When it comes to tackling Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady (currently running at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont), star Lauren Ambrose has a plethora of source material available for consultation. “There’s the original myth, George Bernard Shaw’s interpretation of that myth [as] a play, then there’s the movie, then there’s the musical, then there’s a movie of the musical…” she pauses. “It’s like excavating, looking for our truth and our version in this moment.”
In absorbing the many iterations of the story and portrayals of Eliza Doolittle, Ambrose’s most informative source has been herself. “I think of my own growing up quite a bit in this play,” she says. “I used to be really wild and dissatisfied and angry and had a journey toward becoming a lady; I think that’s with anybody coming into their own power.”
Combining her own calm power with cleverness and cunning inspired by Wendy Hiller (who played Eliza in the 1938 movie), Ambrose creates a strong, ambitious, “superhero” of a woman. Her Eliza is one of agency, a poor flower seller who decides to defy her station by taking linguistics professor Henry Higgins up on his bet that he can train a ragamuffin like her to pass as a high-society Londoner. “It drives the whole plot that she does this courageous move by showing up in this world that is not her own. I find it very moving and very brave.”
Ambrose, too, shows up in a world not entirely her own. An accomplished stage performer, My Fair Lady marks her first Broadway musical.
“She is one of the best actresses I know,” says director Bartlett Sher, who worked with Ambrose in 2006’s Awake and Sing!. While Eliza is known as one of the most vocally demanding roles in the canon, Sher needed someone who—through the yelling and the belting and the pinging, all in two accents—could maintain the inward spirit of Eliza.
“I’m an actor before I’m anything else,” she says. Still, Ambrose isn’t trying to dis-appear into the part. “It reminds me of this hairdresser: Some people would come in and say, ‘Here is a picture of Brad Pitt and I want to look like Brad Pitt.’ She’d say, ‘You’re going to look like you with shorter hair,’” Ambrose recalls. “Ultimately, it’s me with shorter hair. It’s me playing Eliza Doolittle.”
As Eliza discovers herself and her poten-tial, so does Ambrose. “I hope to continue to learn to hold myself as an equal in this world,” she says. “Higgins and Eliza need to achieve an equality, but part of that is Eliza holding herself in that space—that’s something I feel like I’m learning every day.”