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When classics and the 21st century collide

Lead actor performing a scene where a crowd of actors look at her in disapproval
Photo Provided
Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle in a performance at the Lincoln Center. Ahmed also starred in the RBTL version.

Can we take an artist’s work, or a writer’s words, and refashion them to our satisfaction?

That was the case over the past week, with the Rochester Broadway Theatre League’s presentation of “My Fair Lady.”

The story is likely familiar; it’s certainly been around long enough. The musical dates back to 1956, built around the songs of two of the biggest names in the history of popular theater, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. From there, the story steamrolled on to the 1964 film starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, winning eight Academy Awards, including best picture.

The basic idea is phonetics professor Henry Higgins brags that he can take flower seller Eliza Doolittle and teach her to be a proper society lady by abandoning her Cockney-heavy accent in favor of proper English. Hilarity, and now-familiar songs, ensue.

“Every time you do one of these great revivals, whether it’s ‘South Pacific’ or whatever, we have to investigate them,” says Bartlett Sher, the director of the version of "My Fair Lady” presented last week at the Auditorium Theatre.

“We have to ask why we’re doing them now, and how they’re different, and how we can look at them in some ways for who we are now,” Sher says. “Because these things all change. You would do the same thing with ‘Hamlet,’ you would do the same thing with any great classic. You would investigate it, ask yourself new questions.”

And the questions were ones the arts have been asking themselves in recent years: How do we handle anachronisms and attitudes that, in the 21st century, feel dated? Are we to applaud Professor Higgins for his misogynistic, condescending behavior toward his linguistic test case, Eliza Doolittle? Behavior to be overlooked in favor of rewarding the audience with the completion of a successful romance? And a resolution that Sher calls the musical’s “traditional rom-com ending, which was never convincing anyway, between Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn.”

Do not be too quick to shout, “We must conform with the times!” The question is far more complex. Glancing down from our enlightened perch, a haughty look on our faces, we could demand, “Let’s put arms on the Venus de Milo! No, reshoot the final scene of 'Casablanca' so Bogart walks off with Bergman! Let’s liven up Beethoven with a synthesizer solo!”

Sher has been here before, with a production of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “South Pacific.” As originally written, Sher says, that musical originally raised questions about racial segregation in the military. Rodgers and Hammerstein cut that text, Sher says, “because they were nervous about it.”

“But when we did it 60 years later, we put some of that text back,” he says, creating a more powerful artistic and social statement from “really good impulses that were already in there.”

With “My Fair Lady,” the situation was somewhat similar. “We kind of went backward to go forward,” Sher says.

Backward, to the musical’s true source. Not the 1956 musical. Not the 1964 film. But to 1913 and George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” There is where we first find Higgins and Doolittle, and their phonetics tug-of-war. “Pygmalion” got a film version as well, in 1938 with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller in the lead roles. It was nominated for several Oscars, winning for best screenplay.

So everyone loved this story. Except Shaw.

All of these updates, Sher says, “took out a lot of the more important political ideas of the Shaw, the original play. … So we restored some of the text of Shaw, and we restored Shaw’s ending.

“In Shaw’s ending, he was absolutely adamant that they not end up together at the end. That she be going on her own. Whereas in the musical, I think they thought they have a musical on their hands, they had to kind of make it romantic,” Sher says.

“So we tried to give her agency, and sort of authority, over her own choices, and have her move up a step.”

Actors performing a scene from My Fair Lady
Photo provided
From left, Kevin Pariseau as Colonel Pickering, Laird Mackintosh as Professor Henry Higgins and Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle -- also featured in the Rochester Broadway Theatre League production -- at the Lincoln Theater Center performance of "My Fair Lady."

If the audience last week at the Auditorium Theatre was expecting Higgins and Doolittle to close the show as a happy couple, “It’s not my job to provide them their memory of the musical,” Sher says.

“A play is a living thing. You wouldn’t have done ‘Hamlet’ in the 18th century the same way that you do it now. There’s no question it’s going to change, right? Because we think about it differently. The language may be the same, but everything around it is different. You might put it in modern dress.

“This is just an interaction with the piece, it’s not like we’re radically changing it or rethinking it or somehow correcting it. And every age does this. We’re just interacting with it and every age does this with every classic text. It’s the nature of what we do in the theater. It’s not something new.

“If I’m doing anything, it’s restoring Shaw’s intention.”

Sher adds that he worked with the estate of Lerner and Loewe, and their heirs and children, “who I have a good relationship with. They understand the slight shifts in it. They’re not huge, radical changes, they’re just delicate shifts.”

A delicate shift back to Shaw.

“There is no language change at the end, she just doesn’t stay,” Sher says. “She simply leaves, and returns back into the world.”

The director, and the actors, have something to say in this. “They get to make their own interpretation of the role,” Sher says.

“It’s an interactive art form,” Sher says, comparing it to a Beethoven symphony. “We don’t know exactly how Beethoven did it, nor do we have the responsibility to do it exactly as Beethoven suggested. That’s the whole nature of interactive art. Otherwise, what would we be doing but re-creating museum pieces? We’d all be obligated only to provide you the ‘My Fair Lady’ you saw from the movie, because that’s the one you want to see. And that makes no sense.”

Some art is an ongoing conversation. Some art is a reflection on a moment in time. So in 2022, let’s not have Eliza Doolittle take any of Higgins’ crap. Yet -- pardon the pun -- keep your hands off the Venus de Milo.

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.