Curiocity: Q&A With Helen Anker, Guthrie’s ‘Eliza Doolittle’
Few shows need less introduction than My Fair Lady, but since the entire show centers around a big introduction, a few notes. When Lerner and Loewe’s adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion opened in the mid-’50s … well, let’s just say “success” isn’t strong enough a word for the courtship of diction professor Henry Higgins and the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle.
Its initial run lasted for eight years, and set what was then Broadway’s standing record for the most performances. It helped cement the stardom of Rex Harrison — who won a Tony award and, later, an Oscar for the 1964 film adaptation — and made a sensation of Julie Andrews, who strangely did not win the Tony (she lost to Judy Holliday in Bells Are Ringing) and, even more shockingly, did not get cast in the movie. She lost the part to Audrey Hepburn, but in an interesting turn of the tables, it was Julie Andrews who walked home with the Best Actress Oscar that year, winning for her immortal performance in Mary Poppins.
My Fair Lady was far from the only adaptation of Pygmalion, but it was unquestionably the most popular, thanks in large part to the popularity of such showtune standards as “I Could’ve Danced All Night,” “The Rain In Spain,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” Ask most musical theater enthusiast and they’d say it easily stands shoulder among the greatest shows of Broadway’s golden age, right alongside Guys & Dolls, Gypsy, West Side Story, and South Pacific.
Small wonder few seats are available at the Guthrie Theater, where British actress Helen Anker is charming Higgins and crowds alike as the effervescent Doolittle.
WCCO had the chance to speak with Anker. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
What is it about the Pygmalion story that’s so fascinating? There are so many adaptations of the story, and it’s proven truly resilient.
It’s definitely lasted through the years. It’s as fresh now as it was back then. I think so many people want to better themselves, and that’s where this comes from. And just the whole relationship that she gets with Professor Higgins — as it starts out, she treats him sort of as a father figure, but he starts to like her. And she starts to like him, just because he’s the only person who’s really taken any time to sort of help her in her life. And I think in reality, so many people need people to help them get along in life, and better themselves.
Of all the adaptations, though, My Fair Lady is definitely the foremost.
Yeah, all the dialogue in the show is pretty much the same as in Pygmalion. I saw the original film of Pygmalion recently, and realized it’s exactly the same apart from the songs. And you kind of really miss the songs when you see it now. It enhances the story so much more having the songs. They’re so fantastically written. Lerner and Loewe got every single song right. The tunes are fantastic, but the lyrics are so good, it doesn’t matter if you sort of speak-sing them …
Like Rex Harrison.
… like Rex Harrison did. Jeff [McCarthy, who plays Higgins] does with some of it. He’s got a fantastic voice so he does sing a little bit more, but I think people are so used to hearing the spoken word. It does work really well with this show. But the songs definitely forward the story, which I find a lot of musicals don’t these days.
I think Americans might take for granted just how many different varying dialects that there are just within Great Britain. Is it difficult to weave your way into this Cockney accent?
A bit. There are so many different dialects in England. We are trying to do the Cockney sound and then the posh British sound, so that there should only be two for people to listen to. I do know that it is quite tricky for Americans to understand the Cockney accent. I know I try to slow my talking down a little bit when I’m Cockney, just to help the audience get into it. Because it is hard, and Cockneys do tend to talk really, really quickly. But, from speaking to audience members, they all understand it. And everyone’s doing the accents fantastically. And I’m the only British person here.
With accents, I think “erasing the edge” is something that Minnesotans can relate to. We all think we don’t talk “that way” (like Fargo)?
Yeah, everyone’s got an accent.
Do you have any fear of losing the edge of your own accent here in America?
I know that sometimes when I go home now, people hear me going up at the end (of sentences), and using certain words like “trash” instead of “bin,” or “candy” instead of “sweets.” I do now say the American words because people don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m really consciously trying to keep my accent.
Do you have a favorite song from the show?
You know what? I don’t know. I love all my songs. My mum came the other day and she loved “Show Me.” It’s got great lyrics and it’s great fun to do. But, no, honestly I enjoy singing all of them.
This is your first show at the Guthrie?
Yeah! I’m loving it. It’s a fantastic theater, and everyone’s so friendly. The rest of the cast have been wonderful to me. The majority of them are local, and then four of us came from New York. And now we’re in these fantastic surroundings. The audiences are loving it. It’s so wonderful to play to full houses every single night. And they laugh so much. I hadn’t realized how funny this show is. When you watch the film, you don’t sit there laughing the whole way through. I think you don’t realize just how hilarious it is until you see it live.
My Fair Lady runs through August 31. Tickets range from $34 to $85. For more information or to buy tickets to the show, head to Guthrie Theatre’s website.