‘My Fair Lady’ A half century later, Eliza turns into Mrs. Higgins
By Jerry Stein, Cincinnati Post
Sally Ann Howes is having a reunion with “My Fair Lady,” opening the Broadway Across America 2007-2008 season today at the Aronoff Center. It has been 50 years since Howes’ relationship began with the great musical.
Howes replaced Julie Andrews in the role of Eliza Doolittle on Broadway in 1958 when Andrews went off to London to re-create her role. Eliza is the Cockney flower girl in the musical that Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music) based on George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion.”
Now, at 77, Howes has moved a bit beyond playing flower girls. She returns to “My Fair Lady” as Henry Higgins’ (Christopher Cazenove) wry, astute mother in a non-singing role.
“Cameron Mackintosh (producer of such big hits as “Cats,” “Les Miserables,” “The Phantom of the Opera”) asked me to do this,” Howes said of the lavish 2001 London revival directed by Trevor Nunn, which won England’s Laurence Olivier Award as outstanding musical.
“It’s always been a tradition that a star ‘of a certain age’ has played that role,” said Howes, who lives in West Palm Springs, Fla., with her husband of 35 years Douglas Rae.
Actors appearing in Mackintosh’s revival have included Honore Blackman (“Goldfinger,” 1964) and Hannah Gordon (Virginia in “Upstairs Downstairs”).
“It’s quite an extraordinary history that this role has,” Howes said. “It’s a fun role.
“You don’t have songs and things like that, but you sort of have the thread going through of watching the development of Eliza and the professor (who, on a bet, turns Eliza into an elegant lady who impresses everyone at a ball).
“I love it. She always seems to make a zinger about everything. Obviously, she’s been the big problem in the professor’s life.”
Even when playing Eliza on Broadway after having turned down the role three times because of other professional obligations, Howes said she wondered about playing Mrs. Higgins some day.
“I remember years ago sort of thinking to myself,,I wonder whether I will ever get to the age where I will be playing these sorts of roles?” Howes said.
“It’s such an obvious thing as an actress. You do wonder where you’ll go and how long you’ll last.
“I’ve obviously done full circle now,” Howes said.
Sally Ann Howes, probably known foremost for her role of Truly Scrumptious, the beautiful aristocratic daughter of the candy business owner in “Chitty, Chitty Bang, Bang,” is celebrating 60 years in a career that has spanned both musicals and drama on the stage, in films and on TV. One her first roles was with her father the comedian and actor Bobby Howes in “Paint Your Wagon.” Other work has been an acclaimed performance in the 1958 drama “A Hatful of Rain.”
Other musicals range from “What Makes Sammy Run?” and “The Sound of Music” to “Brigadoon” on Broadway and TV.
As a child actor, she was in the remake film of “Anna Karenina” in 1948, with Vivien Leigh.
Despite all the musical credits, “My Fair Lady” remains paramount with Howes.
“I think it’s probably the most perfect musical,” she said. “I think the reason is the book is so strong because of Mr. Shaw.
“I think Lerner and Loewe were at their peak and gave a most memorable, beautiful score. It covers everything from romance to comedy to music hall with the Doolittle songs (sung jauntily by Eliza’s father dustman Alfred P. Doolittle).”
Shaw’s political commentary infused into the play still resonates said Howes.
“Politically, it’s still here today. You know, the class system - the haves and have nots,” Howes said.
“It also has the snobbism that still is around.
“On top of that, you’ve got this incredible story of two people. It’s a most marvelous kind of love story of the mind.”
While no tampering has been done with the book or the songs, there have been some upgrades for the current production.
“One of the biggest advantages we have now is the technology from the time that I did it,” Howes said.
For instance, to cover a scene change, Eliza originally sang “Show Me” in front of a flat drop scene of a street.
“Now, you take her walking through Covent Garden and getting onto a train. It’s quite fascinating. It’s caught up to what you may see in the film.”
IF YOU GO: ‘MY FAIR LADY’
-- A 2001 revival of the musical about a phonetics professor who passes off a Cockney flower girl as a high society lady.
-- Director: Trevor Nunn.
-- Book/lyrics: Alan Jay Lerner adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.”
-- Music: Frederick Loewe.
-- Theater: Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., downtown.
-- Dates: Opens tonight, then Tuesdays-Sundays through Oct. 7.
-- Tickets: $20-$60. Call (513) 241-7469.