When I heard that Molly Smith was bringing My Fair Lady to Arena Stage this season, a friend of mine and I had a conversation of “Let’s cast the show.” When it came to the role of Mrs. Higgins we both agreed that Catherine Flye would be perfect for the role. I am so glad to see that Molly Smith agreed!
Joel: How did you get involved in Arena Stage’s production of My Fair Lady?
Catherine: I auditioned and was fortunate enough to get cast.
Introduce us to Mrs. Higgins. How do you relate to her, and how is she Catherine Flye-like? And why did you want to play her?
I believe that every actor has a core which is present in every part he or she plays. I think it is that core that stays constant because there is nothing you can do about it! So I guess there is a part of Mrs. Higgins that is also a part of Catherine Flye… It’s hard for me to see exactly what that is but I am sure there is a part of her that is a part of me. Perhaps this is for others to say. I certainly enjoy playing her.
You get to play Benedict Campbell’s mother in the show. How would you describe Mrs. Higgins’ relationship with Henry? What is it about Henry that Mrs. Higgins admires, and what is it about Henry she wishes he would change?
Mrs. Higgins loves her son dearly but is not blind to his faults and is not intimidated by him at all. She is the voice of reason and says what she thinks so in that way she is very like her son. They both have the same strength. She knows that Henry is intelligent and has a great gift with language but it is a great sadness to her that her son has not married and had a family. She realizes however that his volatile personality and unsociable behavior makes the prospect unlikely. This is not Shaw speaking, but I believe Henry is her only child and that her husband died a long time ago, so she was the driving force in his growing up years. She always tells him the truth and is ever hopeful that her wise counsel will prevail.
What do you admire most about Benedict Campbell’s performance as Henry Higgins?
It’s hard to separate Ben’s performance into categories because in my book it is complete, inspiring and quite wonderful.
You recently played Mrs. Bennet in Round House Theatre’s production of Pride and Prejudice. When I interviewed you (after you received a Helen Hayes nomination) you described her as “a batty eccentric Brit” and that you had “come across quite a few of them in my time!”
Do Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Higgins share similar characteristics and qualities, and have you come across quite a few of Mrs. Higgins in your lifetime? Did you base your performance of Mrs. Higgins on a friend or relative, and if so – who?
I’m glad to say that Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Higgins are completely different characters. Mrs. Bennet is not intelligent, comes from the middle class, and is somewhat silly albeit endearing. Mrs. Higgins is bright, intelligent, strong, sensible, witty and part of the upper class. I have met women similar to Mrs. Higgins but did not focus my thoughts on anyone in particular. I am however, a huge fan of Maggie Smith, and I confess that her performance in Downton Abbey gave me a clue to the right accent and demeanor for Mrs. Higgins, although Mrs. Higgins has none of the acidic and self opinionated qualities of the Dowager Countess of Grantham.
Have you ever appeared in another production of My Fair Lady or Pygmalion, which My Fair Lady is based on? And who did you play?
I played Eliza in My Fair Lady in the UK before I came to the States.
Why do you think My Fair Lady is still so loved and so popular 55 years after it opened on Broadway?
It is a brilliantly crafted romantic musical based on a brilliantly written play. On top of that the songs are melodic, toe-tapping and clever and spring naturally out of the dialogue rather than stopping the action or giving a chance to “bring on the dancing girls.” The story is quite compelling and just right to give people a chance to escape from the doom and gloom that seems to surround a lot of the world at this time.
Have you worked with Molly Smith before? What impresses you about her style of direction for this production?
This is the first time I have worked with Molly and it’s been a total delight. She has extraordinary insight, is a fun human being who creates a nurturing environment and her attention to detail and innate knowledge of what works is inspiring.
What have been some challenges of performing your scenes in the round in The Fichandler? Do you enjoy performing in the round?
There is a great sense of freedom playing in the round. It is certainly a different animal because the action needs constant movement so that every side gets drawn in and you have to learn to lift your head up, throw your voice to the top of the tiers and angle your body in a different way. I really do enjoy it.
What has Costume Designer Judith Bowden designed for you for the show? Which ‘creation’ is your favorite?
The detail that Judith has brought to her designs for these glorious creations make them a joy to wear. I love both my “made to measure” costumes but am particularly fond of the gown in the second act – a gorgeous, green silk paisley floating coat and cream under-dress. I feel like a million dollars in it!
The score for My Fair Lady is adored by theatregoers, but there is no song for Mrs. Higgins. If you could write a song for her, where in the story would you want her to break out in song – and what title would you give it?
The fact that Mrs. Higgins doesn’t have a song is absolutely right. She is down to earth and the voice of reason which does much for the balance of the show. In my opinion, if she suddenly burst out into song, then the structure of the musical would be the poorer. Lerner and Loewe knew what they were doing. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have liked the chance to sing again but it would not have been right in this role.
What makes this production of My Fair Lady so special and unique?
Because there will never be another production like it anywhere. That’s the name of the game for every play that is ever produced. However, I shall always remember the joy, vitality, and reality of Molly’s My Fair Lady, and the huge acclaim from the audiences at every performance.
The My Fair Lady cast is filled with local veterans and many talented young actors and singers. Have you worked with any of them before?
I have known Sherri for a long time and we have worked together before in Design for Living at The Shakespeare Theatre. It’s lovely being with her again and sharing a dressing room. I knew her husband Tom too but had never shared a stage with him until now. Apart from my two buddies I knew no one else. The young talented actors throw themselves heart and soul into every tiny moment with such energy and enthusiasm, it amazing to watch. I’m so glad to have met them.
You are an actress, writer, director, and playwright. Is there anything else you haven’t done yet in the theatre that you’d like to give a try?
I think I have been incredibly lucky to be working in all those areas and I can’t think of anything else I would like to do — except to keep on doing it!
What’s next for you on the stage after My Fair Lady closes?
I’m going to be playing Mistress Quickly in Henry V at The Folger.
What do you want audiences to take with them when they leave the Fichandler after seeing My Fair Lady?
I think there is nothing more rewarding than making people feel good when they leave the theatre. It’s obvious from the audience reactions that this production does just that. I think that says it all.
CATHERINE FLYE (Mrs. Higgins) graduated from London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and has worked extensively as a writer, director and actor. In Washington she has played many principal roles at the Shakespeare Theatre, Folger, MetroStage, Studio, Round House, Ford’s Theatre and the Kennedy Center. As Artistic Director of Interact Theatre Company, she has written over 50 commissioned plays and entertainments, several of which have been seen at Arena’s Old Vat, including Shirley Valentine, Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush, and her critically acclaimed tribute to Joyce Grenfell – in George Don’t Do That!She has been nominated for 13 Helen Hayes Awards for acting and directing and received the award for her production of The Pirates of Penzance. Following Mrs. Higgins, she will be playing Mistress Quickly in Henry V at the Folger.
My Fair Lady plays through January 6, 2013 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for the American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.