But on inspection, her circumstances aren’t really unsympathetic, and are beautifully delineated in T.H. White’s original book, “The Once and Future King.” Though she is a queen, we learn, she has been compelled to marry a much older, if kindly, man. She’s ultimately torn between courtly idealism with Arthur and another form of idealism, her romantic-erotic relationship with Lancelot. If her early songs are sung in a spirit of innocent high-mindedness, instead of coquetterie, her second act makes sense.
The challenge in putting her onstage today is to make palpable both the purity of Guinevere’s intention and the impossibility of her double love. She’s a woman who made a brave and audacious choice — to love twice, with equal passion — that her time can’t yet support.
A Complicated Eliza
Eliza, the preceding role in the Lerner and Loewe canon, is perhaps more hotly debated than any other right now, thanks to Lincoln Center Theater’s Broadway revival, which opened in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
To play Eliza in our own 1994 production on Broadway, the late director Howard Davies cast me with the understanding that I would be young, but hardly delicate. He wanted to begin the show with Eliza looking very much like a man, dressed from head to toe like Charlie Chaplin. But as she is made to be more ladylike, with a plummy accent and gowns to match, her gender would become a different trap in place of poverty — her makeover leaving her equipped only for the marriage market.
As the show toured on the way to Broadway, however, changes were made to soften the unfamiliarity of this interpretation. And with that went some of the political edge. I returned from a break during the long tour and found the Chaplin costumes were not black anymore. That filthy gray-white shirt was now pink, and my long black coat was now violet, with a purple cap.
The current production, with Lauren Ambrose as Eliza, has her definitively walking out on Henry Higgins in the last scene.
Ours was played in the same spirit, but as a dream sequence. Eliza emerged from behind a giant phrenological head that stood alone on a completely blackened stage. Higgins still said “Where the devil are my slippers?” but Eliza, as I played her, stood there poker-faced. Higgins, reflecting, knew that had lost her, or almost, and by quoting himself, admitted he knew why.
Daisy was tougher to figure out.
As we continued digging into the part over the final weeks, new and more subtle clues to the kind of modern woman she might become emerged. In her first song, “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here,” Daisy, singing to a flower pot, may seem a little daffy, but the song ends with her singing the lines “Wake up / Bestir yourself / It’s time that you disinter yourself!”
Bestir yourself! There was the woman I was excited to portray.
Not The Victim She Seems
In the second act, Daisy sings “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?,” one of the best torch songs Lane ever wrote. At first glance, it is a victim’s anthem. Daisy even refers to herself that way in the song’s bridge: “I’m just a victim of time / Obsolete in my prime / Out of date and outclassed / By my past.”
It seems to be a song about not being loved for who you are. “What did he like that I lost track of?” the lyrics continue. “What did I do that I don’t do the way I did before?”
And yet Daisy so obviously knows herself right there: baring her emotions directly — guttural, unaffected, heartfelt and earthy. Worried and intimidated, yes, but showing through song that she’s also a woman of jazzy authority and sexual courage.
In the final scene of “On a Clear Day,” the doctor telepathically calls Daisy to him, and she comes back — to tell him the game is fully over. In the script, he’s supposed to convince her that actually he’s missed her, Daisy, more than he misses her alter ego, Melinda, so he unites the two identities.
But, as we moved into previews, I felt that I had cured the passivity in Daisy and allowed her to bring the two women together herself. I didn’t let the doctor unite the women; I even had to get rid of him, for a minute, to let Daisy possess herself as she banishes him from her Manhattan garden.
In a later moment in Act II, I let Daisy sit down, taking a suitcase and making it a throne; indicating just by her posture that she now knows who she is. It’s her first clear day, and she sees — knows — she has to step into her own body, and her present life, before she can step into love.
And literally through her, the doctor also finds the key to his own transformation. Daisy, like Eliza, is the energy that thaws the frozen man. The agent of his change.
I checked in again with my millennial colleague.
“Watching the process has meant that my objections are now … tempered,” she said, temperately. “You and Charlotte have made her less a victim and more a late bloomer. Because you are not … 23 or, say, 24 … one problematic aspect is tempered.”
As a terminal ingénue in her 40s, I felt conflicted being told that I had saved Daisy with my own, well, maturity. But I was glad to hear confirmation that she was becoming not merely a dated role, but a real woman.
Daisy, like all true heroines, comes to own her complexity. As she told her flowers when they were hiding from the sun, the trick is to be seen.