in My Fair Lady sometimes let him off the hook.

Higgins’s bullying and harassment of Eliza is apparent in both texts, but she returns back to him in My Fair Lady with little indication that he’s changed. It’s that ending which Andrews was almost tempted to change.

“at Sydney’s opening night, the romantic reunion wasn’t met with the enthusiasm you might expect”

The final few scenes of My Fair Lady are a little bit of a letdown where Eliza is concerned. Firstly, we see her tell Higgins that she no longer wants anything to do with him. Then Higgins sings the gorgeous I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face, in which he realises how much he cares for Eliza. Then, she suddenly reappears, seemingly ready to resume her place with him.

We’ve seen the wheels in his mind turn all the way through his big number, and we’ve seen him undergo a little transformation of his own. She’s been offstage the whole time, but she returns having made some pivotal decision for her life.

The ending now plays a little bit awkwardly and, at Sydney’s opening night, the romantic reunion wasn’t met with the enthusiasm you might expect from the finale of what is actually a rather gorgeous production.

Frankly, it just didn’t speak to audiences as strongly as it might, and a somewhat different choice here might’ve resonated more clearly. It can be immensely powerful when directors of revivals choose to engage with the present in a sensitive way.

You only need to look to Bartlett Sher’s acclaimed revival of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway, which included a subtle, contemporary framing device connecting the refugees of the classic musical with the real-life refugees of today, to see just how effectively the souls of these classic works can be illuminated by a contemporary examination.

The trouble is that the producers of this My Fair Lady have decided they really don’t want the audience to think too much. It’s meant to be pure escapism — a treat for the eyes, the ears and the soul, more than the political and social mind.

And there’s certainly no problem with producing beautiful works that aim to lift us out of day-to-day drudgery. But can My Fair Lady really be pure escapism? Firstly, it’s entirely about a class system that restricts people’s liberty and expression; one which western societies have really not eliminated. Secondly, its gender politics are controversial and repugnant to many audience members. It’s not an escape for plenty of women I’ve spoken to — and not just the younger women Andrews mentions — who have felt similarly bullied and belittled by men in positions of power at some point in their life.

To not allow and encourage a dialogue around these key points does those audience members a disservice. And it does the work itself a great disservice too.


5 responses to “If Julie Andrews thinks My Fair Lady is sexist, why aren’t we talking about it?

  1. You say that Pygmalion exposes Higgins as a “hypocrite and misogynist” while My Fair Lady “sometimes let[s] him off the hook,” but to me I think it’s the other way around. Pygmalion is just a transformation story about Eliza (and, unwillingly, her father); we don’t see any change in Higgins. But in My Fair Lady, as you acknowledge, we see Higgins “undergo a little transformation of his own.” I agree it would be good to make that more explicit, but even as it stands I’m not sure that it’s all that “little”. Shaw’s Higgins never acknowledges any need to reform, but Lerner’s version holds out the possibility of better things.

  2. I think Ben and others with similar thoughts should revisit My Fair Lady when it returns to Sydney in August. Since Sydney, the audiences in Brisbane and Melbourne have enjoyed Charles Edwards as a slightly more ‘modern’ Higgins. Dame Julie Andrews has obviously allowed Charles Edwards to shine this way, without having to formally ‘tweek’ the ending. Most satisfying, and something to perhaps buy another ticket to see again.

  3. It’s always futile to critique any story or play through the prisms of the modern ethos. Probably My Fair Lady is no more or less ‘sexist’ than any other movie or play written at that time in history or indeed all the way back to Lady Murasaki’s ‘Tales of Genji’.

  4. Has everyone forgotten that GB Shaw was a harsh socialist critic and satirist of English elitism? Sexism, yes. Class condesention, yes. But the real hypocrisy was of bachelor gentlemen vis a vis the working class ” immorality” of Eliza’s father and his cohorts. Both Higgins and Pickering were Shaw’s skewering of early 20 the century closeted homosexuals. There could never be any romance between Eliza or any woman and Higgins in Shaw’s story.

  5. Why aren’t audiences talking? Because MFL is a museum piece we KNOW to be a museum piece. It’s sexism was established when they nerfed Pygmalion.

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