Shereen Ahmed had just finished her gig as the lead singer on a cruise ship when she stepped off the boat in New York harbor to spend two weeks crashing on a friend’s couch and auditioning for everything she possibly could. Running from room to room at Pearl Studios, Ahmed was stopped by her friend. “She said, ‘Hey, no one’s in the room for the My Fair Lady open call’ because they were auditioning for Mrs. Pearce. ‘Why don’t you just go be seen by Telsey?’” Ahmed recalls. “I had no intention of booking the thing; I wanted to sing for myself really.”
But Ahmed got a callback, and then another—at Lincoln Center—to read for Eliza. It didn’t go well. “I was like, ‘Oh no, I did not book this. Well, I get to brag I was backstage at the Lincoln Center,’” Ahmed says. “That was enough for me. I totally won.” Or so she thought. That night Telsey casting called to offer her a role in the ensemble of the 2018 Lincoln Center Theater revival—she would later become the understudy for the leading role of Eliza Doolittle. The show marked her Broadway debut.
On the flip side was her fellow ensemblist and the understudy for Eliza’s father Alfred Doolittle, actor Adam Grupper. Broadway’s My Fair Lady marked Grupper’s 12th Main Stem credit. The two had gone on together a couple of performances during the Broadway run, but now, Ahmed leads the North American tour of the Bartlett Sher-directed revival as Eliza and Grupper plays Doolittle—both full-time. The tour kicked off December 19 and is currently announced through August 2020, with additional cities to be added.
“We’ve been onstage before together doing other people’s interpretations of these characters,” says Ahmed, but this new production has changed everything between the onstage father and daughter.
A New My Fair Lady
Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady has been an exemplar of the canon since it first premiered on Broadway in 1956. Sher’s interpretation highlights the beauty of a traditional My Fair Lady—in its lush costumes and luxurious sets—while emphasizing the political themes of its source material: Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. “I think there’s been a tendency to think of My Fair Lady as a champagne musical and to forget its underpinnings,” says Grupper. “To forget how subversive it was in so many ways about its understanding of social class and sexism and the way that all plays out within the context of Edwardian England. It’s a much more thought-provoking piece than I think a lot of people give it credit for.”
After all, the common flower girl Eliza Doolittle knocks on the door of famed linguist Henry Higgins to ask to pay for speech lessons so that she may become a florist in a proper shop. Higgins and his friend Colonel Pickering make a bet that, with his tutelage, Eliza can pass for royalty at the upcoming Embassy Ball.
“It wasn’t until this revival that I realized just how ambitious and hungry Eliza was to better her life,” says Ahmed. “Bart made that very clear from the get-go, that instead of this being an experiment on this girl plucked from Covent Garden, it was her story from the very beginning; it was her going to the professor’s house to chase this dream of hers and to better her life and to better herself.”
Simultaneously, Lerner and Loewe considered the moral quandary of the class system through Alfred P. Doolittle, a utilitarian man who enjoys the freedom of his poverty until his own wisdom unintentionally turns him into a wealthy man bogged down with responsibility.
On the Road
The tour adheres to the revival’s emphasis on class politics and Eliza’s agency, and yet, it, too, is a re-imagining. “[Bart] re-directed it for a new cast and a new production on the road,” says Grupper.
The show has been completely re-staged for proscenium theatres—since the Broadway production bowed in the thrust of the Vivian Beaumont. Grupper says this has further stressed Sher’s point about social structures, beginning with the opening number. In the smaller spaces, “there’s much more of a sense of the crush of humanity,” the actor says. “The show is all about pushing together different classes all in the same place, so to see that juxtaposition of costermongers and working girls and operagoers all intermingling in the same place and all being delighted by Higgins’ parlor trick he seems to be doing of identifying people by accents [in those first moments], it’s all cheek by jowl, and it makes the tension much more interesting.”
Re-staging aside, the entirely new principal cast—led by Ahmed and Laird Mackintosh as Eliza and Professor Henry Higgins—produces new versions of the characters and a singular alchemy.
“Bart directs to people in the room,” Ahmed says. “When he saw what I bring to the stage or to her role, what Laird brings to Higgins, what all of these incredible actors that we have on tour with us bring and our essence, he directs us for that and what our strengths are.”
For Ahmed and Grupper, their experience in the Broadway production gave them a head start on understanding the DNA of the production, the world that Sher envisioned, and the history of Edwardian England provided by visiting experts during the Broadway rehearsal process. “It was actually really informative, too, that I was in the ensemble because I get the world that Eliza’s living in and I was a part of that world that we were creating for Eliza,” says Ahmed.
But the previous experience as understudies feels separate from creating the parts now. “As a cover, you have to work within these boundaries. You’re stepping into someone else’s interpretation,” says Ahmed. “When I would go on for Norbert [Leo Butz] or Danny Burstein, I would say, ‘Thanks for letting me borrow the car keys,’” Grupper adds. “It’s very different to have that sense of ownership.
“I didn’t have the benefit of having worked directly with Bart about the character,” Grupper continues. “Everything I gleaned about it, I gleaned from whatever I could see onstage, whatever I could learn from his assistant, from stage managers, from whatever background I could find, but that’s not the same as inhabiting the role.”
Now, with the guidance of Sher, Ahmed and Grupper have found their own versions of their respective roles.
“She’s a little more pointed, a little bit more ignorant [to start],” says Ahmed of her Eliza. “She’s been a fighter from the start and she’s witty and she’s vulnerable.”
“Her acting is so supple and she is so effortless at going between these two polarities and playing the cockney Eliza who’s almost feral, and the ‘elevated’ Eliza who has to have the same measure of will and strengths,” Grupper notes of his co-star. Not to mention “this voice of incredible purity and power”—as he calls it—and her “intelligence and empathy and integrity.”
As for Grupper’s Doolittle, he embraces the “lovable, jolly, drunken scamp” the character has always been, but injects a subversiveness to him. “What he’s doing is not just pleasure-seeking for its own purpose, it’s a political act to be against the norms of Edwardian London,” he says. Grupper allows himself to be a bit uglier as Doolittle.
Eliza and Her Father
These takes on the roles alter the dynamic between Eliza and Doolittle—and, once again, Sher has altered his staging to accommodate. “In that final scene, both of them dolled up, they both see each other and they both barely recognize each other,” says Grupper, “but whereas Eliza has come up was through her own agency, Doolittle came up purely because of Higgins’ machinations—and that’s a very interesting contrast.
“In a lot of ways Doolittle becomes far more intimidated of Eliza than she is of him,” Grupper continues. A stark contrast to the Eliza who cowtows to her fathers demands for money, or who was forced to leave the house as a girl because of their abusive relationship.
On this tour, “our relationship’s turbulent, it’s confusing,” Ahmed adds of her character and Grupper’s. “From my point of view, [Eliza] feels a bit of bitterness.”
The Larger Lesson
Yet, there is nothing but love between these co-stars and their gratitude to be able to play these canonic roles, especially for Ahmed. “Being Middle Eastern, especially being a Middle Eastern woman, we’re stuck in these stereotypes of either over-sexualized harem or completely powerless women that there’s not much out there,” says Ahmed. She relishes stepping into a role that has absolutely nothing to do with her race, color, or ethnicity.
“It feels entirely empowering to know that I can kind of carry a torch across the country to change that perception of what Middle Eastern women are capable of,” she says.
Looking at Eliza and Doolittle, hearing Ahmed and Grupper, their own stories mirror aspects of their characters: Grupper a man who’s been around the block and appreciates the position he’s ascended to, Ahmed a woman with agency marching in to claim her dream. And it shows.
“Those class issues were so turbulent at the time [that for Eliza] to walk into this upper class house in the most beautiful neighborhood in London… I kind of pull some of how I walked into that open call completely like an imposter,” she sighs. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘What am I doing here? But I’m going to do it anyway and crash this call.’ And now…I use it.”