This month (March 7-10) the New York Philharmonic treats its audiences to four performances of Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady.
Since 1985, when it performed Sondheim's Follies, the Orchestra has presented several semi-staged masterpieces of American musical theater to great acclaim. For this year's production, it has procured an impressive cast, including Kelli O'Hara (who will portray Eliza Doolittle), a radiantly versatile Tony Award winner who says she is "honored and thrilled to be singing with this amazing orchestra."
But as the lines between "serious music" and "musical entertainment" become ever more blurred, the opportunity also arises to collaborate with stars from other worlds: the realms of TV, film, and opera. In a cast that includes Ms. O'Hara as well as Broadway veterans Charles Kimbrough (Colonel Pickering) and Brian Dennehy (Alfred P. Doolittle), nothing illustrates this better than Kelsey Grammer (Professor Henry Higgins) and Marni Nixon (Mrs. Higgins, Henry's mother), who come to this production from very different artistic backgrounds, and happily join forces here.
For Mr. Grammer, best known for his 20-year run in the title role of the TV hit series Frasier, this engagement represents the marriage of his love of language and his love of classical music. "I grew up listening to the New York Philharmonic," he says. "I used to go to Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts, so it's a joy to return to the place that awakened my early imagination and fostered my love of classical music."
As for his love of language, he describes himself as "a huge fan of Shaw." Mr. Grammer's knowledge of the playwright's works gives him wonderful insight into Higgins's character, who, he says, is not unlike his old friend Frasier. "Both are high-strung, opinionated intellectuals lacking substance," he declares. "Shaw appreciates the male dilemma; he thinks most of us are children, so Higgins is petulant and egotistical and only when he surrenders to a relationship does he stand a chance.
"It's a coming-of-age performance," Mr. Grammer continues, "where one can be boyish, impish, and full of oneself‹all charming features if done deftly! It's daunting," he adds, "because I'm stepping into Rex Harrison's role, and one will always be in some way derivative, but I'm going to try to get Kelsey in there!"
Marni Nixon describes herself as "the first of the crossover artists." While classical music aficionados might know her for her recordings of music by modern composers, including Stravinsky, who admired her singing, film lovers grew up with her voice in their ears when she dubbed (among several great movies) Audrey Hepburn's singing voice in the 1964 film of My Fair Lady. "There were millions of barriers to break down, because the contemporary-music world looked down on the theater and film aspects of my career," says Ms. Nixon. "We were not yet in an age when musical theater was equated with high art; they felt it wasn't work to be an actress. That's why it's kind of an inside joke for me to be doing Mrs. Higgins. She doesn't have a song, but I'm an actress too, and it's not beneath me. Sometimes you act, sometimes you sing. You use everything at your disposal."
Like Mr. Grammer, Ms. Nixon has associations‹albeit different ones‹with the Philharmonic. Her long-standing relationship with the Orchestra began with her 1960 debut under Leonard Bernstein. "These are superb players‹unmatched anywhere," says Ms. Nixon. "They always had a certain bright, aggressive sound that thrilled me! And I just adored Lenny Bernstein," she recalls fondly. "He was so 'with you' when you sang; he breathed with you and was so a part of you."
For Mr. Grammer, this engagement marks his New York Philharmonic debut. "It's a huge thing," he exclaims, "so flattering and so terrifying‹but what an experience for me to stand on the stage that so delighted me as a boy‹to complete that circle," he says with feeling.
Robin Tabachnick writes frequently about the arts.