Audiences may be more familiar with Eliza Doolittle because of My Fair Lady than the George Bernard Shaw play that inspired that classic musical. But the stars of the upcoming Broadway revival of Shaw's Pygmalion, Jefferson Mays and Claire Danes, have actually never seen it.
"I hadn't ever read any George Bernard Shaw. It was all very new to me," said Danes at a recent press meet-and-greet for the show. "I haven't even seen My Fair Lady. Jefferson hasn't seen it either. We're the only two people on the planet, I think."
Danes added, "Hopefully that'll serve us." Her co-star concurred: "I think it must be an advantage. It must be because Rex Harrison left such an indelible print on people's memories. So I think I'm living in blissful oblivion," said Mays. "I don't have Rex Harrison hanging over my shoulder."
Danes takes on the aforementioned flower girl-turned-debutante, while Mays plays teacher Henry Higgins in the upcoming Roundabout Theatre Company production, which begin previews at the American Airlines Theatre Sept. 21. Mays also hopes audiences won't come with expectations. "The play is so different from both the movie and the musical," he explained. "I'd love for them to come to the piece fresh. It is indeed shocking. The ending is so abrupt and so ambiguous that I think the audience is going to be a bit gob smacked by that."
The revival reunites Mays with collaborators from his most recent Broadway outing, Journey's End: director David Grindley and co-star Boyd Gaines. Danes is merely one degree of separation from the group. "Hugh Dancy, my boyfriend, just did Journey's End with this group of people," said the actress. "David basically recruited his Journey's End team, so it's wonderful to have that continuity to have known them socially and to already have a rapport. It just makes it easier, and we can enter the work immediately together."
Accents significantly factor into the production and the play itself. Gaines, who portrays the role of Colonel Pickering, notes, "It is the convention of the play that, at least partially, speech equals class. I think that because the difference between the cockney and the RP (the received pronunciation) is so different and so easily understood that it becomes a building block for the storytelling."
Tackling the cockney accent — for his role as Eliza's father Alfred Doolittle — is actor Jay O. Sanders. "I'm still learning it. It's an ongoing thing. Everyday I'm spending time with phonetics and listening to tapes and working with a dialect coach. Claire has the hardest of it because she has to learn the cockney and the upper class dialects.
"Just when I think I've conquered one, I have the other to contend with," admitted Danes, though the actress seems to be taking the challenge in stride. "I had to have elocution lessons in learning how to speak badly. The dialect coach and I [have been] screaming at each other, [thickly cockney:] 'Saucy! Saucy! Saucy!' It's been really fun."
All the actors note their appreciation for the excellence of Shaw's work. "He's one of the great classic writers of all time. It's brilliant writing — the rhythms of speaking are gorgeous, the observations, the humor. It's deep stuff. I come on for two scenes, and you know so much about this guy from two concentrated scenes. It's very rich material," said Sanders.
Gaines adds, "What I think is great about Shaw is that he creates these problems where everyone is right and wrong. He doesn't resolve them. He'll create an incredibly strong argument for one thing, and then another character will come along and create its equal opposite. The plays resolve themselves, but the major problems are often left hanging. I think that's very much what modern life is all about."