Being known for two roles is just loverly for 'Fair Lady' Howes
Sunday, September 16, 2007
By Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Some performers go through their whole careers identified mainly with one role, some with many, but for Sally Ann Howes, there are two. In theater, she's famed for being the first to follow Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady" on Broadway, back in 1958. And she's known to a larger audience as Truly Scrumptious, the English beauty who galvanizes the heart of Dick Van Dyke in the 1968 movie "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."
In the decades since, there have been many roles on stage and screen for Howes, now an elegant theatrical grande dame of 77. But that early fame is revived by her return to "My Fair Lady," this time as the imperturbable Mrs. Higgins, the professor's aristocratic mother. It's in that role that she arrives in Pittsburgh on Tuesday in the new national tour produced by master impresario Cameron Mackintosh.
Does she mind being mainly known for just two roles out of many, and those 40 and 50 years ago?
"Not at all!" she trumpets over the phone.
British born and raised, now an American citizen but with her native accent well intact, she's breezy and frank, without a hint of star attitude. It's nothing but a pleasure, she says of "My Fair Lady," "to be connected to a great classic. That and 'Chitty,' I'm really pleased. [A career] goes so quickly. How often do you get marked with a great milestone?" And she has two.
Thanks to TV reruns, of which it has many, "Chitty" still gets her fan mail. "Kids write. But I've given up sending photos," she says with a laugh. "I think they'd be in shock" to see how Scrumptious has aged.
As to Mrs. Higgins, she remembers, "Way, way back, I thought that's a great role -- a fabulous role for someone my age."
Oddly enough, she hasn't done "My Fair Lady" in the intervening decades. She was recently approached for a concert version but couldn't work it into her schedule. She hasn't seen any of the major revivals, such as Richard Chamberlain's on Broadway. "I've just never been in the same place."
"Then Cameron came up with this. I discussed it a lot with my husband. 'Do you mind me going?' " She laughs. "We decided he can visit me along the way. And Cameron gave me an offer I couldn't refuse."
It's her first time working for Mackintosh, though she's "known him forever," since he asked her to be in his very first production, a London revival of "The Sound of Music." She wasn't able to do that because she was then working in America, but in the years since he occasionally flew her over for special performances.
This "My Fair Lady" tour is based on Mackintosh's 2001 revival at London's National Theatre, directed by Trevor Nunn and choreographed by Matthew Bourne, which then transferred to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and won the Olivier Award (London's Tony) for best musical production.
For the tour, they followed New York rehearsal with two weeks of technical staging and what Howes calls preview performances in Tampa, which makes the week in Pittsburgh the official start. Starring are British actors Christopher Cazenove and Lisa O'Hare, who did the 50th anniversary post-London U.K. tour. In addition to Howes, the supporting American cast is Walter Charles (Col. Pickering), Alma Cuervo (Mrs. Pearce), Tim Jerome (Doolittle) and Justin Bohon (Freddy). Nunn's direction is being re-created by Shaun Kerrison.
Howes will stay with the tour only through Washington (Kennedy Center, Dec. 27-Jan. 20, 2008). At the following stop, in Chicago, Mrs. Higgins will be taken over by another famous name from the past, Marni Nixon. (Playing the role on the U.K. tour was another golden oldie, Honor Blackman.)
Howes praises her co-stars, as perhaps she inevitably would: "Christopher is fabulous and Lisa is a young Eliza, tall and slim as Audrey Hepburn, with huge eyes, gorgeous." But she says the production's "real freshness -- totally astonishing and incredible, I was bowled over" -- comes from Bourne's dances. These include a prologue in place of the overture, which dramatizes the "true difference in the classes" at the market outside the opera house in Covent Garden, and dancers "with dust-bin lids on their feet" in Doolittle's big "A Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me to the Church on Time" numbers.
Howes grew up in the theater, daughter of comedian Bobby Howes ("I've never lied about my age -- my father was too famous"). She made several movies in her teens, including "Anna Karenina" (1948). A string of British musicals led to "My Fair Lady," for which she is said to have been paid more than Andrews, because she was the more established name.
She did more Broadway musicals, including several by composer Richard Adler, who was her husband for nine years, and she won a Tony nomination in a 1963 "Brigadoon" revival; she also did the TV version opposite Robert Goulet and Peter Falk.
Film musicals pretty well dried up after "Chitty," and Howes returned to the stage, where she always has been busy, most often in revivals. Several for New York's City Opera included working with Stephen Sondheim, playing Desiree in "A Little Night Music." It's "known as the slow graduation of roles," she laughs, acknowledging that she might be able to do "Night Music" again some day, by playing the elderly Mme. Armfeldt.
These days, she lives in Florida with her husband of 35 years, Douglas Rae. "I'm retired, resting on my laurels," she says, but of course she isn't. As recently as 2000 she was on Broadway in "James Joyce's The Dead," originating the role played later in Pittsburgh by Rosaleen Linehan. She does many performances for charity, and she's been working with other stars to resurrect the Royal Poncianna in Palm Beach.
Now she's touring for the first time in several decades. "Since I was married, I haven't liked to leave my home." But she was in Pittsburgh once before, when she was part of the gala that opened Heinz Hall, along with Alfred Drake, Gwen Verdon, Ethel Merman and Peter Gennaro. Howes arrives at the Benedum trailing a lot of history.