DETROIT – One of the most beloved Broadway musicals of all time is making its way to Detroit.
Laird Mackintosh is leading the company of My Fair Lady as Professor Henry Higgins. Mackintosh had just recently ended a six-year run on Broadway in Phantom of the Opera before hitting the road as the aristocratic professor. This isn’t his first time in Detroit, he performed in the touring production of Mary Poppins, nor is it his first time in a production of My Fair Lady.
Mackintosh chatted with us about revisiting My Fair Lady in what he considers his toughest role yet.
You were on Broadway in Phantom for several years, what made you want to embark on a tour with My Fair Lady?
It’s one of the greatest roles for a man in musical theater. I saw the show on Broadway at Lincoln Center in 2019 and just loved the show. It was one of those moments where I thought to myself, “Oh, if I could get into that, I would.” I’d love to do it. Every so often you get the artistic impulse to do something that is just so strong that you do whatever you can to get involved. It’s just a fantastic show with a great director and that opportunity does not come along too often.
This isn’t your first rodeo with My Fair Lady. What was it like to revisit a show in a new production of it?
It was the first musical I did at the Stratford Festival. I had been doing Phantom in Toronto, but I went to play Freddy at Stratford. So to revisit it on the other end of the spectrum, sort of two bookends for me with Freddy and Henry, has been very fun. Of course, that was an artistic lifetime ago for me when I was very young playing that part. I’m older and hopefully wiser now and able to bring a little bit more to the table. This show came along at the right time for me.
What was it like to open the tour in December 2019 just to have it shut down a few short months after because of the pandemic?
We are very lucky because we came back. A lot of shows closed. The theater industry has been hit terribly, terribly hard, and we continue to be hit very hard by it. We’re very grateful that we’re still out there taking the show across the country and we’re doing everything we can to see that audiences have shows to go to. The COVID layoffs were extremely difficult for everyone, so when we came back, we just felt very fortunate. We’re all buoyed up by the fact that we have this wonderful show and we hope as many people can come out and see it as possibly can. We’re very delighted when they do!
What was it like getting back on stage the first time after the pause?
Oh, it was wonderful! It was great to be back. I think everybody was very relieved to be back performing again and doing this thing that we’re very fortunate to be back out on stage. We’ve had very strict COVID protocols backstage, but it’s because the audience was willing to do what they had to do to be in the house, which is great. We were thrilled.
My Fair Lady came out in the 1950s, why do you think the show is so successful in resonating with audiences even today?
I think great art is always relevant. It is unquestionable one of the classics of American musical theater based on an equally classic play. It has the combination that you have to have which is all the stars lining up. The bulk of the musical is wonderful, based in large part on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and the score is legendary. It’s one beautiful, memorable song after another and it has really indelible characters that are very engaging. These characters lend themselves very well to a lot of discussion. People leave this show and they’re talking about it for hours after they see it. It really makes people want to discuss and debate the ideas that are in it.
So typically when shows from the past are revisited it feels like parts are updated for modern audiences. Were any changes made to the show?
No, not really. George Bernard Shaw also wrote the script for the 1937 film of My Fair Lady. We were able to take a few bits of dialogue from that film which were interpolated back into our production. They also took one or two lines of text from Pygmalion, but only in a very small degree. So no, the show is very much intact. If you’ve seen the movie, you know the show that we’re doing, but our interpretation of it is quite different. I think anyone familiar with the movie will be surprised at some of the changes that we’ve put in. You’ll also be surprised at just how relevant the show is for contemporary audiences, as it’s very relevant.
What would you consider the toughest part of playing Henry Higgins?
The toughest part is that it’s like playing Hamlet eight times a week. It’s a very dense show. It’s a very interesting show for the audience, sure, but for the actors, it is extremely demanding vocally and physically. The challenge is to keep that energy and stamina to do a run. Being on tour is also very challenging that naturally audiences aren’t aware of. We’re living in a hotel room all the time. Access to the regular eating and sleeping patterns that normal people have is difficult too. The illusion the audience gets is that the audience doesn’t know what’s going on behind-the-scenes. It’s a difficult job for sure.
How are you able to maintain your endurance to perform Henry Higgins eight times a week?
You build up a stamina from doing it. You rest when you can, but today is a two-show day and they’re both three-hour shows. I’m speaking for half of the show. I’ll try and have a big cup of coffee before each show, stretch, warm up my voice. It’s a challenge, but it’s something that I’ve been doing all my life, so I’m used to it. I can certainly say this is unquestionably the most difficult role I’ve ever done in my career, hands down.
My Fair Lady runs at the Detroit Opera House from July 12 to 24. For a schedule of shows and tickets, visit BroadwayinDetroit.com.