The Tony-nominated Broadway revivals of My Fair Lady and Carousel, falling squarely in the midst of the MeToo moment, have given creative teams (and theater-goers) a chance to re-evaluate these classic musicals and what they have to say about gender roles. If Carousel has the tougher road, with its repeated references to domestic abuse, My Fair Lady has its own burdens, the musical so often remembered as much for the image of the gruff Rex Harrison bossing around the younger, so-delicate Audrey Hepburn in the 1964 movie version as for its remarkable score (“The Rain in Spain”, “I Could Have Danced All Night”).
Indeed, on the day Deadline spoke to My Fair Lady‘s Lauren Ambrose, who stars as flower girl-turned-society lady Eliza Doolittle, Harvey Weinstein was arrested in New York.
“It’s actually one of the things that I find exciting about doing a revival,” Ambrose said, explaining how she relished the opportunity to dig deep into the 1956 Lerner & Loewe musical (adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion) for what it has to tell modern audiences. (My Fair Lady, which has earned Ambrose a Tony nomination for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, is a Lincoln Center Theater production currently playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater).
In our wide-ranging talk, Ambrose also spoke about the show that got away – 2011’s Funny Girl, which would have included much of My Fair Lady‘s creative team, including director Bartlett Sher, but collapsed over lack of financing. And, of course, we asked about Six Feet Under, and whether she’d consider a resurrection.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Deadline: What kind of research did you do for Eliza Doolitle?
Lauren Ambrose: There are these fabulous photographs of Victorian life in London, and at one point in our rehearsal, we even spoke to an Edwardian scholar, who came in and talked to us. I read about flower girls, what their life was really like in Victorian and Edwardian London, and it was really awful and rugged.
Deadline: I’m guessing flower girl wasn’t a happy career option.
Ambrose: It was really a very desperate situation. There’s all kinds of wonderful clues in the [show], like Eliza says to Henry Higgins, “Buy a flower kind sir, I’m short for my lodging.” And what that means is that she lives in a lodging house, a place where she can’t get in during the day and in order to get in at night has to put in a certain amount of coins. So when she’s singing, “All I want is a room somewhere” and “with one enormous chair,” she’s singing about somewhere she can actually go during the day. It’s like she literally has nothing.
You know Shaw wrote [Pygmalion] around 1913 I believe, and so much was shifting at that time in London and changing with the women’s movement, the suffrage movement. And George Bernard Shaw was fighting against the poverty laws, inadvertently fighting for women’s rights because he was a socialist. He believed in equality and that was actually what the play was about, his sort of thesis that if there could be a common language and you couldn’t differentiate people by their accent, then it would be the great social equalizer. There would be no such thing as class anymore. So as much as it’s a play very much about gender, it’s also very much about class and equality, which I think makes it very resonant to do right now.
Deadline: As we speak, Harvey Weinstein is being arraigned. Talk about shifting moments…
Ambrose: Hang on one second…[Ambrose’s 11-year-old son asks his mom a question.] I’m so sorry.
Deadline: Don’t apologize.
Ambrose: Well, this is the gig. Move to New York, bring the whole family, myriad challenges. It’s probably one of the most challenging jobs I’ve ever had in my life on every single level, spiritual, emotional, physical and mental. Anyway…
Deadline: Actually let’s talk about that. We’ll get to Harvey in a minute, he can wait. In what ways is My Fair Lady a challenging job for you?
Ambrose: It’s a huge role and it’s a three hour piece and you’re on stage – I mean you’re not on stage, I’m on stage – for maybe three hours and if I’m not on stage I’m off stage in an emergency quick change situation. With the first notes of the overture it’s like the train is leaving the station and I have to just jump on and hold on for dear life. Off it goes and three hours later you come out the other end, so it’s just physically really intense, technically a lot of just balancing and monitoring what goes into this performance.
I’ve done musicals when I was a kid, and I’ve certainly been in plays and even played Shakespeare heroines, but this is just another scale entirely, especially at the Vivian Beaumont theater which is this massive space. We have 37 people in our cast and a 30-piece orchestra. There was a lot to learn, which is of course what I wanted. What I love is to do something that I’ve never done before, to do something that’s challenging and scary.
And you also live in fear of the common cold. It’s like you feel a sniffle coming on and it’s the apocalypse. Then it’s allergies like pollen. I mean, the people who are on Broadway all the time and in musicals, it is serious business. It’s no joke. It’s incredibly difficult, challenging work and it’s hard on the body – and it becomes a game of phlegm management as well.
Deadline: And this production especially must be daunting. When people think of Big Broadway Musicals, this is it.
Ambrose: Exactly. And I feel so honored to enact the ritual of this woman’s transformation every night. It’s huge and it feels like a great responsibility and an honor to be the one doing it in this moment. I know people have done the show many times before, but here we are doing it right now in this moment, and so for that reason, I want to put so much of myself into the role every single night.
Deadline: Which takes us back to Harvey Weinstein. His face is on my muted TV right now. How has he, and this moment we’re in, informed this production of My Fair Lady?
Ambrose: It’s actually one of the things that I find exciting about doing a revival, working on antique material, because you can delve into the time period and explore. In this case explore some of the roots of how we got into the pickle that we’re in, how we got to where we are by looking at what it was for a woman in 1911 to try to have any power or agency.
She starts off as this flower girl, but she’s an ambitious person. What’s very moving to me is that she’s the one who goes to [Henry Higgins’] house for language lessons. People say, Oh it’s a story about a man who finds the girl and transforms her. Well, when I read it, what was striking to me is that she shows up at his house. She’s out of her depth, out of her class, but shows up at this fancy apartment and says, I’m here for language lessons and I’m going to take my two coins and that’s what I’m going to spend them on, my future. That starts this whole trajectory.
I mean people say it’s this transformation or this princess story or this ultimate makeover, you know the Cinderella thing. But for me and what I realized in rehearsals, what we all realized in rehearsals, was that the real transformation starts in Act Two, after she’s succeeded and become a lady, and now has to say, Well, where can I go now with these manners and the veneer of a fine lady? How do I fit into society? In 1912 she was actually freer as the flower girl, so now what are her choices? She can go and get married, which would lower her status. She can become someone’s property that way. She can belong to her father. In our version, we just sort of release her into what I like to think is the future.
In a very poignant student matinee, one of the kids, probably about a 15-year-old girl, stood up and said, It was so inspiring to us that she, Eliza, didn’t choose Freddie, she didn’t choose Henry Higgins. Instead she chooses herself. And I thought, Wow, this kid really received it, really got what we were doing. How wonderful.
Deadline: You’ve played Ophelia, you’ve played Juliet, now Eliza Doolittle. Are there roles out there that you would love to do, any of the classic female roles?
Ambrose: I don’t want to limit myself to the female roles!…But when people ask me about what parts I still want to play, I don’t have enough ego to answer it. I like when things come as a surprise, and I believe in the process of how they come about. At the moment I don’t have something that I’m saying, Oh boy I’ve got to tick that off the list. I’m sure there are things I would not necessarily think of that would maybe be a great for me to do.
Deadline: Theater-goers are familiar with your stage work, but I’m guessing most of America knows you from Six Feet Under. What kind of reaction are you getting from people at the stage door – is there any, “I didn’t know you could sing?”
Ambrose: Those stage door people are very savvy! But there are Six Feet Under fans for sure. There’s definitely a lot of, Oh wow, you can sing! I’ve been looking for something to sing in for a long time, it’s just for whatever reason, things come together, they fall apart. I’ve been threatening to be in a musical for what feels like hundreds of years.
Deadline: Of things that fell apart, Funny Girl obviously was the big one. Is your triumph in My Fair Lady all the sweeter because Funny Girl didn’t work out?
Ambrose: Oh, I don’t know. I mean, Funny Girl was particularly noticeable and flashy, but honestly there are so many things over the years that come together and then fall apart, and that’s what feels so sweet when it actually works out. That’s what feels very sweet and rewarding and satisfying. Mostly I just feel grateful that the universe provided this opportunity in a way that came to fruition, that I get to play this part in this lifetime.
Deadline: How are you feeling about the Tonys?
Ambrose: We’ve received so many nominations as a company, it’s just such a lovely moment to celebrate everybody’s hard work. And it’s fun to be included in all the festivities that go along with it, the celebration of it. In fact, in a little bit I’m going to go to the theater to rehearse our Tony performance because we are going to do a number as a company.
Deadline: Okay one more question and we’ll wrap it up. With all the TV reboots today, any possibilities for Six Feet Under?
Ambrose: Well that would be fascinating – it would have to be a ghost story! I mean we definitely all died at the end. But that’s a better question for Alan Ball, not for me. But I would love to.
Deadline: And remember, dead characters didn’t keep Roseanne from rebooting.
Ambrose: Well there you go.