My Fair Lady’s Eliza Doolittle is characterized by a desire for learning. So when I sat the other evening with Lauren Ambrose, Eliza’s interpreter since March and heading this weekend for her final performance, I couldn’t help but ask: What has Ambrose herself learned this year?
“I’ve learned so much,” she replied, “about what it’s like to be in a big musical – I’ve never done this before. I could never have imagined what’s it’s like to be in this big machine where people can float in and out and constantly go on for each other when needed and somehow, miraculously, it just keeps going.”
“I have also,” Ambrose went on, “learned what resilience an ensemble like this has. How every single actor shows up to do such beautiful, consistent work. It’s been very inspiring.”
Also very challenging. Ambrose explained: “You can hear from people all the things they do to keep their bodies in shape during a long run but until your own body has experienced those things you don’t really know.”
Ambrose took up one of my favorite comparisons: actors are like athletes. “I have felt sometimes in this show,” she said, “like Tom Brady, because I’m also 40. Like an athlete, you sometimes have to play through injuries – you can’t be stupid about them but sometimes you just have to go out there and do it. This work is not for wussies. It’s tough stuff. And to do it for nearly a year is tricky.”
“Because the body is funny. You throw something out in your hamstring and it affects your voice somehow. There was a stretch of time in this show when I was having a weird muscle tension. My voice was cutting out because I was doing all this reaching forward with a flower basket around my neck.”
To treat the issue Ambrose did some work with the Alexander Technique – a process of retraining habitual patterns of movement. “I worked with this amazing woman named Jessica Wolf, a professor at the Yale School of Drama. She was very helpful.”
As for maintaining her singing voice, Ambrose said that she has humidifiers and myriad remedies but that the most important thing is sleep. “I have young children, so sleep is not always there. And when you have fatigue you compensate by using other musculature and that causes tension. I would say that, in general, the physical experience of doing My Fair Lady has been fickle and strange. Also glorious.”
After finishing the run, Ambrose will be heading to Philadelphia, to play a character in a new TV series: a half-hour thriller created by M. Night Shyamalan. Before entering Shyamalan’s unique world, what final words does Ambrose have about 1912 London and about Eliza?
“The character has been so moving to me because she’s ambitious and tough and has been through so much. We never hear about her mother, and God only knows what that was like. Eliza wants to change her life. And does.”
Playing Eliza has made Ambrose reflective about women who came of age in the 20th century. “During Wednesday matinees, there are often older women in the audience who’ve gotten off the bus from wherever. I think: what have you been through all your lives? So much, I’m sure.”
Ambrose related Eliza to her own family history. “My grandmother was born in 1909. Telling the story of Eliza is like telling my grandmother’s story – and every woman’s story from that century. Not my story so much but of my character from Shaw.”
Ambrose added: “There have been many Eliza Doolittles before me and will be plenty after me. But I feel very grateful to be able to inhabit her at this moment in time. She’s such a strong woman – and every night you have to find the strength to play her.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com