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The Thoroughly Midcentury Modern Musical

As it happens, Lerner and Loewe’s two most celebrated musicals – My Fair Lady and Camelot – are being staged right now at rival Canadian theatre festivals, the first at Shaw [1] and the second at Stratford [2]. Taking in the two shows on successive nights, I was struck by how similar the two shows are:

– Both feature male protagonists with pretensions to culture (Higgins) or civilization (Arthur) who can’t figure out how to handle the women in their lives.

– Both feature women who are tempted away from the men the audience knows they belong with by the lure of pretty faces (Eliza for Freddie and Guinevere for Launcelot).

– Both feature older “sidekick” characters whose names begin with “P” (Pickering and Pellinore) who are encountered fairly at random and who have no real plot function but who provide a degree of comic relief and serve as gentle foils for the male lead.

– Both run into trouble in the second act, as the male lead refuses to take decisive action to resolve the drama (Arthur will neither forgive Guinevere nor take vengeance on Launcelot, nor can he bring himself to extirpate Mordred; Higgins will neither admit he loves Eliza nor will he simply let her go).

– Both even feature equestrian contests that take place off-stage while we observe the observers.

My Fair Lady is by far the better show – it has livelier songs (which do more to advance the plot than those in Camelot), and sharper-drawn characters – but it didn’t need to be. It has, in fact, the weaker underlying plot. The whole Pygmalion story climaxes with the ball at which Eliza triumphs. After that, Higgins behaves like a jerk, Eliza throws her fit, and … well, then they sort of dance around each other for the rest of the play declaring their independence from each other and refusing to let each other go. This isn’t really Lerner and Loewe’s fault; Shaw’s to blame for refusing to accept that he’d written a romantic comedy, and therefore leaving his drama unresolved in an unsatisfying way, and bringing the slippers back at the end doesn’t fix the problem that for the twenty minutes before that Higgins and Eliza are just arguing with each other in a fruitless and unsatisfying manner. The source material for Camelot, meanwhile, is a story of truly epic sweep, but the show neuters it. Camelot is a musical with a message, and the message is: civilization is tough to maintain, because people have messy emotions. Arthur wants to be civilized, to improve the world, but his principles leave him passive in the face of Guinevere’s straying and Mordred’s provocations. This isn’t just dramatically unsatisfying (passive heroes are the big no-no in any dramatic medium) – it’s not even intellectually interesting.

Indeed, Camelot takes pains to make every major character less-interesting than he or she might have been. Mordred is, in the musical as in the legend, Arthur’s illegitimate son. But his appearance causes no particular consternation to either Arthur or, even more surprisingly, to Guinevere; Arthur’s not the first king to have one of these lying around. Now, think about that. Guinevere is tortured by her love for Launcelot, guilty in part because she knows Arthur is so good, to her and to her lover and just in general, but also because she knows her dissatisfaction is in part related to that very goodness. And yet: this revelation that Arthur has a somewhat more sordid past has no impact on her at all! Mordred himself is a thoroughly inadequate villain. He doesn’t really get under Arthur’s skin. He doesn’t trick Arthur into destroying himself, nor does he manipulate the other major characters. All he does is whisper nasty things in hallways, and bribe his aunt to keep Arthur captive for a little while. Richard III he ain’t. Then there’s that aunt, the infamous Morgan le Fay. In Camelot, she’s reduced to performing parlor tricks in exchange for candy! Camelot’s Launcelot is kind of a hybrid of White’s Launcelot and his perfect son, Galahad, and has the potential to be quite interesting, an Angelo-like figure of virtue betrayed by the most inappropriate of loves. But, again, the show declines to seize the opportunity. We don’t really see Launcelot tortured by his passion, by lying to his best friend; we barely notice that Launcelot has betrayed everything he supposedly stood for. And, indeed, it’s not that clear he has – it appears, based on what we see, that this grand affair is entirely unconsummated. How terribly, boringly civilized.

The two equestrian scenes actually encapsulate very well the difference between the two shows, how much My Fair Lady makes out of what is really very little, and how little Camelot makes out of what is really very much. In My Fair Lady, we watch the upper class as they watch the opening race at Ascot. It’s a one-joke number, but it’s a great joke, setting us up perfectly for the hilarious introduction of Eliza into this society – revealing, in fact, that while language and dress are key indicators of class, they are not, contra Higgins, class itself. Eliza is simply more alive than these stuffed shirts, and that’s due in part to her own class origins but more distinctly to her own exceptional character, something Freddie cottons on to immediately, Eliza herself somewhat later, and Higgins only near the end of the play. In any event, the fact that the race happens off-stage serves the scene: we’re not supposed to be thrilled by the race itself; the action is in the reaction of the spectators.

Now consider the jousting number in Camelot. Unlike the My Fair Lady scene, there is nothing actually happening in the stands that is important to the story. We already know nobody at court likes Launcelot. There’s no drama in watching them get disappointed three times as Launcelot bests his three challengers, and listening to them sing (tunelessly) about the exciting jousts they are watching isn’t a substitute for watching the actual jousts. In this case, putting the race off-stage weakens the scene, and makes us aware of the limitations of the stage. The muse of fire is nowhere to be found.

I don’t mean to be too harsh. But there is a tendency to forget that other things went wrong with the American musical in the 1960s besides a change in the character of popular music. The American musical in that decade became self-important, losing track of character and story and becoming top-heavy with theme. It’s a problem that afflicts even theatrically powerful works like Cabaret, to say nothing of something like Man of La Mancha. Or, for that matter, Camelot.

* * *

But enough of my throwing stones at houses I couldn’t build myself if my life depended on it. What about the productions?

The great strength of the Shaw’s production of My Fair Lady is Deborah Hay’s exceptional Eliza Doolittle. She’s exceptional in being a rare Eliza who doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate for a makeover when we first meet her in the gutter. Her comic delivery is impeccable (she really shines in the Ascot scene). And the father-fixation aspect of her relationship with Higgins is extremely clear without ever being obvious, if you know what I mean. Eliza’s visit to the old neighborhood just before her father’s lamented wedding was especially poignant this time, because this Eliza hadn’t just outgrown her old class. She had outgrown her need for a father. And, therefore, she’d outgrown Higgins as well. And if, when she finally comes out in society, she wasn’t quite the princess that Audrey Hepburn was, well, who is?

Unfortunately, Benedict Campbell’s Higgins doesn’t quite measure up as a romantic opposite for Ms. Hay. Campbell has a baseline geniality about him that undermines the drama of his scenes with Eliza. For the show to really work, we have to want Eliza to be able to tame this particular tiger. But this Higgins is pretty tame to begin with. He’s rude and pompous of course, but he isn’t ever genuinely scary. And, for that reason, he isn’t terribly sexy either. Patrick Galligan’s Pickering compounds the problem by being utterly unconvincing as a British army officer. His excitability kills the humor in many of his best lines, underlining where he would get better effect from underplaying.

Neil Barclay makes for a jolly fat rogue as Alfred P. Doolittle, at his best in his pivotal scene with Higgins and Pickering in the first act. (Covered though he is in soot and grime, before taking a seat in Higgins’s parlor he dusts off – the divan! Priceless.) And the rest of the cast are all full of game. But they are undermined by the direction in three ways.

First, the design is starkly linear, which makes for a series of scenes where characters march from one end of the stage to the other and back. (This is particularly obvious in the number, “Married in the Morning,” which ought to be a show-stopper.)

Second, the costumes are downright bizarre. Higgins and his household appear to exist in something resembling the real world. The rest of London, however, is stylized, but it’s not clear what style the designer is aiming for. This is particularly evident in the Ascot scene, in which the aristocracy are got up in such garish outfits they are indistinguishable from the cockneys in Covent Garden. And those cockneys, far from being authentically dirty, are so obviously smeared with stage grime that I had to wonder whether the director was trying to telegraph: this is a play; these people are pretending to be working-class cockneys, but they really aren’t. That’s an approach that might work well for, say Guys and Dolls, whose gangsters are supposed to be stylized fictions rather than “real” thugs. But My Fair Lady is a story of transformation. If we don’t believe in the reality of the world from which Eliza emerges, then her transformation is drained of meaning.

Finally, that underlining that I talked about with Pickering is a more general problem with the direction. Too many times, the actors are busy doing something rather than being their characters – doing things that are unnatural but that telegraph something loudly, whether it’s Freddie fussing with his papers as Eliza sings to him or Higgins’s servants lolling about extravagantly as they await the master’s return from the ball. All this business does is undermine the reality of the world. If we take Freddie’s fussing seriously, then he’s a genuinely bizarre person; so we don’t take it seriously, but read it as so much “stage” behavior – and we disconnect, emotionally, from the scene; if he’s just “acting” then nothing’s really at stake between him and Eliza, is there? Similarly with the servants: if one flops head-downward on an easy chair, she gets an easy laugh – but what’s also been telegraphed is that we’re in sitcom world, which means that Eliza’s discomfiture at being ignored by Higgins and Pickering when they come home is also something taking place in sitcom world. Which means it doesn’t matter that much.

The good things about the show – Hay’s and Barclay’s performances and the wonderful songs that never get old – are still, to my mind, worth a ticket. But I don’t think this is the best showcase for Lerner and Loewe’s best work.

* * *

My feelings about Camelot are almost exactly the opposite of my feelings about My Fair Lady – also mixed, but the opposite mixture. The strongest things about this Camelot are the male lead and his sidekick. Geraint Wyn Davies is an exceptionally appealing Arthur; the conflicted emotions he feels as he observes Guinevere and Launcelot, which the book does its best to dull, Wyn Davies strives to sharpen again. One of the many troubles with Arthur as a character is that, even as he ages, he’s still always looking for his old teacher, Merlin, still behaving like a schoolboy trying to get a good report. But this is another aspect of the character that Wyn Davies makes more of than I thought would be there – while his young Arthur at the beginning doesn’t seem as physically young as he ought, his older Arthur seems appealingly juvenile; the playfulness of a little boy comes out in his smile, his twinkling eyes, his eager fidgeting with his fingers.

Brent Carver, meanwhile, does a marvelous job with King Pellinore (he doubles as Merlin, but that’s not much of a role – another weakness in the adaptation), fully exploiting the comic potential of what is, really, a very thin character. It’s interesting watching Wyn Davies and Carver together; Pellinore is something of a substitute for Merlin (who, in turn, is a surrogate father for Arthur), an older man Arthur can lean on, but he’s also an emblem of Arthur’s own premature maturation. There’s something very suggestive about the fact that Arthur prefers the company of this old fossil to that of the younger knights at court, something that probably informs the fact that Guinevere falls for Launcelot, and I think the fine chemistry between Wyn Davies and Carver brought this suggestion out, not so much in the theatre as in reflection thereafter.

Jonathan Winsby is appropriately beautiful and cluelessly self-involved as Launcelot, and he’s got a voice for the role (which Wyn Davies doesn’t quite have for his, to be fair). But the weak link in the production is Kaylee Harwood’s Guinevere. In her very first song, she fails to connect with the vanity and cruelty of the character, both manifest in the words she’s singing. If a whole range of emotions pass across Wyn Davies’s face when he observes the first meeting between Guinevere and Launcelot, Harwood’s betrays little expression. Guinevere should be a force of nature; Harwood is, not to put too fine a point on it, far too civilized.

What was missing was brought home with force in the second act number, “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” On its surface, this is a song about the dissatisfactions of wealth and position: surely the simple folk find it easier to enjoy themselves than we do at court. But the subtext is her love for Launcelot, and her dissatisfaction with her husband. When they first met, he presented himself as precisely one of these simple folk. And she fell in love with him. And she still loves him, but she isn’t, well, in love with him. What she’s singing about is: how can we get that spark back – before it’s too late? And he’s supposed to understand what she’s singing about. With all that subtext in the performance, an at-best-clever song that doesn’t seem to advance the story becomes a pivotal moment in the drama – the moment that Arthur fails to win his wife back. Unfortunately, at least in the performance I saw, Ms. Harwood didn’t bring any of that subtext out. And so it was merely a song about how boring it is at court.

As for the production design, if Shaw’s My Fair Lady suffers from some strange choices, Stratford’s Camelot suffers from overly traditional ones. The production consciously invokes the design preferences of the 1950s and early 1960s. Rent “The Court Jester [3]” and you’ll get a pretty good idea of the look of this production. It all has a certain camp charm, but it’s also rather bloodless, and this isn’t a show that needs to be made more anemic than it already is. May has rarely seemed less lusty.

The director also made some strange alterations in the second act. Most notably, by starting the second act with “Fie on Goodness,” he further undermines Mordred as an antagonist (and he’s not much of one to begin with). If the knights are discontented before Mordred even shows up, then his arrival on the scene doesn’t actually change much. The whole episode with Morgan Le Fay, meanwhile, is downright embarrassing – candy? candy?!? – if I were in Gary Griffin’s shoes, I’ve have been inclined to cut the whole thing, and make Arthur’s imprisonment a surprise to the audience as well as to him.

* * *

One final word about political context, for both shows. Our world is, not to put to fine a point on it, a rather different one from the world of 1960. And both of these shows are just a bit too comfortable with themselves and their world, which is symptomatic of the times in which they were written. I think both would benefit from productions that actively tried to connect fruitfully with the current political context.

My Fair Lady tells a story about class difference. But it was written at a time when class differences were smaller than they had been in recent memory before, or than they have become since. Compared to either 1910 or 2010, 1960 was the summit of economic and social equality, at least in white America. My Fair Lady alludes to great social differences between upper and lower class – Eliza’s father never married her mother; she suspects her aunt was murdered for a hat; etc. – but these are played for laughs, because those differences didn’t resonate importantly at the time the show was created. But they would now. I would like to see a My Fair Lady where Eliza is a chavette from a benighted council estate, where the world of Covent Garden has just a bit less Mary Poppins-ish charm and a bit more Little Britain-ish edge.

The bid idea Arthur has in Camelot, meanwhile, is “might for right.” Well, in the ninth year of America’s military presence in Iraq (actually, that should probably be the twentieth – we were militarily engaged, at least in enforcing the no-fly-zone, from the end of the Gulf War in 1991 through to the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003), I think there are reasons to question that idea beyond “won’t the knights get discontented being good all the time?” I’m less clear on how you would bring the contemporary political context successfully to bear on this show, but I do feel like it’s a problem that needs to be solved for us to really care about that one, brief, shining moment. And I feel like other elements are there – Launcelot’s extravagant conviction in his own rightness, for example – that could be harnessed to make this dated show relevant again to our time. They did call him the once and future king, right? Well, the future is now.