A funny thing happened after my disappointment over “Mean Girls” had me forswearing musicals in the middle of Times Square. I fell in love again with the art form through two rapturous revivals of golden age classics I had mistakenly assumed were past their expiration dates, “Carousel” and “My Fair Lady.”
“Mean Girls” didn’t deserve such an extreme reaction from me. Tina Fey’s book is often hilarious, and the show makes room for outcast adolescents who prove themselves to be even more entertaining than the beauty queens and jocks who are lampooned with aplomb. (Keep an eye out for Grey Henson, who received a Tony nomination for his performance as Damian, the gay rebel who quips circles around the conforming cool crowd.)
But the cacophonous score drowned out much of my pleasure. The music by Fey’s husband, Jeff Richmond, had me wishing I asked the flight attendant for earplugs on the way to New York. Nell Benjamin’s lyrics are spritzy, but they’re not half as clever as Fey’s jokes.
Historians of the musical often point to the moment when Broadway songwriting and popular radio parted company as the beginning of a long decline that has only recently been turned around by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.” Call this the Blame It On the Beatles theory. But the problem with “Mean Girls” isn’t that the music is too niche. It’s that it’s hard to imagine anyone choosing to listen to this clamorous Broadway pop beyond the pool of adolescent theater rats dying to be cast in the show.
Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, usually a master of zany verve, turns up the blare on musical numbers to such a degree that I wondered if a cabal of producers overseeing the work was barking at him “Faster! Louder! More oomph!” Is the goal of musical theater directors nowadays to throttle an audience into mindless submission?
I had already been numbed by “Frozen” and had made a career-extending decision to forgo “SpongeBob SquarePants” on the grounds that, no matter how imaginative Tina Landau’s staging may be, a show sprung from a Nickelodeon animated television series that I’ve never seen doesn’t need to be evaluated by my particular expertise. “The Band’s Visit,” the one redemptive offering in a Broadway season of theme park musicals, was all that was standing between this drama critic and despair.
But then rescue came from the middle of the 20th century. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” first seen on Broadway in 1945, and Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady,” which had its Broadway premiere in 1956, have been dusted off in new productions that allow these tarnished old treasures to sparkle again.
There was some understandable distress that the directors charged with reviving these shows were both male. The gender politics of “Carousel,” which extols the unshakable love a woman has for her abusive husband, and “My Fair Lady,” the story of a phonetics professor who treats a cockney flower girl as his lab rat, are not our own.
It’s a profound cultural loss that Broadway producers continue to deprive female directors of equal opportunities. Our theater suffers when directorial perspectives are limited to an elite group of white men. But this historic inequity shouldn’t detract from what Jack O’Brien and Bartlett Sher have accomplished in their sublime productions.
In his autobiography, Richard Rodgers acknowledged that “Carousel” (written with Oscar Hammerstein II after their seemingly impossible-to-top triumph “Oklahoma!”) held a special place in his affections. “Oscar never wrote more meaningful or more moving lyrics, and to me, my score is more satisfying than any I’ve ever written,” Rodgers wrote.
O’Brien revolves his moonlit revival at the Imperial Theatre around this magnificent music. Joshua Henry, who plays Billy Bigelow, the seductive carnival barker nice girls are supposed to avoid, offers a grandly operatic performance that reveals his character’s turbulent soul through his earth-shaking singing.
Jessie Mueller, whose luminous vulnerability uplifted “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” operates in a more realistic mode. Her Julie Jordan, the young woman who falls hard for dangerous Billy and stoically suffers all the consequences, is a challenging character to portray in an age that no longer sees wifely forbearance as a female virtue.
Truthful to Julie’s pre-feminist heart, Mueller adopts a tender diffidence. When she’s not enchanting us with her exquisite vocals, she recedes from the spotlight, subordinating herself not only to Henry’s Billy but also at times to Lindsay Mendez, who shines as Carrie, Julie’s salty, sensible sidekick. (Mendez’s astringent handling of “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan” is one of the effervescent highlights of the first act.)
Like everyone else in this production, Mueller becomes empowered by the music. When Henry and she perform their characters’ falling in love duet, “If I Loved You,” their romantic bond assumes a timelessness despite the disturbing terms of the relationship.
What makes “Carousel” so satisfying isn’t the union of ill-starred lovers but the perfect marriage of story and song. The musical theater language Rodgers & Hammerstein refined holds us rapt even as we recoil at moments from a drama (based on Benjamin F. Glazer’s adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s play “Liliom”) that no one would describe as “woke” on the subject of domestic violence.
But the production finds ways of bringing a modern perspective to the material. The casting of an African American actor as Billy recontextualizes our understanding of this troubled young man. I found myself thinking differently about Billy’s socioeconomic marginalization and the paucity of good options available to him, and felt invested in his slow spiritual progress. The music leads Billy — and the show as a whole — out of the darkness.
Opera diva Renée Fleming, renowned as much for the sensitivity of her characterizations as for her luscious bel canto, doesn’t have to separate acting from singing in her Broadway musical debut. As Nettie, she has the honor of leading two of the best-loved numbers from the show, “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” The first sends the audience into a state of balmy bliss and the second ensures there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
The jubilant gamboling in the clambake scene and the lyrical ballet on the beach that shows history repeating itself with Julie and Billy’s daughter, Louise (Brittany Pollack), manifest the seamlessness of the musical storytelling. O’Brien’s production, deriving fluidity from Justin Peck’s choreography, treats “Carousel” as though it were a dream, subject to reinterpretation.
No one today would endorse Julie’s uncritical attitude toward marital love, but the production gives the women girding Julie throughout her life their due. In this #MeToo moment of seismic change, “Carousel” underscores the power of female solidarity in a world mangled by damaged men.
In reviving “My Fair Lady” for 21st century sensibilities, Sher returns Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s fan-favorite musical to its source, George Bernard Shaw’s scintillatingly smart comedy “Pygmalion.” The ending of this tale about a bachelor professor who bets he can turn a “guttersnipe” into a duchess through intensive voice lessons and military-style instruction on basic manners has been tweaked so that the musical now ends more along the lines of Shaw’s skeptical vision.
Only a die-hard sentimentalist would object to the final moments of this stirring Lincoln Center Theater production, another victory at the Vivian Beaumont for Sher, whose shimmering revivals of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I” and “South Pacific” have left a purple sunset glow in this theater. No version of “My Fair Lady” has moved me more, an achievement I credit to the supple miracle of Sher’s gorgeous staging and the soulful majesty of Lauren Ambrose’s portrayal of Eliza Doolittle.
Eliza is a role that invites Broadway divas to pull out all the stops. What’s so thrilling about Ambrose’s approach is the way she resists the temptation to prove her musical theater chops. A highly regarded dramatic actress who was captivating in the HBO series “Six Feet Under,” she opts to deeply inhabit the part, honoring Eliza’s alert mind as she lends dignity to the character’s trampled upon feelings.
Even when Ambrose is charming us with her lilting soprano, she is working from the inside. Not a note is sung that isn’t felt. Some may miss the powerhouse vocals of past Elizas, but I was stunned by the heartbreaking beauty of Ambrose’s characterization, which humanizes even the most outlandish comic business.
The cockney caterwauling that so alarms Professor Henry Higgins (a dashing Harry Hadden-Paton) is by no means underplayed. But the joke is never on Eliza, who visibly struggles to realize a potential her society has little interest in fostering.
Hadden-Paton plays Henry as a kind of brilliant scientist with an emotional deficiency bordering on disability. He gropes for human feelings the way Eliza fumbles for mellifluous vowels.
His treatment of Eliza, at once indulgent and neglectful, is as much an object of critical scrutiny as the flower girl’s transformation. Henry’s mother (played by none other than Dame Diana Rigg) calls him out for inconsiderately toying with a “live doll.” But the morality of this experiment has already been called into question by the dynamics of the performances. The battle lines are lucidly drawn. It’s Henry’s obtuse privilege versus Eliza’s assertion of intrinsic self-worth.
Sher has become a master of musical theater calibration. The splendor of the design (featuring Michael Yeargan’s sets, Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Donald Holder’s lighting) intensifies as the production moves from the Covent Garden market to the inside of Professor Higgins’ book-lined townhouse.
The showmanship grows more flamboyant as the musical moves into full comic gallop. Norbert Leo Butz, who plays Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s con-man father who comes into a giant payday that turns his wildest dream into a hilarious nightmare, kicks up his heels with wanton mischief in two of the show’s most exuberant numbers, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
When “My Fair Lady” came to the Ahmanson Theatre in 2008, I found it hard to credit Eliza and Henry’s amorous connection. That is no problem at Lincoln Center. Hadden-Paton’s Henry really does seem more appropriate as a future husband for Eliza than Freddy (a winsome Jordan Donica, who savors all the delicious romantic nectar in “On the Street Where You Live”).
As bright as they are attractive, Hadden-Paton and Ambrose are just so well matched theatrically. They synthesize the capering intelligence of Shaw’s dramatic comedy with the alluring charms of Lerner and Loewe’s bewitching adaptation.
The quality of craftsmanship of musicals like “Carousel” and “My Fair Lady” is what has enabled them to endure as long as they have. It’s not nostalgia that theatergoers are craving — it’s wit, harmony, merriment and meaning.