Could my fair lady — my 9-year-old daughter, whose eyes are more likely to focus on an iPad or iPhone than a Broadway stage — find the spectacle she has become accustomed to on a little screen in a big-stage revival of "My Fair Lady?"
Could an old-fashioned legendary 1950s musical short-circuit the garish graphics of today’s contemporary kids scene and, at nearly three hours in length, compete in a short-attention-span world?
"Do we have to see this?" Hannah murmured before we went, as she sat glued — and I became unhinged at her resistance — in front of a tablet, trending in fireworks and pastel-hued superponies, that offers up a virtual reality for a youngster while providing virtually no cultural enhancement.
We had already bought her a ticket to a preview performance of the Broadway revival, which officially opens April 19th, at the Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont, so not going was not an option. But what was going to happen as she took her seat for this event, the Lerner and Loewe musical's first Broadway revival in 25 years, as the orchestra pit filled with the passion and power of a score as classic as it as colossal?
The pit in my stomach growled a different score: Had we made a mistake in assuming "My Fair Lady" could fare the winds of change and be as appealing and enchanting as when I first saw it some 60 years ago with a cast since lost to the ages? How could I and my wife imagine that a youngster so besotted with the rock band Imagine Dragons would speak the same language and find interest in this tale of an aging dinosaur whose love of teaching linguistics would lead him to his most challenging conversion, a plebeian ragamuffin whose vow to make something of herself comes entangled in a series of muffled and misguided vowels? Would Hannah find "Thunder" in this electrically-charged relationship of a besmirched beauty and her beastly mentor onstage?
My wise-beyond-her-years daughter is no babe in the woods when it comes to Broadway and the arts. An excellent student who has written her own plays and a movie script filmed at her school — she is well familiar with theatrical Svengali sagas. My pint-sized sophisticate and inveterate storyteller, who sports an advanced vocabulary that speaks volumes about her intellect and curiosity, is enamored of "The Phantom of the Opera" (which Hannah has seen a number of times on stage and on screen and of which knows the entire score) and its sequel, "Love Never Dies." But both offer a razzle-dazzle dimension to augment their undeniably gorgeous scores by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
But "My Fair Lady" has its own old-world wizardry, though not a technological fireworks fusillade. As the lights dimmed at the Beaumont, it was soon obvious there were bedazzling moments to be had onstage after all. Tempers flaring and witty retorts ricocheting off the wall of Henry Higgins’ stunningly conceived library showed that words can throw off more sparks than any staged conflagration the rock and tech worlds have to offer.
After all, wasn't George Bernard Shaw, upon whose play "Pygmalion" this musical was based, a rock star of the literary realm?
As I watched Hannah react to the war of words onstage enveloped in songs as soft and seditious as any in Broadway history, I realized that the tablet she had taken with her as company for the long car trip to Broadway never came out of its cover during intermission. She had instead logged on to the fantasy world that is theater, live on stage in front of her, with Mr. Higgins and Eliza tantalizingly essayed by Harry Hadden-Paton and Lauren Ambrose.
Paraphrasing Mr. Higgins' protestation, English can speak to the younger generations. It certainly has so far in this revival with its accent on a tempestuous tug of war that pits street smarts against the smuggest of academic intellects, with the #MeToo movement underscoring each Eliza evolvement from slouch to sublime victor. This was not a revisionist revival but a stunning salute to the work's evergreen lessons, which even a 9 year old — albeit a very smart 9 year old — could grasp.
Hannah’s talk at our post-performance dinner focused more on Mr. Higgins the intellectual bully, a linguist with not a kind word for anybody, and how he had been caught speechless in Eliza's cultural cross-hairs. It was all, as Hannah said with an appreciative smile, "a loverly show."
Michael Elkin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a theater critic and award-winning playwright whose black comedy, "Saddam!," had its world premiere in Baltimore.