Article 137

Actor Won't Compete With Memories Of Role's Originator

New York - It is a new approach to an old favourite as Richard Chamberlain tries to exorcise the ghost of Rex Harrison's Henry Higgins in a redesigned, rethought stage version of "My Fair Lady."

Chamberlain said competing with the memory of the man who created the role in what many consider the greatest musical ever written was "terrifying, absolutely terrifying."

"Harrison was brilliant, but I'm not trying to fill his shoes - I'm trying to find another pair", Chamberlain said in a recent interview before the show left ton for a lengthy national tour.

"Besides, Leslie Howard did it one way in the movie, and Alan Howard did it another way in the recent revival of "Pygmalion" at the Royal National Theatre in London. That gave me some courage."

The actor, known as television's Dr. Kildare and as the star of such mini-series as "Shogun" and "The Thorn Birds," has not had much luck tackling musical theatre.

Chamberlain's one other foray into song-and-dance, a musical version of "Breakfast at Tiffany's", which also starred Mary Tyler Moore, never opened in New York, collapsing in previews before opening night. He said he is determined to make this one work.

This newest production, with new-comer Melissa Errico playing Eliza Doolittle opposite Chamberlain's Higgins, is expected to arrive on Broadway sometime during the 1993-94 season. It was the brainchild of Barry and Fran Weissler, husband-and-wife producers who have a record of touring widely known shows with widely known performers. They count among their successes Tommy Tune in "Bye Bye Birdie", Topol in "Fiddler on the Roof", Joel Grey in "Cabaret" and Anthony Quinn in "Zorba."

"We've wanted to do 'My Fair Lady' forever," said Mrs. Weissler. "But we needed two ingredients to do it - a star and a director."

It took several years to persuade Chamberlain, as well as the director the two wanted. Howard Davies. Davies had directed the Royal National Theatre production of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion", the play on which "My Fair Lady" is based. The director had worked for the Weisslers before, having supervised an acclaimed revival of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" starring Kathleen Turner on Broadway.

The producers' efforts to choose the right Eliza, the role originated by Julie Andrews, also were lengthy.

"It took six months and we went through 619 people in London, Los Angeles and New York to find her," Mrs. Weissler said. "It's the hardest role I've ever had to cast. Shaw wrote for actors, not singers and dancers, but we had to find a woman who could sing, dance and act."

"We also needed someone who was right for Richard Chamberlain," said Weissler. "Richard has a certain persona. He needed to be matched up with the right person."

The 22-year-old Miss Errico won out. Her only Broadway experience was the ingénue role in a short-lived musical version of "Anna Karenina" that played last summer.

The chemistry between Higgins and Eliza was crucial to Davies' concept for the show.

"Most people remember previous productions in which Rex Harrison was an avuncular figure, a fatherly type when it came to his relationship with Eliza," said Davies, ho never saw "My Fair Lady" on stage until he directed it.

"I was very keen to establish the fact that there is a genuine sexual and emotional relationship between the two," Davies said. "In other words, our Higgins should not be beyond 50, yet he also should realize that this woman could be his last chance. If Eliza doesn't break through that defensive barrier, then yes, he will live in a state of perpetual bachelordom for the rest of his life."

The original stars were not the only memories of the 1956 production that were difficult to erase.

Theatre buffs recall with affection Oliver Smith's magnificent scenery; Cecil Beaton's opulent costumes, especially the formal black-and-white outfits for the Ascot racing number; and Hanya Holm's exuberant choreography.

"We reached out to a design team that will in no way reflect the Cecil Beaton-Oliver Smith costumes and sets," Weissler said. "We have a totally different approach. One secret is that there's not one painted drop in the entire show. Imagine, a "My Fair Lady" without painted drop. I think it is going to bring the show into the ‘90s."

What set designer Ralph Koltai has done is stylised the sets, suggesting rather than realistically re-creating such locations as the Covent Garden market, Higgins' library and the race track at Ascot. And Patricia Zipprodt's new costumes are equally distinctive.

"Because of the opulence, it's a difficult show to tour," Weissler said. "We have nine 40-foot trucks carrying everything from theatre to theatre. It's an enormous undertaking, but we are committed to the new design."

Donald Saddler, the veteran choreographer who created the dances for other great revivals, such as the 1973 production of "No, No, Nanette," does the movement here- and every number is totally different.

"Audiences are either going to love it or they are not going to love it," said Mrs. Weissler when asked to gauge the success of her new production. "It wouldn't be interesting for Barry and Howard and me if we simply replicated the show. If you do the sets, then you have to do the blocking, you have to do everything that goes with it. We want something entirely new. I think we've got it."

Richard Chamberlain Online