When searching for the actor to play Henry Higgins in his latest revival of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady, director Bartlett Sher required someone to “embody all of the power, intellect, privilege, and entitlement of the patriarchy” and yet “find someone enormously charming.” And so he found Harry Hadden-Paton.
“Harry is enormously charming and a wonderful figure and quite a creation,” says Sher—so charming that television has kept him in close-ups for years. In fact, the monstrous role marks Hadden-Paton’s Broadway debut. Yet the actor proves he’s no novice, bringing a fresh nuance to the part and proving Eliza isn’t the only person evolving. “It’s sort of two different plays,” says the actor. “There’s the one where it’s her transformation; a lesser piece would end with that. But then you get after the ball, the fight, her disappearance, and it goes into a completely different play, and that’s when Higgins’ emotional journey really takes off.
“For someone obsessed with language and phonetics and that is it, he’s shut off to emotional things,” says Hadden-Paton. “Just seeing him go on that learning curve of how his behavior affects other people, I this is really interesting and educational and heartbreaking, eventually, when he realizes what he’s done all his life. I wanted to get that across.”
To convey change, Hadden-Paton first had to create the cold man. Digging into texts by phoneticist Henry Sweet he found the self-important and self-centered man, but infused it with athleticism and passion. “Shaw said, ‘If Sweet had Higgins physique and temperament, he would have set the Thames on fire,’” he recalls from his research.
His masterful performance matches the intricate set that is Higgins’ study—which he contributed to and also draws from in creating the professor. “I have been able to say, ‘What if he has a pulley system so he didn’t have to carry his books down from the balcony all the time?’” says Hadden-Paton. It’s the scientist in Higgins he wanted to evoke.
But Hadden-Paton balances intellect and introspection, acting power and musicality, particularly in Higgins many solo songs, as he switches from melodious song to the more traditional Higgins speak-sing. “I imagine everyone who tackled this role says ‘I’m going to be the first one to sing it all,’ and so I did, but somehow it’s better when some of it is spoken,” he admits. “It makes more sense, and it’s more of a contrast to her, I think.”
On the occasion of his first role on Broadway, we asked Hadden-Paton to tell us more about the important firsts on his theatrical path and his My Fair Lady journey:
What was the first piece of theatre you saw that hooked you into this life?
Harry Hadden-Paton: I remember going to see Starlight Express almost every birthday I had as a treat because I just loved it and the idea that you could rollerskate in a sort of scary old theatre… It was sort of a novel concept. Then I remember when I was at drama school I saw a performance by students from a different drama school of a Frank McGinnis play called Someone to Watch Over Me at the Edinburgh Festival. It was three kids in their 20s and that rocked me to my core and made me reexamine it all and go, “Okay. That’s what I want to do.”
What was the first musical theatre album you remember owning?
It was probably Grease. I watched that over and over, and actually my dad knew a guy who played the piano in the orchestra. I would go off with this guy and he would sit me in the box and I’d go and watch. I got offered the part of Danny Zuko at university. I turned it down and I said, ‘No. I’m going to go and do Shakespeare.’ I turned down Danny Zuko for Paris in Romeo and Juliet.
What was your first professional job?
It was the Oscar-winning movie La Vie en Rose. I did a degree in French and Spanish before I went to drama school and as a result I could speak French well enough to get past the casting director. I remember I cried when my agent told me.
When was the first time you saw a version of My Fair Lady?
I remember seeing a school production, an all-girls school production [when I was young]. But I did see—and it really struck me—the late, great Tim Pigott Smith and Michelle Dockery doing Pygmalion at the Old Vic. That was amazing. I remember being rocked to the core by that. The sense of her loss, her not fitting anywhere, was what I took from it.
What came to the surface for you the first time you read the script?
I was struck by the journey that Higgins goes on; that wasn’t one of the sensations I was left with in previous iterations. I don’t know whether the script was different or because when you’re reading a script to audition for something you’re basically looking at one part—you get to focus on it. I got a clear sense of who he was and actually that he’s going through a lot more than I remember having seen before.
How did you first hear you got the role?
[After my audition in London] I came over for a second audition with [director] Bart [Sher] and the estates of Lerner and Loewe [et al]. I turned up and did it and literally went straight back to my hotel room. My agent rang there—it must have been 15 minutes later.
Is there a first scene or moment you most look forward to playing out each night?
The end of Act 1, when we’re nervous before the ball. It’s the most satisfying thing. Pickering and I are squabbling and [Eliza] comes out [transformed]. The first time we heard the music on the piano in a tiny rehearsal room, we all blubbed and it was so beautiful.
What was your very first preview—your first performance on Broadway—like?
To be honest, I don’t remember. I was knackered, very nervous. But it was very free and I think that’s what makes great theatre.
What was it like to see your name in a Playbill for the very first time?
I feel very fortunate that so many people have given me the opportunity to do this role when, I imagine, there were hundreds of movie stars who could have been offered it. I’m really grateful to the power that be that they took a chance on me.
What is your first thought when you make your entrance and your last thought when you take your bow?
“Don’t drop the pencil.” Because I enter with my notepad in Covent Garden. You go on a map of thoughts. “Don’t drop the pencil. Now find the Northwest London accent you want. These flower girls might help.” And I’m just very proud at the end. Seeing Lauren’s smiling face and running towards an audience who seem to have enjoyed it is unlike anything else in the world, really.