In Part 1 of a series of interviews with the director and cast members of Damascus Theatre Company’s My Fair Lady, meet Brian Lyons-Burke.
Joel: Where have our readers seen you perform on our local stages?
Brian: I am Brian Lyons-Burke, and I will be Professor Henry Higgins. Most recently, I was in the Sandy Springs Theatre Group production of The Producers as Roger DeBris. That role was my first appearance on stage in 27 years. Those with long memories may have seen me in a variety of roles such as The Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance, Florian in Princess Ida, The Learned Judge in Trial By Jury, Owen Turner in Light Up The Sky, Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar, Big Harpe in The Robber Bridegroom and St. John the Baptist in Godspell for a number of different groups, including the Washington Savoyards, The Victorian Lyric Opera Company, Rockville Little Theatre, and Silver Spring Stage.
Have you appeared in a production of My Fair Lady?
No, this is my first appearance in My Fair Lady.
Who do you play in the show and how do you relate to him?
I play Professor Henry Higgins. I share with him a love of language, and there is a playful nature hiding beneath his persona – much of his behavior is intentionally satiric and sardonic. At the same time, he uses his mannerisms to keep the world at arm’s length and to protect himself from being vulnerable. As an actor, I can relate to adopting a role that you expose to others.
What is it about your character that audiences will like about your character and what may they not like. What do you enjoy most about your character and what do you not like about him?
In many ways, Higgins is – how shall I say it – a bit of an ass. He is rude, self-centered, and unconcerned with the feelings of others. On the surface, he is not a “likeable” character. What the audience will connect with is his tendency to “mess with” others, which is often for his own amusement, and can be quite entertaining to watch. He also has a vulnerable side, which he hides, and which steadily becomes more and more apparent through the show. I hope to help the audience see through this façade and connect with him as a fully formed and flawed person.
What I enjoy most about Higgins is that he has no regard for the strict class structure of the Victorian culture in which he lives. He refuses to treat people differently simply due to their position in society. He sees possibility in everyone, and views language as an artificial barrier that separates “soul from soul, and class from class.” In many ways, he is a true egalitarian, which was exceedingly rare in upper crust London at that time.
What I like least is the manner in which he implements this attitude. He treats almost everyone rudely, with little regard to their feelings or concerns. Of course I would prefer to see him treat everyone with respect and consideration, but it is his rudeness and irascible nature that makes him interesting, and in many ways, the most honest character in the show.
What are your solos or big numbers in the show and what do we learn about your character during these songs?
“Why Can’t the English” – where we learn of Higgins love for the English language and distain for the barriers between classes embodied in the various dialectic differences seen in England.
“I’m an Ordinary Man” – where we find that Higgins has a deep and abiding fear of romantic entanglement, and is “a confirmed old bachelor, and likely to remain so.”
“Hymn to Him” – Why can’t a woman be more like a man? What more can one say?
“I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” – Finally we see to the heart of Higgins, and Higgins comes face to face with his own – surprising – feelings.
What have been some of the challenges learning and preparing for your role and how did your director help you to solve these challenges?
The first challenge has been the sheer size of the role. This is by far the largest role I have ever tackled, and Higgins is a bit of a chatterbox. He loves language and loves to declaim, both in song and speech. This is not a role that you can cheat with – the words are important, and have a nuance to them that deserves to be exposed. Added to that is the need to adopt a consistent and believable accent.
The next challenge has been making Higgins a real person, and bringing my own interpretation to his character. This is a very familiar and beloved show, and it would be far too easy to fall into an imitation of Rex Harrison’s performance. There is a depth to the role, and to the musical itself, that has surprised and delighted me. Stephanie has been wonderful at nudging me in new directions, and in providing insight into the character, the dialogue, and the interactions that will make my performance better and have helped me grow as an actor.
Another real challenge has been to live up to the quality of the others in the company. This is truly a very talented collection of individuals, in all aspects of the production.
Which song that you don’t sing is your favorite?
“With a Little Bit of Luck”- it’s fun and witty, and Doolittle is a pure delight.
Which character is most like you and why?
I almost hate to admit it, but that would be Henry Higgins. Hopefully with a little bit less of the qualities that make him unlikeable!
How would you describe the score of My Fair Lady?
Perhaps iconoclastic is the right word. It is one of the most familiar and beloved scores in the history of musical theatre, with the power to amuse, excite, and touch us, soaring from the silly to the sublime.
What do you think My Fair Lady has to say to the new generation of young theatregoers?
Here is a world gone by, a time in the past, that was parent to our age. And here is an entertainment that is timeless and still speaks to what divides and what unites, and does so in a manner that is the epitome of entertainment.
What have you learned about yourself as an actor/singer during this experience?
Every moment has been a learning experience. I consider myself to be a complete novice, with a huge amount to learn, and a vast potential for growth. This experience has helped me to believe that I can do more than simply provide a comic caricature to evoke laughter, that I can bring depth to my performance. It also has taught me how much more I need to learn.
What other shows would you like to direct in the future and why do you like these shows?
I assume this was meant to ask in what roles I would like to perform? To be honest I have never attempted direction, nor do I feel capable of that at this point.
Generally, I love musical theatre, and a role in such shows as Les Miserables, Victor/Victoria, and Fiddler on the Roof would be wonderful. I have always loved these shows, and see roles in them that would be fun, challenging, and would play to my strengths. I would also like a chance to work with classical Shakespearian roles – I love the use of language and the characters – and intend to seek out more “serious” drama. But in the end, what I seek is that pact we build with an audience, and the chance to successfully deliver my side of that relationship.
Why should theatregoers come to see this production, and what makes it so unique and special?
This is one of the greatest musicals in history, delivered by a highly talented company. This is a work of love – that is why we do this, that is what we bring. This is not only a chance to see a high quality production, but a chance to help support local theatre. And it’s in 3D. No glasses required!
My Fair Lady plays from November 14-23, 2014 at Damascus Theatre Company performing at The Historic Stage at Olney Theatre Center-2001 Olney-