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.