"Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?"
What would you do if offered the opportunity of fetching footwear for a lifetime for someone who constantly belittles you?
The simple and elegant answer for Eliza Doolittle in the Lincoln Center Theater tour of "My Fair Lady" is to — spoiler alert — walk away. Walk away from phonetics professor Henry Higgins and his stream of snide putdowns. Step into a future that's uncertain, but one in which you have a fighting chance because of your own growth and resilience.
That ending, which jibes with the 21st-century TikTok-influenced zeitgeist and which will be seen when the musical opens a one-week run Tuesday at St. Paul's Ordway Center, was a departure from some nine decades of romantic expectations for this story. Since 1938, when the film version of "Pygmalion," from which "My Fair Lady" descended, won playwright George Bernard Shaw a best screenplay Oscar, audiences have come to expect that Eliza and Henry have some sort of continuing, even romantic, relationship.
But Shaw was reportedly unhappy with the film's ambiguous ending tacked on by Hollywood.
That thread was further developed in "My Fair Lady," the beloved 1956 musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe starring Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison, which, in turn, led to the blockbuster 1964 film headlined by Harrison and Audrey Hepburn.
But in his 2018 revival, director Bartlett Sher gets Eliza to reflect our post MeToo spirit by going all the way back to Shaw's original 1913 play, which premiered when the world was on the cusp of war and liberation movements, including the suffragettes' struggle for voting rights, were gathering steam.
"You have to think about what Shaw was trying to do with Eliza," Sher said in a phone interview from his home in New York, noting that the playwright was an ardent socialist who championed progressive ideas. "He wrote into 'Pygmalion' very passionately that it had to be about Eliza's freedom and choice."
The trope of people bickering as a kind of literary foreplay is a longstanding one — think Beatrice and Benedick's "merry war" of courtship in "Much Ado About Nothing" or any of the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn films. That strain of romance also can be seen as a way to subdue a woman's power, said Madeline Powell, who plays Eliza on the Broadway tour.
"We see Eliza as the romantic lead in the movie version rather than as the strong woman who's trying to make moves," Powell said, noting that Eliza sizes up the world and figures out how to get where she needs to.
"She's smart, independent and super-observant, and she knows that the only way to better her life is by playing this system that's entirely run by men," Powell said.
"Lady" is about radical transformation as upper-crust Higgins tries to convert a poor Cockney flower girl into a proper English lady, using language. It's a show that works the nature vs. nurture debate, which, in turn, implicitly juxtaposes ideas around heritable monarchy where roles are fixed vs. a pluralistic, permeable society where one can get about on one's wits.
"If you looked at the situation for Eliza a century ago, there were literally no options for someone like her," Sher said. Her accent, which betrayed her class status, and her gender combined to put an oppressive bell over all her dreams.
The musical is larded with gorgeous songs, from "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" and "Just You Wait" to "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." That last number, in which Higgins admits to himself that he may be developing feelings for Eliza, is a sort of game-changer.
"We always look at Higgins like we look at Shaw — as someone on the spectrum who is sort of incapable of emotional relationships and not as connected to his feelings as he could be," Sher said. "Eliza transforms him. She has as huge an impact on him as he does on her, although his change is personal and hers is societal."
'My Fair Lady'
Who: By Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe. Directed by Bartlett Sher.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat.
Where: 345 Washington St., St. Paul.
Tickets: $44-$131. 651-224-4222 or ordway.org.