Interview: Charles Shaughnessy Revisits New England and 'My Fair Lady'
The affable television actor Charles Shaughnessy, still seen regularly on TV Land in re-runs of his and Fran Drescher's hit series from the 1990s The Nanny, is bringing his British-born elocution skills and charm to North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass. this summer starring as the arrogant and irascible phonetics teacher Henry Higgins in the season-opening production of My Fair Lady. Starring opposite the wonderful Lisa O'Hare as Eliza Doolittle, who is reprising her award-winning role from the acclaimed UK Cameron Mackintosh production and subsequent US national tour, Shaughnessy is once again playing Pygmalion to an unrefined interloper who ends up capturing his heart.
Shaughnessy returns to New England for the second summer in a row with My Fair Lady. Last year he triumphed as King Arthur in Spamalot at the Ogunquit Playhouse on the coast of Maine, winning the BroadwayWorld.com Boston People's Choice Award for his comically bemused portrayal. This year, instead of leading the Knights of the Round Table, he is leading a cast on a round stage. North Shore Music Theatre is a landmark 1400-seat theater-in-the-round. While the theater lends itself to a degree of intimacy with the audience, it also presents challenges when staging traditional classic musicals.
BroadwayWorld.com recently reconnected by phone with Shaughnessy, who was interviewed last year during his run in Spamalot. As down-to-earth and gracious as ever, Shaughnessy talked about revisiting Henry Higgins, his love for the role and the show, and his views on relating with fans through social media.
BroadwayWorld.com: I know you've done My Fair Lady before with the Pittsburgh CLO. At the time you had said that it was a big immersion for you. You had to learn the part so quickly. Now that you've had some distance on it and get to do it again, can you make some comparisons between then and now?
Charles Shaughnessy: Oh, it's such a meaty amount of words, such a big role. Even just three days into rehearsal it's already great to be familiar with it. When you do it with just 10 days of rehearsal you're really just getting it on its feet. You're kind of getting it right by the last production night. Now I'm kind of picking up where I left off. It was a long time ago (2003), so it's not completely solid, but it is there. The memories take you back.
This one's going to be interesting because it's in the round. It's an entirely new experience for me anyway, but to do a musical in the round that is as seamless and precise as My Fair Lady is quite a challenge. It's an extremely clockwork piece. So when you blow that all up - when you don't have the upstairs balcony and you don't have entrances in the same way that you do when you have the wings, and when you're playing 360 degrees - that's going to be very interesting. But already in rehearsal we're discovering the freedom that gives you if you are willing to take it. It's going to be great. It's a fabulous company, a wonderful cast, and wonderful directors with lots of great ideas. They're very imaginative. I'm really looking forward to it.
BWW: You mention the company. I saw Lisa O'Hare in the national tour of My Fair Lady. She's just marvelous.
CS: Yes, she's fantastic. She just did Gigi at Reprise! in Los Angeles and got incredible reviews. I can't imagine a better Eliza. It's such a treat working with her. The entire production is at a very high level. You've got to bring you're A game, that's for sure.
BWW: In studying Henry, re-examining him and preparing for this production, are there any new discoveries you are finding?
CS: You know, I think that the difficulty in playing him is similar to playing Richard III in that he is such a villain. Not that Henry is a villain, because there's something inherently likable and charming about him even though he's just such a puissant. But like Richard III, Henry is really an unpleasant guy - to everyone. He behaves as if to say, "I know who I am, I have no manners, I don't care about manners, I don't care about people's feelings, it's all just hogwash." He's a very pragmatic man who has lived in this entirely selfish universe and sees absolutely no reason to take anyone else's feelings into consideration. His excuse is that he's honest about it. "I can treat you badly because at least I'm admitting it." But that's really not much of an excuse. So the difficulty in playing this character is not making him loathsome to the audience. He's got to be charming in a way that keeps them caring while still being very honest about how really unpleasant he is. The audience can laugh in a shocked amusement about his misogyny and selfishness and his complete lack of any sort of sympathy. But he can't get too cozy and cuddly. It's an interesting bit of a challenge.
There are things about Henry Higgins that are very similar to Mr. Sheffield (my character in The Nanny) or even my dad in a way. They are sort of fuzzy, befuddled kind of men. My dad would get lost in his thoughts. He was a writer who would get very wound up in his writing and be not quite attached to real life. It's the same with Maxwell Sheffield. That archetype was sort of out of the loop where real life was concerned and his kids were concerned. His head was always somewhere else. It's the same with Higgins. His head is somewhere else and he's not aware of how life really works.
BWW: For Shaw (who's play Pygmalion was adapted by Lerner and Loewe to become My Fair Lady), what class of men does Higgins represent?
CS: Well, none, really. Higgins sees himself as completely above everyone else, no matter what class. He treats duchesses the same way that he treats flower girls. He sees himself as an intellect and an observer. He observes everyone's dialects and the ways they behave. He observes their language. He sees himself as floating way above the fray. He watches the classes, but he doesn't belong to any one of them. For example, he turns up at Ascot in just an ordinary suit while everyone else is dressed up in tails. When questioned he says, "I changed my shirt at least." He has no respect for class or behavior. He shocks his mother with his appearances and she has to constantly apologize for him. That's all part of his selfish arrogance. Even class doesn't apply to him. None of the rules apply to him. He doesn't have to be nice to people, polite to people, he doesn't have to observe any kind of class rules, he doesn't have to do anything that normal human beings do because he's special. He thinks he knows more about how life works than anyone on the planet and he takes great pleasure in telling people how much he knows and what's wrong with them. But in the end he sort of has the rug pulled out from under him because he discovers that he doesn't know everything and he isn't in complete control and this girl has actually thrown him a curve ball. For the first time in his life someone has thrown something into the fire that's disturbed his peace and he doesn't know how to deal with it.
The end is so great because it's so unresolved. All we know, or as I see it all he knows, is that something has upset him. Something has disturbed the music of the spheres and he doesn't know where it's going to go or how to deal with it. He just knows that she needs to be in his life. He's never had to have anyone in his life but she needs to be in it. Now, whether it's as a lover or a playmate or a friend or a flat mate, we don't know. He just knows that she got under his skin and that's very new to him. Until now he's been blissfully content in the idea that he doesn't need anyone.
BWW: The musical ends differently from Pygmalion, though, in that she comes back.
CS: Right, she comes back, but they very deliberately left it uncertain. She comes back because, as she says, there's nothing else for her to do. He's changed her. She can't go back to selling flowers, and she doesn't want to take Pickering's money to be set up in a shop. She's sort of lost as to where to belong, and she's kind of found the game and what she felt in that house suits her. So we just know that she comes back and that he wants her back, but we don't know where it's going to go. And that's what's exciting about it.
They had to do it this way because they couldn't really end a musical the way Pygmalion ends. No one would pay for tickets to see Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison not be on the same stage together at the end!
It's very tantalizingly the way it's left open-ended. In some productions they sort of hint that they're going to get together. Some productions hint that they're never going to get together. Some just leave it completely in the air. We were talking the other day about what we were going to do, and we haven't exactly decided yet.
BWW: Will some of that come out of the process as you and Lisa work out the relationship?
CS: Right, that last scene will probably be informed a bit by what's gone before. It's always intriguing. It's a very modern ending. I mean, it's unusual - in those days when this was written the happy ending was kind of de rigueur. Nowadays a lot of shows, plays, movies, and scripts are more like real life and have loose ends that are not so tidy. But it was unusual in the '50s and '60s. It was quite brave in a way to have this kind of unsatisfactory ending.
BWW: It's absolutely one of my all-time five favorite musicals.
CS: Yes, me, too. It's flawless, really.
BWW: Let's talk a little bit about the language. I would imagine in some ways that it's a challenge to be dealing with such precise language.
CS: It's funny. It just so happens that that particular kind of language - Shaw's language, and a lot of My Fair Lady's book is original Shaw - suits me. There's a kind of rhythm to it that for whatever reason suits me. Different people's speech patterns and tones I guess suit particular kinds of playing. There are certain Mamet actors who just work well with Mamet. There are some who work well with Noel Coward. There are some who work well with Shakespeare. Shaw seems to sit well for me. It is a challenge and it's very precise - you've got to get every little word right because there's a definite clockwork precision about it - but when it's really working it's joyous. I mean, Higgins gets some great lines!
BWW: Changing gears a bit here, I know you have a very high-profile Facebook presence. I know with Spamalot you had a lot of people who made special trips to Ogunquit. I think you even had someone from Germany if I'm remembering correctly.
CS: Yes, I think a lot of them are going to be out here again. It's really nice and very gratifying. I'm very appreciative and I always make it a chance to see them. There's usually a pack of about a dozen who come on a certain night and we hang out for a while and chat and take photographs, exchange gifts and things. They've always been very loyal and they don't ask for too much in exchange. It's a very generous spirit that they come with. It's great.
BWW: So there's a respect for the boundaries. You make yourself more available than a lot of celebrities but they don't take advantage of that.
CS: Exactly. Oh, there's always that difficulty when a fan becomes a regular fan and because you know them by first name and you say, "Oh, hi, Charlotte, how are you doing?" they think, "Oh, this is a friendship. I'm a friend of Charles." Then it can get a little complicated because then they want to be on your personal Facebook page and want to be able to chat you whenever they feel like it and tell you what's going on in their personal lives. And they don't really understand that there's a chasm between you and you can't be friends with a thousand different people in different places. On the one hand you want to be able to appreciate them and give them some access, but you just always have to remind them that it's fan access. You're not actually a friend. It can get complicated, but you learn how to navigate that.
BWW: It's a whole new world. It used to be that people would hang out at the stage door and get an autograph, and that was the only contact. There's a formality involved with that - an understood protocol.
CS: Right, but now the lines get a bit blurred with the social networking.
BWW: You seem to balance it very well, though.
CS: You know, I try. A lot of it depends on them. They are by and large respectful and balance it themselves. They know what the parameters are, they know exactly what's going on, and they're grateful to have that access and come to a show and have that special time. So I think as long as they appreciate it and they understand, then it's easy. Sometimes it's just one or two, and usually it's not the regular ones. The regular ones are really quite protective of the whole way it works. Occasionally there'll be someone else who'll sort of attach who hasn't been given the "rules" by the regular crew. And then they'll apologize to me for this one person who might be a bit rogue. They get very protective of me!
I love them all. They've been fantastic supporters. They're lovely to do this in different years and different places. Some fans travel to various places and make a vacation of it. A lot of them are now very good friends with each other. Through this kind of "following Charlie around to see plays" they've struck up friendships and interact in each other's lives in ways they otherwise wouldn't have done. I love that. People who might be unattached or not have a lot of companionship look forward to these trips and they'll see the same friends again. It's a really lovely thing all around.
BWW: These fans actually may have helped you be voted the fan favorite for Spamalot in the BroadwayWorld.com Boston People's Choice Awards for 2010. What does that mean to you?
CS: Oh, it was a great honor! I really appreciate it when you see the loyalty of the fans. Of course like any of those awards it's a popularity contest, so I can't take it too seriously, but I don't want to minimize it, either. Ultimately it's very flattering, it's just not necessarily real in a way. It doesn't mean that I'm any better than anyone else or nicer than anyone else or more popular than anyone else. It's just that my fans perhaps are a little more organized! (He laughs). Again, I don't want to minimize or decry their enthusiasm and efforts. It's just delightful and it's always nice to win anything. But in the grand scheme of things one has to be honest and say there were a lot of extremely talented and very popular people on stage last summer! I'm lucky to have won.
My Fair Lady plays at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts June 7-19. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are priced from $35 to $65 and are available online at www.nsmt.org, by calling 978-232-7200, or in person at the Box Office at 62 Dunham Road, Beverly.
Photo Credits: Charles Shaughnessy; Charles Shaughnessy as Henry Higgins with the Pittsburgh CLO (photo by Matt Polk); Lisa O'Hare as Eliza Doolittle in the US national tour (photo by Michael Le Poer Trench); Charles Shaughnessy with Rachel York in "Spamalot" (photo courtesy Ogunquit Playhouse)