DIVA TALK: Chatting with My Fair Lady's Sally Ann Howes Plus News of Buckley, Kuhn and Ripley

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with My Fair Lady's Sally Ann Howes Plus News of Buckley, Kuhn and Ripley
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Sally Ann Howes
Sally Ann Howes

SALLY ANN HOWES
In 1958 a young British actress by the name of Sally Ann Howes made her Broadway debut in My Fair Lady, succeeding another English favorite, Julie Andrews, in the role of Eliza Doolittle. Nearly a half-century later, Howes — who has also graced Broadway in Kwamina, Brigadoon (Tony nomination), What Makes Sammy Run and James Joyce's The Dead — is back onstage in that classic Lerner and Loewe musical. This time around, Howes is playing Mrs. Higgins in the national tour of My Fair Lady, which kicked off earlier this month in Tampa, FL, and is currently playing the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh, PA (through Sept. 23) before arriving at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, OH (Sept. 25-Oct. 7). Howes, who may be best remembered for her truly scrumptious portrayal of Truly Scrumptious in the 1968 family favorite film musical "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," will stay with the tour through January 2008, playing her final performances at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. I had the great pleasure of chatting with the charming Howes the day before she began performances in the My Fair Lady tour. My interview with the actress, who spoke about her legendary career on both sides of the Atlantic, follows.

Question: You begin performances tomorrow in My Fair Lady. . .
Sally Ann Howes: Yes, we do! We've got an invited audience tonight — to sort of ease us in. When you've been doing something for four weeks, it's lovely to have an audience in, so you know where the laughs are and things like that.

Question: How did the rehearsals go this week — technical rehearsals and whatnot…
Howes: Extraordinarily well. They're long as everybody knows, tech [rehearsals] go on and on. It's so amazing the difference between when I did My Fair Lady all that time ago; technically, the things that you can do in the theatre now are so exciting. With the moving in and out of scenery, you don't have to have what we used to call "in one" when the scenery was changed behind the scrim. That is an immense difference, so when certain numbers go on, Matthew Bourne has integrated them with a lot of movement in continuing the song from one set to another. That, to me, is the largest change [in theatre], the electronic side of it.

Question: How did this role come about for you?
Howes: I really don't know. [Laughs.] I just think it's so funny because when I did My Fair Lady, I was very young . . . The [role] of Mrs. Higgins has always been [played by] somebody who has had a [lengthy] career . . . I was laughing to myself when I was young, saying, "Now I wonder if I'm going to be around to be able to play this role [when I'm older]," and here I am! [Laughs.]

Question: It's a non-singing role, Mrs. Higgins?
Howes: Yes. I do get a chance [to sing]. I've persuaded them that I don't have to [just] sit watching the race, so I do join in the "Ascot Gavotte," and I really enjoy that. [Laughs.] I put my voice in with all the other wonderful cast.

Sally Ann Howes as Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: How would you describe Mrs. Higgins?
Howes: I think she's an extraordinarily interesting woman. The reason that she becomes so attached to Eliza and the friendship [that occurs] when Eliza goes to Mrs. Higgins' house is because they have a sort of kindred spirit in the fact that it's actually that time when suffragettes were beginning to have their voice. I think it was an interesting point of view, certainly if you read Shaw's notes: Eliza is on the brink of it really, but she doesn't have the education to know what she's actually doing. But she is changing. She wants to have her own say in the world. Therefore, she very cleverly finds the professor and vise versa, and she becomes sort of under the heading of a type of suffragette, which Mrs. Higgins recognizes, and I think that's their kindred spirit. I think also Mrs. Higgins is a woman who doesn't take any nonsense, and it's the only woman that obviously has dominated her son a great deal. And, finally, Eliza is also a woman who can come along and get her own way with the professor. So it's quite a fun role. Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character?
Howes: Well, not actually the character. But in a scene that I have with Christopher Cazenove [Professor Higgins] — after Eliza has trounced him — he becomes a tiny little boy, and he goes, "Mother, mother…," and I come in and say, "What is it Henry? What did you expect? Of course, she left you!" [Laughs.] I think that moment is great fun because we connect in a real mother and son moment. It's very funny and, of course, I love the zinging lines. I have some real zingers at people, so I'm enjoying it. And, of course, the clothes are wonderful. I'm thrilled with the clothes.

Question: Has Trevor Nunn, who directed the London run, directed it here as well?
Howes: No, he didn't. He came in and had a quick look. He's doing a play. His associate director [Shaun Kerrison] is absolutely marvelous. He has the blueprint and, of course, Christopher [Cazenove] and Lisa [O'Hare] have played it before. We've had Matthew Bourne over, and he spent a whole week with us. The dancing is absolutely phenomenal.

Sally Ann Howes as Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady.
photo by Friedman-Abeles

Question: You made your Broadway debut in My Fair Lady. . .
Howes: Yes, that was the first job that I did in New York. Question: Do you remember how that came about originally?
Howes: I was working in England, and Lerner and Loewe came over to work on a show I was doing, which was their Paint Your Wagon, which I did with my father. We were both starring in it. My father came out of retirement to do it. Therefore, I met them, and then when Julie [Andrews] was leaving [the Broadway cast of My Fair Lady], they offered me to take over from her. That's how I met them, and that's how it happened. . . . At the same time, I got an invitation to go to the Old Vic by Tyrone Guthrie, so I didn't know which path to take. Anyway, I chose My Fair Lady, and so that was my first show over here.

Question: Was it a difficult decision to leave England?
Howes: No, not at all. I had met Richard Adler and we, at that time, fell in love, and it was really basically because I met him [that I came to America]. So the two went together. [Laughs.]

Question: What are your memories of working on Broadway at that time?
Howes: It was absolutely wonderful, when you're in probably the greatest show that's ever been written. It's certainly up among the top ten. I enjoyed it immensely. I loved the American audiences, I loved the show, and I enjoyed being in America. I like the incredible enthusiasm and, at that time, that really was the capital of musicals. England hadn't started on its second phase of also producing great musicals.

Question: How would you say that this My Fair Lady cast compares to the one that you worked with the first time around?
Howes: Well, I think it's absolutely a wonderful cast. I really do, I'm not just saying that. . . . There are 35 of us, so it's quite a big cast, and each person is very individual and marvelous. Matthew Bourne has given it such an incredible twist and emphasis on the difference between the classes — I think it's really going to surprise people. It's much more definite in catching the real English life in that period. I think he's done an incredible job. With that, he has given an amazing new life to already a wonderful, wonderful show.

Question: Have you toured much before?
Howes: No, I haven't. I toured in England pre-West End. We always went on tour for that, and I suppose I did tour for several of the shows that I did on Broadway before we came in. But that was in the days when you used to go out and try out a show and get the kinks out before all the spies came in. I did one very big tour quite a long time ago, right across America, in Sound of Music. I did 92 cities. Maybe that cured me, I don't know. [Laughs.]

Question: That's a lot of cities. What are your memories of being in that production?
Howes: I enjoyed it immensely because I was with two friends who were playing the other leads, and so we had a lovely time. It was a wonderful way to see America, and I saw America. We went to practically every state, and it was just the best way to see it.

Question: Were you playing Maria?
Howes: I was playing Maria. Yes, I was young then. [Laughs.]

Question: And now, you're leaving the My Fair Lady tour after Kennedy Center?
Howes: Yes, I'm only signed for the end of that [engagement].

Question: Is that to do another part?
Howes: No, no. That's exactly the amount of time that we agreed on.

Question: You were last on Broadway in James Joyce's The Dead. Tell me about your experience in that show.
Howes: I loved it. I think it was something that I enjoyed more than I can say. It was really a great experience — not only just putting it together and watching it being created, I thought it was an utterly unusual idea and production. The music was wonderful. My only deep regret was that we did not make a recording of it. I thought that was awful. Unfortunately, sometimes when you're working on something, people's egos get in the way. The creative team didn't agree, and so consequently they didn't want to work together again for a recording, which I thought was very selfish.

Question: It's a shame the Broadway cast didn't get recorded.
Howes: Apparently, it got recorded in Pittsburgh. An Irish company did it. I was interviewed in Pittsburgh, and they're going to give me a recording of it, so I'm really very excited about that — at least I shall have a memory of it.

Sally Ann Howes in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."
photo by United Artists

Question: My nieces, who are five and seven, are big fans of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Howes: Oh, how lovely!

Question: Do you find you continue to have new fans because of that film?
Howes: Absolutely. It's absolutely marvelous. I'm very, very glad I did that film because I think it'll probably be the only thing that's sort of left. Unfortunately, in the theatre you go on and on, and nobody's really captured those moments. They're doing a little bit more now, and people are having performances taped. I think The Dead is in the Theatre Museum at Lincoln Center.

Question: What are your memories of working on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with Dick Van Dyke?
Howes: Very good memories. I had a wonderful time on it, and Dick is, of course, a joy to work with. We did a celebration [of the film a few years ago], a documentary for TV. They flew me out to California, and we got together and shrieked about all of the various things that we had to go through. But it was a very long shooting. It took a very, very long time. That was the only tedious thing that I can remember, but the rest of it was a joy.

Question: Did you get to see the stage production of Chitty a few years back?
Howes: Yes, I did! Very kindly, they invited me over and they flew me over [to London]. I stayed a week, and I did some press with them. Michael Ball, who was starring as Potts, they arranged for me to take the last curtain call on the first night. It was at the Palladium, and I will never forget. I think that was a memory I shall always have. After all of these wonderful people working for two hours in this wonderful show, I came on and took a bow. I thought, "That's the best way to do my work — to let everybody else work, and I'll take the applause!" [Laughs.] And it was wonderful. I think it was probably one of the better moments of my life and career.

Sally Ann Howes and Edward Mulhare in My Fair Lady.
photo by Friedman-Abeles

Question: Of all of the stage work that you've done, do you have a favorite experience?
Howes: Not a favorite because I think that whatever you're doing at the moment is always your favorite. I know that's a corny remark, and people say that, but it is actually true. I think my favorite moment was sharing the stage with my father. I think that was so extraordinary a thing to be able to do — to star in a show with your own father, playing father and daughter. That, to me, was a really treasured memory. Question: How long were you in Paint Your Wagon together?
Howes: We were in there together for two years. Neither one of us wanted to take a holiday or have the understudy on. [Laughs.] Question: How old were you at the time when you did that production?
Howes: Oh, my gosh. I think I was about 24. . . . About the same age as our Eliza here.

Question: Has the cast been asking for your memories from the original production of My Fair Lady?
Howes: Oh, my goodness! They keep coming up and showing me the most extraordinary things on Google and Wikipedia. And they say, "We've just seen your Life Magazine cover! We've just seen this…" And it's very funny. It's sweet. They're the most lovely and wonderful company. I love being with young people, too.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Howes: No, I'm sort of semi-retired. I really am. I haven't done anything for a while. The only thing I've been doing is I do charity shows. I went out for the AIDS charity show, the big one they have in Los Angeles. The other thing that I do is I'm on the committee for saving the Royal Poinciana Theatre in Palm Beach, and the cast is going to put a show on to raise money for it when we're in West Palm Beach, which is rather marvelous. They've all signed up to do it, and I think it will go on for about four hours. [Laughs.] But that's what I'm interested in, and another thing I'm interested in is the Lord's Place, which is basically an incredible place for the homeless.

[For more information visit www.myfairladythemusical.com.]

DIVA TIDBITS
"Betty Buckley 1967," the thrilling new release on the Playbill Records/Sony BMG Masterworks Broadway label, is now available for pre-sale by visiting the Playbill Store, which is currently selling the single CD for $11.95 (the retail price is $13.98). The recording will ship Oct. 16, the day it also hits stores around the country. (A special limited vinyl pressing of "Betty Buckley 1967" is also now available for pre-sale.) The never-before-released "Betty Buckley 1967" is the first of two discs from Tony Award winner Buckley that will be released by Playbill Records: the second, the brand-new "Quintessence," will arrive on Valentine's Day 2008. "Betty Buckley 1967" was recorded by the Tony-winning Cats star in Fort Worth, TX, when she was 19. She was accompanied by musicians Charlie Baxter, John Monaghan and Wayland Smajstrala; T Bone Burnett engineered the recording. The 11-track CD reveals a voice whose beauty is second to none, one that is filled with optimism and joy. To pre-order the "Betty Buckley 1967" CD, click here.

The London production of Chicago will celebrate a "decade of decadence in the West End" with a special gala performance at the Cambridge Theatre Dec. 5. The evening, which will benefit the Breast Cancer Haven and the Breast Health Institute, will begin at 6:30 PM and will be followed by a black-tie reception. Original London cast members Ute Lemper, Ruthie Henshall and Henry Goodman will be part of the performance; they will be joined onstage by Brenda Edwards, Jennifer Ellison, Kelly Osbourne, Gaby Roslin, Frances Ruffelle, Claire Sweeney and Nigel Planer. For details of sponsorship packages and ticket prices for the gala performance, contact Linda Marley at lm@breastcancerhaven.org.uk or call 020 7384 0049. For individual tickets visit www.chicagothemusical.co.uk.

Stefanie Powers, most recently seen onstage in the Reprise! mounting of On Your Toes, will debut her new one-woman show this fall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center's Samueli Theatre. Entitled One From the Hart, the evenings of song and story will play the Costa Mesa venue Nov. 8-11. The show, according to press notes, will "take audiences on a romantic holiday brimming with anecdotes and visual images from Powers' extraordinary life, underscored by some of the most evocative love songs ever written." Audiences can expect to hear tunes from the Great American Songbook. The Samueli Theatre at the Orange County Performing Arts Center is located at 615 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa, CA. Tickets are available by visiting www.ocpac.org or by calling (714) 556-2787.

The Musical Mondays series — which presents cabaret evenings in the lobby of the historic Pantages Theatre — will continue this fall with a host of theatre and pop favorites. Former Side Show co-stars Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner will kick off the new season Oct. 1 at 7:30 PM. They will be followed by Melissa Manchester, who was recently seen in the Chicago production of Hats!, Nov. 5 at 7:30 PM. The season will conclude with stage and screen star Sam Harris, who will belt out several tunes Dec. 3 at 7:30 PM. The concerts, produced by John Bowab and Martin Wiviott, will benefit the Actors Fund of America. Tickets, priced $125 (per concert) or $300 (entire series), are available by calling (323) 933-9244, ext. 59. For more information visit www.actorsfund.org. The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA.

In my April 21, 2006, column I listed who I'd like to see star in the then-upcoming revival of Les Misérables. These were my picks: "Mandy Patinkin as Jean Valjean, Judy Kuhn as Fantine, Laura Benanti as Cosette, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Eponine, Steven Pasquale as Enjolras, Michael Arden as Marius, Chip Zien as Thénardier and Alix Korey as Madame Thénardier." So, I was quite excited to learn earlier this week that three-time Tony nominee Kuhn will indeed get her chance to belt out "I Dreamed a Dream" when she begins performances as Fantine at the Broadhurst Theatre Oct. 23; Kuhn succeeds Tony winner Lea Salonga, who will offer her final performance Oct. 21. In a statement Kuhn — who originated the role of Cosette in the original production of Les Miz — said, "I am thrilled to be returning to Les Misérables after all these years. The original production was such an exciting and momentous part of the beginning of my career and now to go back to play the mother of the character I played originally, especially now that I am a mother myself will be great fun." For tickets call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com. (By the way, Kuhn's wonderful new CD, "Serious Playground: The Songs of Laura Nyro," will hit stores on the Ghostlight Records label Oct. 2; she will celebrate that disc with concerts Oct. 1, 8, 15 and 22 at Joe's Pub and Oct. 26 at the Kennedy Center.)

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Lisa O'Hare and Sally Ann Howes in the national tour of <i>My Fair Lady</i>.
Lisa O'Hare and Sally Ann Howes in the national tour of My Fair Lady. Photo by Joan Marcus
Today’s Most Popular News: