Harry Hadden-Paton has been playing Henry Higgins almost every night for ten months, so the question arises: has his performance changed? After a recent matinee I joined him in his dressing room – decorated with a Christmas tree and with drawings by his two young daughters -- and he indulged me with a few answers.
“When I started the run,” Hadden-Paton said, “Higgins had a big growl in his voice but that wasn’t sustainable vocally. So I learned to pitch the role in a place that’s more sustainable. Technically speaking, not much else has changed. I’ve had to learn how to look after myself better because of the demands of the role.”
Hadden-Paton said the arc of Higgins’s character helps an actor play him night after night. “What’s nice is that I start in the right fashion and then deteriorate. I don’t have to rev myself up too much artificially. That process happens in real time.”
Some of Hadden-Paton’s early thoughts about Higgins have remained in his performance; some haven’t. Speaking of Bartlett Sher, the production’s director, the actor said: “Bart and I very early on had conversations about Higgins’s psychology. We wondered whether he were around today if he wouldn’t be diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder. He has a lot of symptoms. He’s very focused on the specifics of language. He doesn’t necessarily communicate very well. He doesn’t understand other people’s emotions. He’s sensitive to noise.”
Hadden-Paton is quick to add: “I’m not saying Higgins is autistic or isn’t. But it’s useful from our point-of-view to give him a reason for why he is the way he is. We need to make him palpable for today’s audiences.”
Hadden-Paton has continued to explore the underpinnings of the character. “I think he was a difficult child. There are no signs of a father or siblings. He didn’t like all the things other boys did. He was argumentative, loud, and fiery. He threw tantrums. Perhaps he was neglected by his mother.”
Rosemary Harris, who plays Higgins’s mother currently in the LCT production, has been more doting than her character. “She’s told me many useful things,” Hadden-Paton said. “She said that Olivier” – with whom Harris starred in a wonderful, too-little-seen 1963 movie version of Uncle Vanya – “said the primary requirement for an actor is stamina.”
Hadden-Paton commented: “Luckily, I’ve got stamina. I was an athlete at school” – he went to Eton, Durham University, and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art – “and that’s what I loved more than anything.”
Even with stamina, Hadden-Paton admits there are times when the eight-show-a-week schedule takes a toll. “I sometimes find it hard revving myself up before a performance. Because I have two young kids and I have a whole day before I come to the theater.”
Like most skilled actors, Hadden-Paton finds that once a performance begins the fatigue tends to dissipate. “Once I’m on the stage it’s a release. It’s not me, it’s someone else. And at that moment, I’m thinking what Higgins is thinking. Concentration is key. You can’t start jumping ahead in your mind or you’re going to go crazy.”
Hadden-Paton finds the cast of the LCT production help keep him anchored. “What’s great about being in this show is that everyone’s really good. So you’re often getting fresh things, and you can react to different line readings.” As sometimes happens when an actor is enjoying a long-run, there is a process of loosening up that is liberating. The comedy shines through even more affectingly. Several people I know who have seen this My Fair Lady more than once have remarked that Hadden-Paton has made Higgins’s comic and touching aspects shine through even more brightly now than they did early in the year.
I asked Hadden-Paton what person, past or present, he would invite to see his loosened-up performance. “My younger self. I mean as an aspiring actor, starting out in the business. I would like to show that younger self that he would get to play a role as great as Henry Higgins.”
Now that he’s got such a part, what’s next? “I don’t know.” (For those who’ve read this article hoping for fun facts about Bertie Pelham, the character Hadden-Paton played on “Downton Abbey,” you can calm yourselves: the actor recently took time off from Higgins to film scenes for the “Downton Abbey” movie.) “Honestly, my family and I love it in New York. They’re going to have to prise me out of this theater.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com