When the LCT production of My Fair Lady opened, on April 19, 2018, commentary rightly focused on Eliza and her struggle toward independence. When the curtain goes up she is alone onstage, hurtling toward the audience on a turntable. The speed of her spin suggests the velocity with which British society was also traveling in 1912, when the story takes place. Memoirists of this pre-war period have bathed it in a golden haze, but, as Barbara Tuchman writes in “The Proud Tower,” “Our misconception lies is assuming that doubt and fear, ferment, protest, violence and hate were not equally present.”
Watching the LCT production shortly before it closed this past weekend, Tuchman’s words came back to me, and not just in relation to the grinding poverty of Eliza’s plight, and the pluck by which she surmounts obstacles of class. There was ferment, too, in the trajectory Higgins takes. Wrapped in the carapace of work, a well-run household, and steely bachelorhood, Higgins must confront doubt and fear. We in 2019 may not admire his struggle nearly so much as we do Eliza’s, but that does not mean the vulnerability is not unmoving. In the hands of Harry Hadden-Paton, the production’s Higgins, the character became, for me, extremely touching.
Also richly comical. Partly, the comedy stemmed from boyishness: the residue, never completely effaced, of education in a British public school. And partly, the comedy arose from Higgins’s pain – the pain that he is becoming genuinely attached to Eliza and that she will leave him.
We see the first kind of comedy chiefly in Higgins jollying about with Colonel Pickering. They have fun sharing their passion for linguistics, giving guff to the housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, and making sport of Eliza. (The way they chide her suggests not just the difference in speech but a boyish inability to treat females as equal.) Hadden-Paton had the advantage of the same actor, Allan Corduner, as Pickering, throughout the entire run. Their obvious pleasure in each other’s company – not only onstage but offstage – lent a marvelous byplay to their interaction. When Higgins was at his most pig-headed Corduner found sly ways to express his astonishment at the behavior, and those expressions were eaten up by the audience. Linda Mugleston, as Mrs. Pearce, had the same knack.
The more the run went on, the more that Hadden-Paton found ways to adjust line readings to please the audience. I don’t mean that he was pandering. I mean that he located inflections for the character that delighted within the bounds of the character. Usually, this amusement had to do with the gulf between Higgins sense of himself as “a very gentle man…whom you never hear complain/who has the milk of human kindness/ by the quart in every vein” and the ill-tempered, petulant response he has to Eliza as she begins to learn “proper” speech.
That he had found new such inflections each time I saw the production was astonishing yet not surprising. During the first month (sometimes the first months) of a run an actor with a role as demanding as that of Higgins is finding his feet – sometimes literally so. The My Fair Lady set, with its double-helix staircase in Higgins’s study, required goatlike dexterity, and each time Hadden-Paton raced down it I prayed to the gods of theater that he please not slip. With this aerobic workout seven times a week Hadden-Paton ended the engagement in trim – not that there was much fat there to begin with.
During my last view of My Fair Lady, I found myself imagining roles other than Higgins that would showcase Hadden-Paton’s skills. With Corduner as Watson, he is a natural Holmes. His Higgins logic could easily make its way into Sherlock ratiocination. Drawing-room comedy is also open to him, although I suspect, given his prior success in The Importance of Being Earnest and his public profile as Lady Edith’s husband on “Downton Abbey” (a role reprised this September in the movie continuation), that nicety of manners may not much challenge him now. He would make a nifty villain: beneath his companionability lurks a bit of malice. Perhaps not Sherlock, then, but Moriarity.
Given Hadden-Paton’s ability to glide about the stage (I was about to write “ooze” but that triggers images of the charlatan Karpathy) I have even found myself imagining him in a biopic of Fred Astaire. In some ways, this would be a cruel assignment for any actor: no one ever has nor ever will move as gracefully as Fred. But if the makers of movie magic can massage Rami Malek’s voice into Freddie Mercury’s, with an Oscar as reward, then why can’t the tech folks enhance Harry’s movement into Astaire’s?
By giving Hadden-Paton this role I may be indulging my own desires rather than the actor’s. All the same, in one of our first email exchanges – brief chats with Harry were one of the pleasures of my My Fair Lady assignment– he and I did discuss Ginger’s partner. I shared how a Hollywood talent scout assessed Astaire’s prospects in his pre-studio days: “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Dances a little.”
Harry shot back: “Hah!”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com