Long ago, Sally Ann Howes was Eliza. Now she’s back in My Fair Lady, a gracious star and mentor.
By John Fleming, St. Petersburg Times September 10, 2007
Sally Ann Howes has a history with My Fair Lady. In 1958, Howes, then a leading English ingenue, replaced Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle in the Broadway hit. It was big enough news to land her on the cover of Life magazine.
Now, some 50 years later, Howes is in the Lerner and Loewe musical again, this time playing Mrs. Higgins in the U.S. tour of an acclaimed British production that opens this week in Tampa.
Howes, whose mother and father were stage stars, has a rich theatrical and film pedigree - her most famous role was probably Truly Scrumptious, the aristocratic beauty in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - and she knows how to make an entrance. Sweeping into a conference room at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center on Thursday morning, she bestows kisses all around to director Shaun Kerrison and the English pair playing Eliza and Henry Higgins, Lisa O’Hare and Christopher Cazenove. They’ve all been in rehearsal the last five weeks or so, first in New York, then here.
I say to Howes that it’s kind of amazing that someone from that original production, directed by the legendary Moss Hart, is back in My Fair Lady after so many years.
“It is, it is totally amazing - that I’m still alive,” says Howes, who looks great at 77, to laughter around the table. “I always said when I was doing My Fair Lady that if I can last long enough to play Mrs. Higgins, then I’ll be fine.”
O’Hare, a wide-eyed gamine who trained as a ballet dancer, was Eliza on the United Kingdom tour that ended about a year ago. Recently, she has been playing another iconic English heroine, Mary Poppins, in the London production.
Though O’Hare jokes that she is “desperate for advice,” Howes has not given her any on how to perform the role.
“She has made it totally her own, and it’s different from anybody else’s, and it’s wonderful,” Howes says. “I think the thing I noticed with Lisa is that she’s got a superb delicate quality so that everybody wants to take care of her, but she’s also got a steely cockney thing. When she becomes a lady it’s quite lovely.”
Still, Howes admits that a certain sense of deja vu is unavoidable from being in the original production of the musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.
“I didn’t remember anything until I came into rehearsals, and then I would hear Lisa doing the lines, and I could hear Moss telling me how to do it,” she says. “Actually his notes started coming back to me and I remembered him very, very clearly.”
But that was then, this is now, and a trouper like Howes wouldn’t dream of leaning on her illustrious past in the show. “Sally has been wonderfully generous,” says Kerrison, who is restaging for this tour the London production by director Trevor Nunn and choreographer Matthew Bourne. “She has never offered a comparison.”
This My Fair Lady revival was produced by Cameron Mackintosh and the National Theatre of Great Britain. Mackintosh, a producer with a Midas touch whose blockbusters range from Cats to Les Miserables to The Phantom of the Opera to Miss Saigon to Mary Poppins, planned to be in Tampa this week to see how the tour was shaping up. He has used TBPAC to launch a tour before, rehearsing and premiering the first U.S. tour of Les Miserables in 1988.
His My Fair Lady premiered in 2001 and was a huge hit at the National and then in the West End the London equivalent of Broadway, receiving ecstatic reviews and running almost three years. But for some reason, it never made it to Broadway.
Kerrison, an associate director to Nunn for the London production, suggests that because My Fair Lady is a large show, with a cast of 35 and an imposing set by Anthony Ward, only a few New York theaters could accommodate it, and they were not available at the right time. Two other Mackintosh/National revivals had already transferred to Broadway after strong runs in London. Carousel was a hit, but Oklahoma! did lackluster business in New York, which may have hurt plans to bring over My Fair Lady.
“There is a lot of anticipation about this show,” said Judith Lisi, president of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. “For us, it’s exciting because any time you do something for the first time, it’s a rush. It’s also scary because you don’t really know what you’ll get.”
After five shows in Tampa, My Fair Lady heads out to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and the rest of a tour that stretches through next June.
O’Hare and Cazenove already have about 350 performances under their belts from the U.K. tour. Everyone else in this tour was cast in New York.
“It’s lovely, because you don’t have to learn the lines again, of which there are an awful lot,” Cazenove says. “It’s very interesting to do it with a whole new group of people. It sort of freshens up one’s own performance.”
Cazenove must compete with the audience’s memory (and his own) of Rex Harrison in recordings and the movie of My Fair Lady as the irascible phonetics professor who takes on the task of turning Eliza the flower seller into a grand lady. Jonathan Pryce was the revival’s first Higgins. (Trivia note: Edward Mulhare, best known from the 1960s TV series The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, was Higgins opposite Howes.)
“Rex is the best by far,” Cazenove says. “I know there are still echoes of his performance in mine, and I use them shamelessly. I think I do a bit more singing than Rex, who mainly talked his songs. I hope I have made it my own.”
O’Hare and Cazenove spent a week in London working together on their parts of Eliza and Higgins before rehearsals began in New York. Kerrison says their relationship is the key to the show’s success.
“It’s a drastically modern relationship for a woman of that class at that time to demand attention and equality from a gentleman. Some of the scenes these two do in Act 2 are absolutely heartbreaking.”
John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
My Fair Lady
The Lerner and Loewe musical has performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $32.50-$67.50. (813) 229-7827; www.tbpac.org.
To see video from the show, go to art.tampabay.com.