‘My Fair Lady’ grows up
By Jay Handelman, Sarasota Herald-Tribune September 9, 2007
For millions of movie fans, Sally Ann Howes will always be Truly Scrumptious, the sweetheart of Dick Van Dyke’s Caractacus Potts in the 1968 film “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
But to an earlier generation, she became a Broadway sweetheart in 1958 when she replaced Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle in the original production of “My Fair Lady.”
As the 50th anniversary of her Broadway debut approaches next year, Howes is marking the occasion by returning to the show that gave her career a jump-start in the United States.
She is no longer playing the cockney flower girl who learns to speak like a proper Englishwoman in the musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” This time, she is playing the mother of Eliza’s teacher, Professor Henry Higgins, in a new national tour that is getting its start at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center beginning Wednesday.
And she couldn’t be happier about it.
“I’m loving every minute of it. It’s the greatest fun I’ve had in a long time,” she said in a phone interview before a rehearsal in New York City held prior to the cast’s move to Tampa earlier this week.
Trevor Nunn is restaging a hit production he first directed at the National Theatre in London in 2001 and revived for a 2005 tour of England.
The stars of that tour -- Lisa O’Hare as Eliza and Christopher Cazenove as Henry Higgins -- are also starring in the American tour.
The cast also includes popular Broadway performers such as Tim Jerome as Eliza’s surprisingly wise father, Alfred P. Doolittle; Walter Charles as Higgins’ friend, Col. Hugh Pickering; and Justin Bohon as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, the young aristocrat who falls for Eliza.
The show is produced by Cameron Mackintosh and features choreography by Matthew Bourne.
Mrs. Higgins may not be the show’s largest role, but she is one of the most pivotal characters. Eliza gets her first test in British society at Mrs. Higgins’ box at Ascot, and Eliza turns to Mrs. Higgins when in trouble.
Mrs. Higgins is “absolutely a marvelous person, a really strong woman,” Howes said. “She’s been on her own for a long while. It’s the time of the suffragette movement, and she has women’s rights on her mind. That sounds very deep, I know, but I happen to know the play, and that’s great background to have.”
Howes had no hesitations about returning to a show she knew so well in a different way.
“It’s been such a long time. I’ve become an observer. All the good memories come back. I feel I’ve sort of grown up, and I’m now watching my child, Eliza,” she said.
O’Hare said she has tried to get “some tips” from Howes, “but she’s been reluctant to give me direction. She’s a very sweet lady, and she’s told me some funny stories about when she played it.”
Howes said O’Hare doesn’t need any tips from her.
“She’s going to knock everybody’s socks off. She’s absolutely her own Eliza. There’s nobody like her. She’s different from Julie (Andrews), me and Audrey Hepburn.”
O’Hare returns to the role after spending six months playing the title role in “Mary Poppins” in London, marking the second time she has played a part associated with Andrews.
“I just need to do ‘The Sound of Music’ now, and it will be complete,” she said jokingly.
O’Hare describes Eliza as a “Herculean role.” That is one reason she will play just six out of each week’s eight performances.
“I don’t know how you could really do more without hurting yourself,” she said.
After touring England, she was excited when Mackintosh invited her to do the role in the U.S.
“It’s a rare opportunity to play a character like this. And I’ve never seen America, and I can’t wait to get around and see all these places,” she said.
After a four-day run in Tampa, the show begins a tour booked through next May.
Howes will stay with the production until January, when she will be replaced by Marni Nixon, who sang for Audrey Hepburn in the film version.
“I don’t work that much anymore. I work when I see something that’s appropriate, and I think Mrs. Higgins is appropriate,” Howes said.
She said she used to wonder if her career would last long enough to play Mrs. Higgins.
“It’s a delightful role because you don’t have the responsibility of the whole show on your shoulders,” she said. “You have some very good scenes and some really good laughs.”
Howes said she enjoys the attention she still gets about “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
“You can work your tail off in the theater, but unless somebody is there to see it, it evaporates,” she said.
“It’s wonderful to have something that generations of young people know.
“Some of the young people in the ensemble have come up and said, ‘I just think of you as Truly Scrumptious.’ That’s wonderful.”