For the past year Allan Corduner has been delighting audiences with his portrayal of Colonel Pickering in My Fair Lady. The part had not been in his sights before he was approached for it. “I hadn’t thought of Pickering as a great role,” Corduner told me the other day in his dressing room. “He is sometimes played as a doddering old blimp and that didn’t interest me at all. But I read the script again and I realized that I was wrong. I’m thrilled that I changed my mind because I now love the part.”
Why? “Because I learned how Pickering is the moral fulcrum of the piece,” Corduner said. “He empathizes with Eliza and he keeps Higgins honest. Without Pickering, Higgins’s relationship with Eliza would be very different. Pickering isn’t foolish – he’s strong.” The actors playing Higgins and Pickering must have chemistry and, Corduner said, “Harry” – Harry Hadden-Paton, who is Higgins – “and I really enjoy working together. That’s a big plus.” That rapport is part of why Corduner has stayed in the production so long. “I’ve been a professional actor for 46 years,” he revealed, “and this is the longest run I’ve ever done on stage.” Corduner’s previous Broadway commitment was in the musical Titanic – a gig lasting ten months.
In his rich, varied career – which includes a production of Arsenic and Old Lace with Rosemary Harris, the Mrs. Higgins of My Fair Lady – Corduner has not done primarily musicals. He does, however, have musical training. “My first ambition was to be a conductor and a pianist. I still play the piano a lot. I’m not top-notch but I’m good.”
Corduner had a chance to use his conductor training when he played the conductor/composer Sir Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert & Sullivan fame, in the marvelous 1999 movie Topsy Turvy. “There’s no film of Sullivan conducting,” Corduner said, “but there are recordings of his voice, which I didn’t try to imitate.” Mike Leigh, who directed that film and with whom Corduner has kept in regular touch, will be coming to see My Fair Lady this week. (This week also brings Corduner’s birthday.) “He doesn’t like musicals but I think he might like this one.”
Corduner and I didn’t have time to discuss his many professional credits in detail – his feature-film debut in Yentl (he was Shimmele), for example, or his work in Caryl Churchill’s play Serious Money. Corduner said he’s “not as driven as I used to be,” although you wouldn’t know it from the frequency with which he works. We did talk about what’s changed in the way he prepares for a role. “When I was younger,” he said, “I used to do this exercise. I would examine a text and write down what my character says about himself, what other people say about him, and what he says about them. I didn’t do it with Pickering, but if I had I would have been supported in how I changed my mind about him – about what a great role he is right there on the page.”
Sometimes, when actors tell you they’re relishing a role you feel they’re speaking pro forma. But when Corduner speaks effusively of his time in My Fair Lady I believe him. “This show has been the coming together of everything that gives joy to the audience and energy to the actors,” he said. “It’s easier to keep a long-running role fresh when you enjoy it, and I certainly enjoy Pickering. Every night when the overture starts I think: oh, yes, I’m about to be in My Fair Lady. That’s quite something.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com