The role of Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady" is one of the relatively few that justifies the label "iconic."
Julie Andrews created Eliza on Broadway and subsequently in London's West End in the 1950s. Audrey Hepburn usurped the role, even though her singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon for the 1964 film. (Don't weep for Andrews -- it left her free to play, and win an Oscar for, "Mary Poppins.")
You don't approach such a role lightly, agrees Madeline Powell, who is playing Eliza on the national tour of the critically acclaimed Lincoln Center Theater production, onstage (under the auspices of Celebrity Attractions) Friday-Sunday at Little Rock's Robinson Center Performance Hall.
"I spent a lot of time researching the source material," she says, including going back to George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion," on which Alan Jay Lerner (music) and Frederick Loewe (book and lyrics) based the musical, seeking Shaw's influences and motivations for why he wrote what he wrote. She also spent a lot of time and effort watching various versions of the story.
For those few coming to the show for the first time, Shaw's play is based on the mythical tale of Pygmalion and Galatea, a fabled sculptor who falls in love with his statue of a beautiful young woman and petitions the goddess Aphrodite to bring it to life. Shaw created, in that image, Eliza, an intensely Cockney flower seller, and linguist Henry Higgins, martinet and confirmed bachelor, who as on a bet with a colleague agrees to mold her speech and demeanor so profoundly that he'll be able to pass her off a duchess at an embassy ball. Loewe's book for the musical incorporates much of Shaw's original dialogue.
Powell says she worked, not just by herself, but with the touring show's creative team, which includes Bartlett Sher, who directed the production that debuted in the spring of 2018 at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York, and also directed the current touring production (with help from tour director Samantha Saltzman and tour choreographer Jim Cooney). And also with Jonathan Grunert, who plays Higgins.
"People think he changed a lot," Powell says of Sher's vision for the show, "but actually, his iteration worked to restore [Shaw's] original intention and the text."
Powell was among who-knows-how-many actresses who auditioned in New York to land the coveted role for the tour. She certainly doesn't know how many. "That's a good question," she says. "I've never been given the numbers. But they cast a huge net to try to find an Eliza. This time last year, everyone I knew who was a soprano was trying to land this."
She adds that she has learned a lot on tour, supplementing her training at Oklahoma City University's famed musical theater program, from which she graduated in 2021, to adapt to balance performances and a rugged touring schedule: "How to warm up properly, how to rest properly, what to eat before a show so it settles well in my stomach."
(Speaking of eating, Powell reveals that all the prop items Eliza puts into her mouth in this production, including the chocolates Eliza loves and the marbles Higgins uses to improve her diction, are really grapes, cut into various shapes that, among other things, reduces the hazard that she'll choke on one.)
The current tour is in its final weeks before shutting down for the summer, and Powell says it is expected to re-launch in September and October, but she won't be with it when it does. She has been auditioning as auditions become available throughout the season, and "we'll see what's to come when this is finished."
'My Fair Lady
What: National tour of Bartlett Shers Lincoln Center Theater production — music by Frederick Loewe, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, adapted from George Bernard Shaws play "Pygmalion" and Gabriel Pascals 1938 motion picture version thereof
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: Robinson Center Performance Hall, 426 W. Markham St. at Broadway, Little Rock
Presenter: Celebrity Attractions
Sponsor: Goldman Sachs
Information: (501) 244-8800; CelebrityAttractions.com; Ticketmaster.com
CORRECTION: The curtain time for the Saturday night performance of “My Fair Lady” at Robinson Center Performance Hall is 8 p.m. A previous version of this story listed an incorrect time.