This Sunday, Rosemary Harris, currently playing Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady, will receive a Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre honor at the Tony Awards. The names of many luminaries overlap in Harris’s brilliant career, so let me point out only the most obvious: Moss Hart. Hart directed the original production of My Fair Lady, which opened on Broadway on March 15, 1956. Three-and-a-half years earlier, Harris had made her Broadway debut in The Climate of Eden, written by Hart.
Speaking of Hart in a recent interview, Harris said: “He did actually bring me to America.” (She was born in 1927 in England, in the stylishly named market town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch.) Hart was over in London, trying to cast Eden, and Harris was an understudy in a comedy. That comedy was called” The Gay Dog and it starred a male canine called Nellie. (I am not making this up.) As part of her duties, Harris had to walk Nellie between acts, so, she said, “he wouldn’t cock his leg on the stage.”
Hart needed a young woman to read with all the men he was auditioning for Eden. Harris got the gig. After two weeks, she revealed, “He was so used to me playing the part that he said: ‘Would you like come to America to be in the play?’ Two weeks later, I was on the first Queen Mary.”
The Climate of Eden didn’t last long on Broadway (two weeks) but Harris’s career did. My Fair Lady is her 26th Broadway show and, amazingly, her very first musical. Among the other credits is a much-remembered LCT production of Albee’s A Delicate Balance, in 1996, for which Harris received a Tony nomination. She’s received eight Tony nominations, with one win, for The Lion in Winter, in 1965. As of this Sunday, she’ll now have two statues, which will match the number received by her daughter, the actor Jennifer Ehle. “Now I can hold my head up,” Harris joked to me, not long ago, during a brief chat backstage.
I’ve had longer conversations with My Fair Lady cast members about Harris than with Harris herself. Ensemble member Cameron Adams highlighted Harris’s good nature backstage, saying, “She exudes warmth and grace and obviously talent but most importantly she is kind. In a business of self-absorption and ‘every man for himself’ she shows younger actors that you can be kind AND successful. In terms of her career VERY successful.” Linda Mugleston, who plays Mrs Pearce, said: "Rosemary is the epitome of professionalism. She is such an inspiration."
Ensemble member JoAnna Rhinehart praised Harris’s “gentle, quiet manner…her disarmingly delightful sense of humor, her lilting angelic voice that resonates with life experiences we can never actually imagine! She has had a long career of working with many of the greats” – a list that includes Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, and Laurence Olivier.
In the midst of all the praise for Harris, Clarke Thorell, who plays Karpathy, said, "I was tempted to make a joke about how cantankerous and dull she is. But in fact it's much more satisfying to state the undeniable reality: Rosemary has a razor-sharp sense of humor and wit."
Ensemble member Matt Wall reminded me of Harris’s continuing capacity to find the fun. “One of my favorite things,” Wall said, “happens about four shows a week [when I see] Rosemary in the hallway watching ‘Get Me to the Church on Time’ on the backstage monitor. Inevitably, I will say ‘There she is,’ to which she responds, ‘Just getting my fix. I love it so much.’”
Harry Hadden-Paton, who plays Higgins, elaborated further. (I’ve rarely had a chat with HHP the past nine months, the length of Harris’s MFL stint, without his singing her praises.) “From the moment she stepped on that stage I knew I had to up my game. Her delivery is pitch-perfect; she never stops tinkering with the text, wringing every possible ounce out of the writing, to the delight of the audience, and she is the most ‘present’ actor I’ve ever worked with. At least I thought she was being ‘present…’
“On one performance, a month into her run, she got the most delightful giggles in our scene before Ascot. This was a huge surprise, but of course highly infectious and set us all off, laughing away, without knowing what it was that had tickled her so. It wasn’t until later in the day that I was able to track Rosemary down and ask her…She replied, ‘Do you always wear those sunglasses? I’ve never noticed them.’ My reply was, “Yes, Rosemary, I’ve worn them in every single performance since the beginning of the run!!!’ This then became a ‘danger zone’ in the show. All I had to do was wriggle my nose, or take my glasses off at a slightly different moment and she was off again!! Heaven.”
Harris is more earthbound about her achievements. “I’m just grateful to be working. I’d love to stay in My Fair Lady forever.” Alas, she cannot, and she said that at some point after the run she will have to go back to the house in North Carolina that she shared for 50 years with her husband, the writer John Ehle – an absolutely terrific novelist, in case you didn’t know -- who died in 2018. “It was base camp for a long time, and there’s a lot there to go through,” Harris said. Until then, she puts on Mrs. Higgins’s hats every night. “I love being in a musical,” she said.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com