When people talk about My Fair Lady, they invariably talk about its star-making potential for the young actresses who play Eliza. But what people tend to forget is that it was Rex Harrison, playing Professor Higgins, who won a Tony in 1957 and then an Oscar in 1964, while both Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn went home empty-handed from those two ceremonies.
"Exactly," says Jonathan Pryce, when this is pointed out to him. "The role of Higgins is the driving force of the piece. Even the lyrics of his songs move the action along. That is why it has worked in spite of so many Elizas." Pryce should know. He is now playing Higgins in a sold-out run of the Lerner and Loewe musical at London's Royal National Theatre. The show will move to the West End July 21, and has garnered the kinds of notices that Harrison himself would have been pleased to get.
But, yes, "so many Elizas." For if this current production is known for anything these days it is the curious aspect of its leading lady make that ladies being unable to perform. The original Eliza, soap-opera actress Martine McCutcheon, came down with flu on opening night March 16 and missed several weeks of the show's early run. Then her understudy also fell ill, prompting the producers on one night to rush the understudy's understudy on stage with only a few hours notice, a turn of events that a clearly wearied Pryce had to explain to the audience before the night's show began. "This will be your first Eliza," he said from the front of the stage. "Well, this is my second of the day and my third of the week. Any member of the audience interested in playing Eliza can find applications at the door." As Pryce explains, "It's exhausting having so many Elizas and never being able to get settled with just one actress on stage."
The bigger challenge for this 54-year-old actor is, of course, how to approach a role that has for decades been so closely identified with someone else. Pryce said he wasn't daunted by the prospect "probably because I had never actually seen [Harrison] in the part. Then, the night before rehearsals began, I couldn't resist any longer and watched the movie."
Pryce, who has played the lead in everything from Hamlet to Miss Saigon, clearly has found a way to make this role his own. For one thing, Pryce's professor is decidedly more energetic than Harrison's. He prances up a 6-m library ladder, dances over couches and chairs, and races up and down a spiral staircase, singing all the while. Yes he sings. The lyrics of such famous songs, mostly spoken by Harrison, like Why Can't a Woman Be More like a Man? and I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face are reborn with Pryce.
Pryce is also currently crooning in his newest bittersweet comedy titled Very