My Fair Lady: in conversation with soprano singer Lesley Garrett CBE

As the world-famous musical prepares to hit the stage at The Bristol Hippodrome in February, we sit down with renowned soprano singer Lesley Garrett CBE as she gets ready to slip into the life of Mrs Pearce…

Following its critically acclaimed West End run, the Lincoln Center Theater’s multi-award-winning production of My Fair Lady is coming to The Bristol Hippodrome next month, running from 15 – 25 February.

This glorious production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s world-famous musical features the much-loved classic songs I Could Have Danced All Night, Get Me to the Church on Time, Wouldn’t It Be Loverly, On the Street Where You Live, The Rain in Spain, and I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face. Directed by Bartlett Sher (The King and I, To Kill A Mockingbird), this sublime production features Loewe’s ravishing score and book and lyrics by Lerner.

My Fair Lady is a beautiful musical about transformation, patronage, gender politics and class, based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion. The story follows acclaimed professor and confirmed bachelor Henry Higgins as he makes a wager with his linguistic colleague Colonel Pickering that in six months he can transform a Cockney working-class girl into someone who can pass for a cultured member of high society. Drama quickly ensues.

The musical first hit the stage on Broadway in 1956 and soon became a notable success, winning six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It set a record for the longest run of any musical on Broadway up to that time and was followed by a hit London production. Rex Harrison and 20-year-old Julie Andrews starred in both productions. Many revivals have since followed, and the 1964 film adaptation, strarring Audrey Hepburn, won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

As the production prepares to take to the stage at The Bristol Hippodrome, bringing with it an extraordinarily talented cast, which includes the likes of Michael D. Xavier (Outlander) and Adam Woodyatt (Eastenders), we sit down with world-renowned soprano singer Lesley Garrett CBE, who will playing Mrs Pearce. Boasting an extensive career in music and theatre, Garrett is a living legend in her own right. Here, she explains what first attracted her to the role and why the production still resonates with audiences today…

Tell us about the new production of My Fair Lady, how rehearsals have been and what Bristol audiences can expect from the first major revival in 21 years…

This production of Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady originated in the Lincoln Centre in New York, before it transferred to Broadway. The score is a masterpiece and the production is one of the best I’ve ever seen or been involved with. No expense has been spared on the beautiful costumes and sets. The audience can expect a high-class show.

What first attracted you to the role of Mrs. Pearce?
I was attracted to the role of Mrs Pearce because she is a powerful force of nature. She runs Professor Higgins’s household and life with consummate authority and it very much appealed to me to play a character like that. I feel I am the right age and, as I’ve got bossier as I’ve got older, the casting makes perfect sense. My only disappointment is that she doesn’t have more to sing, but I can’t imagine playing a more wonderful character.

What’s it like working alongside this cast of brilliantly talented actors and creatives, including director Bartlett Sher?
All of the players in this production are of the highest quality. I really have to act and sing my socks off to keep up with any one of them. The ensemble have had the advantage of doing the London run at the London Coliseum with the English National Opera Orchestra. I’ve never met an ensemble with more depth of talent. They are an extraordinary group of people and we have really become like family.

The cast are all newcomers to their parts, and we have benefited enormously from the experience and help of our colleagues on stage. Myself and the rest of new cast had about a week working with our director Bartlett Sher. It was an absolute My Fair Lady crash course, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

How does the revival differ from the original production starring Julie Andrews and the 1964 film adaptation with Audrey Hepburn?
Bartlett researched the piece very carefully. He went back to the original George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion, and its film adaptation, starring Leslie Howard, before he looked at the musical version. He studied the Hollywood film with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, and concluded he would need to make the show more faithful to Shaw’s original feminist ideal if it was going to appeal to a modern day audience. Shaw had written the three main female roles – Eliza, Mrs Higgins and Mrs Pearce – as very strong, determined and self-possessed characters. Shaw’s men by contrast – Professor Higgins, Colonel Pickering, Alfred Dolittle and Freddie Einsford-Hill – are often weak, self-obsessed and rather flawed. He has been very faithful to Shaw’s original play and, of course, the wonderful book and score of Lerner and Lowe.

Why do you think the show is so successful in resonating with audiences even today?
The music in My Fair Lady is sublime. The lyrics, the tunes, the orchestration – everything about it is faultless. Every single song is a hit and is well known to every member of the audience. It is a classic of its kind and in a class of its own. George Bernard Shaw was a genius and championed feminist ideals well before his time. Women are still fighting for parity in this world. Even in the UK, we are still struggling for equal pay. In other parts of the world, things are even harder for womankind. The story of a young woman who fights her way out of class-ridden poverty is timeless, and so is this show.

What are you most looking forward to when the production arrives at Bristol Hippodrome?
We are all very much looking forward to presenting our My Fair Lady in the Hippodrome, for the people of Bristol and the south west. I’ve performed many times in Bristol and I know the audiences are both enthusiastic and discerning. The Bristol Hippodrome is a fine old Edwardian theatre and was actually built only a year before Pygmalion was first staged, so I am sure My Fair Lady will sit perfectly on its stage.

After a hugely successful career, could you tell us about your first memory of music and where your love for singing first began?
I was lucky enough to be born in Thorne, on the South Yorkshire coalfield, into a community and a family full of music. My relatives were mostly miners and railwaymen. There were brass bands, choirs, amateur operatic societies and the music of all kinds in clubs and schools, and particularly in my home. I can’t remember when I didn’t sing or express myself through music, and I know I will be the same until my last breath.

My Fair Lady is running from 15 – 25 February at The Bristol Hippodrome. Book your tickets at: | Photography by Marc Brenner