My Fair Lady

Christopher Cazenove plays Henry Higgins, 'a scary part,' in 'My Fair Lady' - Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, FL) - 30 November 2007

The 'My Fair Lady' perfectionist 'just an ordinary man'? Hardly, says actor Christopher Cazenove

Elizabeth Maupin, Orlando Sentinel

WEST PALM BEACH - When the cast members showed up for their first rehearsal of the touring production of My Fair Lady, each of them was given an assignment.

One was to research prostitution in the early 1900s. One was to look into the hierarchy of servants in wealthy British households. One was to find out all he could about what Americans call "garbage collectors" and Brits call "dustmen."

The goal, said actor Christopher Cazenove, was to give everyone "a real grounding in the characters they play."

In the process, though, the actors got a little object lesson in the difference between My Fair Lady's elegant toffs and the lower classes -- the servants who serve their tea-cakes and the impoverished Cockneys who sell their flowers in the streets.

Whom did Cazenove have to research?

Nobody, he admits. He plays Henry Higgins. He's the lead.

This production of My Fair Lady, which comes to Orlando Tuesday after an acclaimed two-year run in London and a 12-city United Kingdom tour, is all about those differences in class.

"It shows the dark side of London, of Covent Garden, the poverty," said Cazenove. "Everything is very much based on character."

Famed producer Cameron Mackintosh (Cats, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera) originated this production at London's Royal National Theatre in 2001, with Trevor Nunn as director and Matthew Bourne as choreographer. Nunn, best known in the U.S. for his direction of Les Mis and Cats, had given a new take to his revival of Oklahoma!, and he spoke to Mackintosh about his double enthusiasms for directing George Bernard Shaw -- whose Pygmalion was the source of My Fair Lady -- and for musical theater.

Designer Anthony Ward also had worked on Oklahoma!, and Bourne (Swan Lake, Edward Scissorhands) had choreographed a rethought revival of Oliver!

The result, with Miss Saigon star Jonathan Pryce playing the misanthropic linguist Henry Higgins, charmed just about everybody around. In the Times of London, veteran critic Benedict Nightingale said "the National's My Fair Lady isn't just luvverly -- it's luvverlier than anyone dared hope."

Even Guardian critic Michael Billington, who gave the production one of its only mixed reviews, called it "shamelessly enjoyable."

'The greatest part'

Cazenove, who made his name playing well-off British heels on the U.K. miniseries The Duchess of Duke Street and ABC's Dynasty, went out to audition to replace Pryce when the opportunity came up. But he was on crutches, having broken his leg, and the role went to another actor.

"I thought, 'Oh, that's it, I'll never do it,' " Cazenove said earlier this month before his opening performance in West Palm Beach.

But when the U.K. tour came up, Cazenove got the nod, and he repeats his turn as Higgins for the 40-week U.S. tour.

"It's the greatest part. I've never been an actor who thought 'I have to play that part' -- except for Higgins. The only other one is Lear, and maybe not that."

Cazenove, 61, faced the behemoth that everyone faces who takes on the role -- the memory of Rex Harrison, who played Higgins in the original production, in 1956, and again in the 1964 film.

"You start by being very influenced by that actor. He was wonderful in the role. I listened to many people in the recordings, but no one came close to him."

In his first West End show, 1970's The Lionel Touch, Cazenove worked with Harrison, a notoriously difficult man who was known to "do some dreadful things to people."

But the great actor was nothing but pleasant to him, Cazenove said.

"He had the most incredible charm when he wanted to do it. It was quite the experience."

A character transformed

In rehearsals, cast members began by reading Pygmalion aloud, and then Cazenove set about discovering his character.

"He is absolutely ghastly, and yet you have to end up liking him. Yet it's important not to soften that beastliness either."

In the end, it's only Higgins' final song, "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," Cazenove said, that makes him out to be anything but a "great big baby" and "a spoiled child."

And the actor still faces the challenges of playing the perfectionist professor eight times a week.

"It's a scary role to play. It's so wordy."

When he was in rehearsals, Mackintosh caught him stumbling over a line and called him out on it.

Higgins absolutely cannot stumble, the producer said. "He has to be absolutely articulate. That's what he does."