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BWW Interview: Lisa O'Hare and Bryce Pinkham Share Why It's 'Loverly' to Reunite for MY FAIR LADY

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Shortly before performances began for MY FAIR LADY at Lyric Opera (the run begins tonight), I had the opportunity to sit down with Lisa O'Hare (Eliza Doolittle) and Bryce Pinkham (Freddy Eynsford-Hill) for a conversation backstage at the opera house. O'Hare and Pinkham are no strangers to working together, as they both originated roles in the 2014 Tony Award-winning musical A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER. Pinkham in fact revealed that one of the reasons he signed on to MY FAIR LADY was to have a "front-row seat" to see O'Hare's take on Eliza, a role she has performed previously in the West End and in a 2008 U.S. national tour. While dressed in street clothes but still wearing faces full of stage makeup, O'Hare and Pinkham chatted with me about what it's been like to reunite, why they're excited to be involved in this staging of Lerner and Loewe's classic musical, and how it feels to perform on the Lyric stage. Read on for excerpts from the conversation.

You both originated roles on Broadway in A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER and are now taking on what are considered iconic roles in MY FAIR LADY. For an original role compared to a role that's considered part of the musical theater canon, are there differences in how you prepare as an actor?

Bryce Pinkham: Yes and no. I think that how you approach a character, for me, remains the same whether it's a character that somebody else has played before or whether it's a character nobody's played before. That said, the experience of playing a role that, whether you like it or not, has expectations attached to it is different than playing a role that no one has seen done before. Ultimately the experiences are different, but the approach is the same. I think the approach is, "Who is this person? And why do they want what they want? And why do we need to hear them sing? And what do we learn about them and their story and their decisions about moving their life forward when they open their mouth? And what's my responsibility to the greater story at large?" Those questions are all the same whether somebody's done [the role] before or not. It depends on the person answering the questions what the answers are, which is why the great roles have been interpreted by many, many people because there are infinite numbers of answers to those questions.

Lisa O'Hare: I've spent my career playing roles that have been previously played by very famous people. I know what that is, and there is a huge responsibility that comes with that. And it is hard to take on a role that somebody has made famous, like Julie Andrews or Audrey Hepburn, for example, and then to try to make it your own. That's a challenge. But when you're originating a role that's not something you have to worry about because there hasn't been anybody before you. So with GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE, we had a lot of freedom to play and find things. There was no one to compare it to. That was quite wonderful and freeing for me. That said, it's nice when there's been some legwork done. When you can see the role and there's something to watch and you can go, "Oh, I would have done that differently, but I like what they did in that bit there." They do a bit of homework for you, the person that's played it previously. When you've started from scratch and you've got nowhere to look, it's a different thing.

I've played this role before and I'm coming back to it again. It's so different for me this time around. That's just with age and experience, I guess, and just being older and being a mother and a wife and lots of things that I wasn't the first time around. It's informed my performance in ways that I didn't expect it to. Not that Eliza is any of those things-she's not a mother and she's not a wife-but it's given me a different perspective on her because I look at my child for her inspiration because she's a child herself in the beginning. It's been a very interesting thing to come back to after lots of years and see who she is now.

BP: We've been talking backstage...somebody pulled some fact about how every seven years we have new cells in our body, like the entire cell structure has been turned over. So we actually are completely different people, so to come back to a role later in life I think is really fascinating.

LO: And sometimes the memory of what you did serves you and sometimes it really doesn't. You're used to doing something a certain way so you approach it that way because that's how it worked before, and you learn that actually it doesn't work at all anymore that way because you're playing against somebody completely new. Richard [E. Grant, who plays Henry Higgins] is extraordinary in this role and completely different from the person I've played it with before. He has pushed me so much as an actor. I feel like I want to be a better actor when I'm onstage with him. He's been remarkable to work with, much like Bryce is. Just working with him has changed my Eliza so much. I didn't expect it to be that way, but it just has been. The journey is different between the two of them, and there is a very different connection between Richard and I than there was between the previous actor I worked with, just because of the way he's approaching the role and the fact that he's younger and I'm older and the age gap is not so big. I know it's a bit of a thing that's up for discussion as to whether there's a romantic connection between [Eliza and Higgins], but I think with us it's undeniable that there's a certain chemistry there that I don't recall having been there before.

What drew you both to this project? Bryce, I read that you knew Lisa would be playing Eliza and that's one of the reasons you were drawn to this project so I'm curious to hear more about that as well.

BP: When you go through an experience with people like we had in GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE, those people become your ad hoc family. I wanted to see Lisa do this role. I found out she had done it years ago and having worked with her and gotten to know her as a friend in GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE, when I found out she was doing this and they asked me to do it, she was the first person I called and said, "What do you think? Should I come to Chicago and do this?" Not that she had to, but she made a very strong case to me about doing the show and doing the part and singing the song ["On The Street Where You Live"]...I wanted a front row seat to watch her do it, and boy, have I got it.

LO: That's crazy sweet. I was thrilled when he said he was going to do it because we had such a wicked time together. Although we don't nearly have the same amount of stage time together in this production and our relationship is quite different, it's just awesome to work with Bryce because he's such a generous performer. When we're having issues, it's just an open conversation and we work through it and there's no weirdness. There can be a bunch of weirdness when you're working with new people and knowing [Bryce] and working with [him] before, we just navigate it and figure it out. I feel so supported, and I hope you [points to Pinkham] feel supported too. It's such a great thing to have that kind of working relationship with somebody and to be able to keep working with them.

BP: Lisa's right. It's just a shorthand that we have onstage and then a friendship we have offstage that serves both of us in our lives, let alone in the work. It was a pretty easy "yes" for me.

Lisa, Eliza Doolittle is certainly an iconic part. How do you make the role your own?

LO: That's the big question. Someone once asked me if I tried to do what people are going to expect because of the people that have played it before me. And there is a little bit of responsibility in that you have to give [audiences] certain things that they're going to expect because it just comes with the territory and also because what [the performers before you] did was brilliant. That has been what that process has been for me doing it again years later. Who is [Eliza] now? How can I serve this character? How can I make her more understood? How can I make her more interesting? How can I make her more available to the audience? How can I move people more? A lot of that comes from being really authentic and being really crazy brave. Because [Eliza is] so brave, much braver than me...I feel like roles come into your life at certain times for certain reasons, and I think she's come into my life now to learn how to be more brave and more upfront and go after the things I want to go after in life. That's essentially what she does. She marches into Henry Higgins's house and says, "I'm here. I've got my money. I want my lessons. Let's go." And that's just mind boggling that she would have the balls to do something like that, coming from where's come from.

How do I make it my own? By doing it. It percolates. Every time it runs, we find new things by working it with remarkable people, and you learn things about the character each time you do it. And having just done our first dress rehearsal, I feel like the more we do, the more we find. You have to rely on your scene partners as an actor because acting is essentially about listening to other people...I don't worry about making it my own. I just worry about the character being completely understood and clear and that's my main concern...It's all me. I'm there. I'm doing it. I'm saying the lines. It can't be anything but me because it's coming through me.

BP: The reason Lisa is a great actress is because she takes the character's story personally. When you take it personally, then it's naturally going to filter through your instrument. The role is iconic, and those performances are iconic. But it's like saying to a conductor of an orchestra, "You know many people have conducted this piece of Mozart. How are you going to make it yours?" [The conductor] is just reading notes and interpreting notes and that'll be his version. It's similar to what we do. We read the notes on the page that the playwright gave us. We read the notes that the composers gave us. And then we interpret them through our own personal experiences in life.

Why do you think it is important for audiences to see this show now in Chicago in 2017?

LO: I think the piece is timeless. I think there's a reason we keep doing MY FAIR LADY over and over again. There's so much to learn from it. There's so much to see. It's unlike any of the other classics in that some of them have dated...[MY FAIR LADY] isn't that. It has moved extraordinarily over time, and it still has as much weight now as it did in the 1950's...I think that's just because the characters are so incredibly fascinating... And [MY FAIR LADY] only goes into a song because the characters simply cannot express themselves anymore through just words. And that's one of the remarkable things about this musical is just how perfectly crafted it is.

BP: I would say that at the center of the piece is this question of how does language inform our status in our culture... And the way [we] speak, whether we like it or not, informs how [we]'re looked on by society. And is that right or wrong? What does it mean to ask someone to change their language so that they can be passed off as a higher station in society? I don't think that one's ever going to get old. I think it's really fascinating to look at how our use of language informs everything. If you think about 2017, we have people who use the Twitter limit of [140 characters], that's a different way of speaking that we have than when this show was originally done. I think we in America love a story of someone who's come from a terrible situation and rises to the height of anything, fashion, sports, performance. We love that because we all secretly want to be that person. I think Lisa's right. This story will never grow old, and I think it's worth asking those same questions that Higgins is asking in the beginning.

LO: It's also not your traditional love story. I think that is why it's so great. And it's very empowering for women. Because even though [Eliza] gets so-called "bullied" by Higgins, she gives as good as she gets. And that is fascinating to watch as an audience because yes, she's come from nothing but she's not going to take any nonsense from him...They are literally equals. Even in the beginning...And then in the end, the way that [director] Robert Carsen has directed the end of this play is one of the most genius things about this production. I think the whole concept is brilliant. It's very empowering. And everybody always says, "Why on Earth would she go back?" I think that question is answered in this production. I hope that people get it. I think people need to feel empowered now, especially here in the United States. I hope that comes across as well.

You've both performed on Broadway and Lisa, I know you've performed in the West End as well. What is it like now performing on the Lyric Opera stage and knowing that you'll soon be doing so in front of a house of potentially 3500 audience members?

LO: It's a privilege to be here, and I pinch myself when I look out. It's ginormous. It's a wee bit daunting. But I'm hoping that it's going to sound really warm with 3500 people in it. It's an honor to be here and to do this musical...I imagine it's going to be a very different thing. The whole process has been very different from any experience I've had on the West End or my experience on Broadway...our principals come from here, there, and everywhere. It's been a really good learning experience.

BP: There's something about this space that feels like it's from another time, and something about standing on a stage in front of potentially that many people feels Greek. It feels ancient. There's something just divine about it. It feels very different from my experience at the Walter Kerr [where GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE played on Broadway], where you could see into the eyeballs of the audience. And here I just feel like I'm almost singing to the universe...And to hear the music, and quite frankly my own voice, in that space, I don't feel like myself. I feel like there's something else connecting us to the space itself. The scale of it alone is enough to humble you.

LO: There is something nice about the [audience] being almost so far that they're not there at all. Then you can just tell the story and you're not so aware of [the audience.] You just have this giant orchestra that's divine and you have yourself and the space and each other. You're not so focused, at least I don't think we're going to be, on the audience members. You can just tell a story. Sometimes it's distracting when they're right there ["Crinkling candy," Bryce interjects] and they're falling asleep or checking their texts. You can't in this theater. And at least I hope that's not the kind of behavior that's accepted in opera.

In a nutshell, if you're in the elevator with someone and they ask you, "Why should I go see MY FAIR LADY?" What would you say?

LO: Richard E. Grant, quite frankly. I feel like I've won the lottery. He's Richard E. Grant. He's so incredibly experienced, and he has so much under his belt. I don't think you'll have seen a Higgins like his. That for me would be reason enough...and the opera chorus is pretty remarkable... and I've never in my life sung with a 37-piece orchestra. It's like living inside of a movie. When we did our sitzprobe, it was just breathtaking.

BP: I would say it's like THE KING'S SPEECH meets CINDERELLA. [Lisa adds, "Except it's not Cinderella being rescued by Prince Charming. It is rags to riches, though."]

And it's Lisa O'Hare. [Lisa interjects with "You had to say that."] I've known Lisa was a star the minute we stepped into rehearsals for GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE. But Chicago will get to know that very soon before she gets swept back to New York, and you may never get a chance to see her in this city again.

See Lisa O'Hare and Bryce Pinkham in MY FAIR LADY at Lyric Opera, 20 North Wacker Drive, through May 21. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit LyricOpera.org.

Photos courtesy of Lyric Opera.


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