CEDAR RAPIDS — Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle are “bucket list” roles for Aaron Murphy and Angela Billman, but directing the show wasn’t high on Angie Toomsen’s list.
“And then when we decided to do it and I started exploring it, I fell in love with it. Every aspect of it,” Toomsen said of the resplendent musical opening Theatre Cedar Rapids’ 85th season from Friday through Oct. 6.
It’s based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play “Pygmalion,” about Higgins, a pretentious phonetics professor, who claims he can transform a Cockney flower seller into a woman who could pass for a duchess, by simply refining her speech. Spoiler alert: In the process, however, he is transformed, as well.
“I think it’s so fascinating that in no way did George Bernard Shaw intend or want it to be a grand musical, and in a lot of ways, it doesn’t work,” said Toomsen, 45, of Cedar Rapids. “That’s one of the interesting challenges of ‘My Fair Lady’ — that this play wasn’t meant to be this romantic, sweeping Lerner and Loewe musical, but they made sure as soon as (Shaw) died, they did it.”
Rodgers and Hammerstein tried, but gave up on the notion, she added. “There’s just been this desire to make Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle romantic on a grand scale, even before it was a musical. And I think Lerner and Loewe succeeded.
“I found it to be so fascinating. There’s incredible depth. It’s one of the most exciting musical projects I’ve ever worked on — and I didn’t expect it to be — but I absolutely became enraptured with the entire thing and its history.”
But how do you present to modern audiences century-old material built on class- and gender discrimination, even if it’s all wrapped up in gorgeous costumes and sparkling musical bows like “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “The Rain in Spain,” “Ascot Gavotte” and “Get Me to the Church on Time”?
You tweak it throughout, right up to the ending.
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“It’s not really rewriting the musical,” Toomsen said. “It’s not changing the content in any way. It’s simply slightly interpreting the lens or tweaking the lens so you cast light on the things that I think we do need to see now. And we need Eliza Doolittle now. And we need the Henry Higginses in our world to go through a transformation that involves stripping away some of these ideas that they don’t even realize are still impacting their behavior.
“And so I think it’s incredibly relevant to tell the story today. It just means you have to make it feel fresh, present, immediate — and I felt very, very excited about it since I started working on it.”
Most members of the TCR creative team went to New York to see the Broadway revival, she said, and Murphy pointed out some of the tweaks both productions have made, especially with his character.
“The current Broadway version has taken some liberties in creating a new type of Henry Higgins, and we certainly have not held back in creating our own,” said Murphy, 34, of Cedar Rapids. “Personally, I have struggled playing this archetype — a misogynist, ‘mansplaining’ kind of dude. Playing against that has been so rewarding and has changed so much of the show.”
Without giving away too much, TCR is taking a different tactic with the ending than director Bartlett Sher did with his current Broadway creation.
“We’ve re-crafted, in our own way, the ending of the show,” Toomsen said. “One of the criticisms of ‘My Fair Lady’ is that in the end, she acquiesces. Instead, we’ve made Higgins vulnerable, as well,” with Eliza chipping away at the closed-off point of view that the socially awkward, uppity Higgins has established to protect himself.
“I think it’s more important that Henry and Eliza find some established, common ground,” Murphy said, “and Angie has worked very hard with us, as characters, to find the pieces (where) we do have that common ground.”
One way to change Higgins’ demeanor is by calling Eliza by her given name, rather than “such vulgar terms as ‘impudent hussy’ or feminine-demeaning terms like ‘girl’ or ‘woman,’” Murphy said. “It’s these subtle things that make a mutual romantic relationship very suddenly very possible.”
Body language and vocal inflections also help further a cause that strikes a personal chord with him.
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“Angela and I have such great chemistry, and we’ve played so many different roles together, that it’s really hard for me to be a jerk to someone like her,” he said. “And she really is such a wonderful embodiment of Eliza Doolittle. I’ve come to care for her as a really wonderful friend, and that translates so much for this Henry/Eliza dynamic, as well.”
He likens Higgins’ arc as a mission “to create a new human being” through improved language skills. That means Billman must create two different Elizas.
“She speaks two different languages, and she lives in two different worlds, and she has to get along with two different types of people, and I just try to balance out how that can realistically be portrayed,” said Billman, 32, of Cedar Rapids. “That could certainly happen.”
She’s enjoyed that challenge.
“It’s been a great opportunity and a really great learning experience,” she said. “Angie has been such an amazing director to be able to guide me through the terrain of two different people joined into one.”
The unifying factor of both Elizas is that she’s always standing up for herself and her point of view, Billman said.
“She is always giving Higgins feedback on any of the perspectives that he has that she doesn’t share,” she said.
“One of the points that’s important to remember is that despite all of the things that are going on socially in the world right now, what’s really important is that you do remember that people are human and they have vulnerable moments. Different people can bring out those vulnerabilities and positive traits from one another. And I think that’s what Eliza and Higgins do for one another as they both challenge each other,” Billman said.
“Higgins doesn’t want a dependent, flimsy woman — he wants an independent, strong, audacious, bold, daring woman who he can look at and say, ‘Yeah, look at you. By God, I did it. I said I’d make a woman. And indeed I did.’
“But it wasn’t somebody who was just sitting down — it was somebody who talked back to him and said, ‘No, this is what I want out of my life.’”
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Eliza is the one who came to Higgins to take voice lessons so she could sound refined enough to get a job working inside a flower shop instead of selling flowers on the street.
“Her fire and passion have brought out a side of Higgins that perhaps he had forgotten about,” Billman said.
It’s actually the kind of woman he’s known since childhood, said Cherryl Moon Thomason, 77, of Cedar Rapids, who plays his mother.
“Mrs. Higgins also has been a very self-sufficient woman, which was kind of unusual back in the day,” Thomason said. However, “she’s kind of given up on Henry because he’s just such an obstinate boy. I think she cares very much for him, but she absolutely falls head over heels with Eliza — she sees something in her that may have been her when she was younger. (Mrs. Higgins) is a very independent, very wealthy, very strong woman.”
Thomason fell head over heels in love with the musical when she was younger, too.
When she was about 17 years old and a student at Nashua High School, her teacher took their new Thespian theater troupe to Des Moines to see the touring road show of “My Fair Lady.”
That teacher was Bob Geuder, the legendary driving force behind years of theater excellence at Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School and The Follies.
“He still tells the story about looking down the aisle at all these teenage kids from Iowa who had never seen anything like this in their life, and our jaws were just on the floor, mouths wide open, eyes bugging out. I can remember just being blown away,” she said. “I want to do that.
“And so I bought the original cast album and played it ’til it was worn down, and sang every song. I’ve known all this music for decades, so I am thrilled to get to be a part of it.”
She also is seeing the show through a different lens.
“I’ve got decades of life experience now, that I didn’t have,” she said. “To see Eliza rise up and become a full-blown woman and with her own rights, her own thoughts ... is tremendous.”
If You Go
• What: “My Fair Lady”
• Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
• When: Friday (9/14) to Oct. 6; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
• Tickets: $25 to $40, TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org
• Extra: ASL interpreted performance Oct. 6; call the box office to purchase reserved seats
l Comments: (319) 368-8508; email@example.com