My Fair Lady: What Does the Perfect Cast Look Like?
This week we received some exciting news via Lincoln Center announcing that Bartlett Sher will be directing My Fair Lady for LCT’s Vivian Beaumont in 2018. My Fair Lady has not returned to the Broadway stage since Richard Chamberlain and Melissa Errico starred in a 1993 revival, and that production was not exactly embraced as definitive. Bartlett Sher is a master of staging in the Beaumont’s space, a luxuriously open thrust where the audience wraps around the playing area. He has mined many magical moments on this stage, probing the possibilities of the space with productions of The Light in the Piazza, South Pacific, and The King and I. My Fair Lady is an elegant show, one of the wittiest and most-intellectual of Broadway musicals (based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion), featuring a lush and literate Lerner and Loewe score. How can we not be excited to see how Sher marries this sparkling property with the space where he works his best magic?
With all of that being said, it doesn’t stop us from trying to cast the show for him, or at least weigh-in with our opinions on who should be considered. For each of the main characters, I offer three performers that I would like to see take on the challenges of the role in question. Let me know what you think of these choices, or of any particular-thoughts you have on casting.
Eliza Doolittle: Originated on Broadway by Julie Andrews
In my mind, this is the perfect choice for Eliza Doolittle. Benanti has proven, time and again, her versatility from role to role. What an exciting prospect to watch her transform so much within a character like Eliza Doolittle. Eliza starts out as a scrappy, cockney flower girl and morphs into a lady who can pass as a princess. Laura Benanti has the chops (and the voice) to sing this complex role with aplomb.
Kate Baldwin has a sumptuous voice and she is one of the most reflective, introspective actresses in musical theatre. Eliza has a lot going on internally, and I think Baldwin would really bring those underlying characteristics bubbling to the surface. Not to mention that Kate Baldwin is all things pluck and spunk (witnessed in her performance in Finian’s Rainbow). She would give Eliza a verve that would make us fall in love with her.
Ruthie Ann Miles
Sher has worked with Ruthie Ann Miles before in The King and I where she proved to be a gloriously nuanced actress with a voice that blew the audience away (and winning a Tony Award). Wouldn’t it be interesting to see Sher shepherd her to the next level, as the dynamic lead of My Fair Lady? I can already hear her soaring rendition of “I Could Have Danced All Night.”
Professor Henry Higgins: Originated on Broadway by Rex Harrison
I think that John Lithgow could mine all of the disgusting, misogynistic, AND vulnerable moments from My Fair Lady that made Rex Harrison a compelling Henry Higgins, without doing a Rex Harrison impersonation. Lithgow is larger-than-life, he’s proven his mettle at playing a colorful Brit several times over, and he is also terrific as making the despicable also charming and relatable.
Grammer has demonstrated he has an affinity for playing pompous creatures who eventually worm their way into your heart. In fact, he made an ongoing study of the type playing Frasier Crane on Cheers and Frasier for years. He has a natural bravado that is funny without being obnoxious, and you can almost hear the snooty lines and razor sharp barbs that Higgins slings coming off Grammer’s lips.
Jonathan Pryce is a Welsh actor who is no stranger to musical theatre, drama, or comedy. He can exude an oiliness where needed, and a sublime condescension that is so intrinsic to Henry Higgins character. The fact that he is actually British would also be a nice touch for the character. He would make a meal out of the witty wordplay that is Higgins' raison d’etre. [Pryce played the role in London in 2001, earning an Olivier Award nomination.]
Alfred P. Doolittle: Originated on Broadway by Stanley Holloway
When I think of Broadway’s greatest clowns of today, I immediately think of Danny Burstein. Alfred P. Doolittle is his own traveling show, high energy and charming, in-spite of his disgusting ploy to make money off his daughter. Burstein could make a field day out of playing this incorrigible n’er-do-well. His “Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” would stop the show.
As Broadway character actors go, Michael McGrath is pretty much the pick of the litter these days when you need a funny “older” guy. His performance in Nice Work If You Can Get It won him a Tony, and he was a highlight of last-season’s revival of She Loves Me. Alfred P. Doolittle is the type of role he could play in his sleep.
Jim Dale has always been a frantic and funny actor, particularly when he is playing a cockney with a sense of fun (did anyone see him in Me and My Girl?). His ability to handle raffish comedy would be the firecracker that really sets My Fair Lady off. And he is so charming.
Colonel Hugh Pickering: Originated on Broadway by Robert Coote
Norm Lewis exudes a quiet confidence and warmth that would make him an ideal Colonel Pickering. Sure, the role doesn’t show off his golden voice, but it would give him a chance to show off his comedy chops a little (something he doesn’t get to do enough),
Rene Auberjonios is a fussy character actor, perfect for playing those stuffy British types. Stick him in a cape, a top hat and a monocle, and he will become Colonel Hugh Pickering. What makes him so perfect is that he can also infuse a character of this type with a warmth, and Pickering is Eliza’s go-to for empathy in My Fair Lady.
An actor who I used to look forward to seeing in a show (he was in so many) throughout the late 80s and all of the 90s is Robert Westenberg. He’s now mostly to be found in the world of academia, but I sure wish he could be tempted back to Broadway. His rigid, old-school military physique and his ability to make stuffy play as humorous would make him a fun Colonel Pickering.
Freddie Eynsford-Hill: Originated on Broadway by John Michael King
Max Von Essen
Max Von Essen is talented, sexy, possessing the type of voice that would knock “On the Street Where You Live” out of the park. He also has that look of patrician formality and milquetoast aristocracy that would fit the role of Freddie.
I never get tired of hearing Telly Leung sing, and even though he is bound for a long run on the magic carpet ride that is Aladdin, maybe he could come back down to earth to bring his bold smile and energetic charm to Freddie Eynsford-Hill? Always glad to see him working anywhere.
Always youthful and infinitely charming, Matt Doyle would certainly make our hearts throb if he were to tackle the role of Freddie Eynsford-Hill. His mellifluous voice would soar in the character’s one big number. He’s also just the type of guy you want to see a heroine fall in love with. Okay, so this suggestion comes with a little crush attached. Sue me.
Mrs. Pearce: Originated on Broadway by Philippa Bevans
She played the domestic of all domestics on Downton Abbey, although that housekeeper had a heart of gold. Perhaps Phyllis Logan would enjoy playing a more-crotchety housekeeper who is simply trying to get the job done with as little fuss as possible? Regardless, she’d be wonderful.
Miriam Margolyes has a reserve as an actress that might make her a perfect, uptight Mrs. Pearce. Her classical training and background would certainly lend an heir of elegance and grace to the production. She is also great at physical humor, and Mrs. Pearce has a few moments in trying to get Eliza to mind where these talents can be put to good use.
Another stab at bringing Downton to Broadway, Penelope Wilton who played the always progressive Mrs. Crawley on Downton Abbey, has also proven in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel that she is also quite good at playing a crabapple. Her Mrs. Pearce would be exasperated, but bitchy. What fun that would be.
Mrs. Higgins: Originated on Broadway by Cathleen Nesbitt
Penny Fuller is always wonderful, lively with a touch of sass. This sounds like Mrs. Higgins to a tee. Fuller is also particularly adept at making glamorous characters, fun, and the woman who raised (and deals with) Henry Higgins on a regular basis must possess a sense of humor.
Mary Beth Peil
Always a wonderful character actress in any motherly role she embodies, Mary Beth Peil as Mrs. Higgins would certainly be well-done no matter how she approaches the character. My suspicion is that she would effortlessly give her a slyness and tongue-in-cheek delivery that would steal the show.
Harriet Harris walks into a room and you feel both an aristocratic snootiness and an underlying fire that ignites in the name of fun. She would be a lively Mrs. Higgins, and she would certainly be played as a formidable influence on her son Henry.