Accents, dialects play big role in 'My Fair Lady'
By Alice T. Carter
TRIBUNE-REVIEW THEATER CRITIC
When the musical is "My Fair Lady," how the actors speak is as important as the lines they say.
Set in the Victorian era and based on George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion," the Lerner and Loewe classic musical revolves around Eliza Doolittle, a young Cockney woman who attempts to improve her prospects for employment by learning how to speak with a more socially acceptable upper-class accent.
With her teacher, Professor Higgins, singing his lament "Why Can't the English Teach Their Children How to Speak?" and Eliza and Higgins celebrating her language breakthrough in "The Rain in Spain," it's crucial that the performer knows when to drop or retain the "H" in Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire or shift her pronunciation from "tyke" to "take."
The person charged with making sure the cast knows the difference between "ryn" and "rain" -- and which to use in a given scene -- is former Gibsonia resident and 1981 Richland High School graduate Angela Eckard, who serves as the production's dialect and dialogue coach.
"People think dialects are easy, but they are not," says Eckard, who holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater from Point Park University and teaches voice and speech at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Manhattan.
"It's not just knowing what sounds to change to a different sound and which not," Eckard says. "For me, speech is physical -- where the sounds are formed in the mouth, how the lips are shaped. Learning how it feels is almost better than hearing it."
It is also important to hear the musicality that is an integral part of accents and dialects and how to make sure the accent becomes a natural part of the character portrayed.
For example, says Eckard, Americans pronounce flowers in two syllables: flow-ers. Cockneys soften the "R" at the end to pronounce it as a one-syllable word.
The national touring production that opens Tuesday at the Benedum Center, Downtown, brings with it a blended cast of American and British performers. Eckard approached the project with the expectation that she would be working with both.
"They are a talented group of actors," Eckard says. "They have taken what I've given them and run with it."
Some needed no further coaching for the American national tour. British actress Lisa O'Hare, for one, had appeared as Eliza in the London West End run of "My Fair Lady" that began in 2001, as well as the tour of the United Kingdom that began in the fall of 2005.
But, says Eckard, even British actors secure in their pronunciations might need to make modifications for American audiences.
"It's a matter of adjustment," Eckard says. "They tend to go quickly with names of places Americans wouldn't know."
Her challenge was to help actors slow down or pause to give Americans additional time to process what they are hearing.
"One way to do that is to emphasize the word in some way so you give it color or context," she says.
She began her work by concentrating on actors with lead roles such as Dana DeLisa, an American member of the ensemble who hails from Montgomery County, Maryland, and alternates performances of Eliza with O'Hare.
Together, Eckard and DeLisa worked to develop accents for the untutored Eliza and the refined Eliza.
"It's difficult to do it properly," DeLisa says. "My struggles are similar to the character in the story. If you are not confident that you are saying (words) properly, it becomes frustrating. A dialect coach comes in handy. She will break it down so I can hear it."
It's not DeLisa's first role to require dialect work. She learned to speak with a Puerto Rican accent when she played Maria in "West Side Story."
"This is completely different," she says.
She also is learning that there might not be just one way to approach a Cockney accent, and it's often not an advantage to have begun developing one before rehearsals begin.
"Everyone has their own idea of what a proper Cockney accent sounds like," she says. "The director may have a different idea than the way Audrey Hepburn sounded in the movie."
DeLisa began developing her accent by first learning all of her Cockney accent scenes in what she terms a "proper" upper-class British accent.
"That comes more naturally," she says.
She then began tweaking the words into Cockney dialect.
"I started dropping one consonant or dropping the 'T' on 'that' or punching the consonant on 'gentleman,'" she says. "The problem is many people go too far in thinking that Cockney is a different language, when it's just an adjustment."
Also honing his British accent for this production is Penn Township native and 1996 Penn-Trafford High School graduate Warren Freeman, who appears as a member of the ensemble and understudy for the role of Eliza's ardent but unsuccessful suitor, Freddie Eynsford-Hill.
"If Eliza hadn't been snatched up by Higgins, she would have married me," Freeman jokes.
Freeman has been perfecting his English accents since high school, when he began mimicking the accents he heard while watching "Monty Python" reruns on WQEX-TV.
He honed his Cockney and standard British accents while acquiring a BFA in musical theater at Penn State University, where he worked with voice and speech coaches.
Freeman believes that ability might have been helpful in landing him a place in the cast.
"Any skill you have and can put at the bottom of a resume, anything you can do to set yourself apart to get your foot in the door is valuable," he says.