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Richard E. Grant has grown accustomed to ‘My Fair Lady’ role

Richard E. Grant attends a 'Logan' special screening at Lincoln Center on February 24, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)

“There even are places where English completely disappears; in America they haven’t used it for years.”

The words are those of that fictional British grammarian Professor Henry Higgins, sung-spoken in the iconic musical “My Fair Lady.” It is a contextual moment that almost always elicits laughter from audiences, courtesy of the words and music of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “Why Can’t the English?” (in their show based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”). It’s a song quite indicative of Higgins and his elitist worldview;  after all, he will soon undertake the task of transforming a lowly Cockney flowergirl into a proper British lady, he will.

‘MY FAIR LADY’
When: April 28-May 21
Where: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker
Info/tickets: lyricopera.org/myfairlady

The 1956 Tony Award-winning musical — rich with a host of memorable songs including “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “On the Street Where You Live” — would go on to become a 1964 Oscar-winning film starring Rex Harrison (reprising his stage role) and Audrey Hepburn. It would be revived numerous times on Broadway over the years, most notably with Harrison again stepping into the role in 1981 (he also toured with the production, which included a Chicago stop at the Arie Crown Theatre), and later with Richard Chamberlain stepping into Higgins’ tweed ensemble. Yet another Broadway revival is slated for 2018 (no casting has been announced).

Lisa O’Hare as Eliza Doolittle and Richard E. Grant as Prof. Henry Higgins in Lyric Opera’s production of “My Fair Lady.” | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2017

Closer to home, Olivier Fredj directs Robert Carsen’s production at Lyric Opera of Chicago, in its American premiere. The musical stars Richard E. Grant as Higgins, Lisa O’Hare as Eliza Doolittle, Nicholas Le Prevost as Col. Pickering, Donald Maxwell as Alfred Doolittle and Bryce Pinkham as Freddy Eynsford-Hill.

Grant is perhaps most familiar to American audiences for his work in film (“The Age of Innocence,” “L.A. Story” and most recently “Jackie” and “Logan” ) and television, where his credits include “Game of Thrones”  and “Downton Abbey,” in which he portrayed the giddy art historian Simon Bricker, who falls madly in love with Elizabeth McGovern’s Lady Cora.

Like Harrison, Grant is revisiting the role of Higgins, having first starred in the musical in a 2010 version at the Sydney Opera House. The Lyric and Sydney productions are entirely different, he says, but that signature sing-speak made famous by Harrison remains in place and remains challenging.

“I’m an actor by profession and this is the only musical I’ve ever done,” Grant says during a recent chat. “The beauty of this role is that it was written for an actor, not a singer, which is why so many actors have been able to do it. The vocal range is about 10 notes, truly. … I did take singing lessons to prepare myself to do this, however, so I could stay in tune.”

Staying in tune might be surprising to some, considering all of Higgins’ “singing” comes off more like “speech.”

“You have to keep your voice in shape because you have to really enunciate sharply and you can’t fall back on singing, because you’re not.”

As for that enunciation, Grant says he did have to adjust his dialect (he was born in Mbabane, Swaziland) somewhat to better capture that of Higgins.

“The way I speak is classified as ‘RP’ — or received pronunciation, in England. In order to play Higgins, I’m actually [affecting]  ‘BBC’ English, if you will. I have consciously tried to make the diction very precise, more so than it would normally be. And especially in an opera house in a country that isn’t England.”

Grant is also keen that audiences not expect a “familiar” representation of Higgins in the Lyric production.

“While the role of Higgins was quite appealing to me, I was also very determined not to try and do a poor man’s version of Rex Harrison, because there’s only one Rex Harrison — and he got an Oscar for it, and he created the role on stage some 60 years ago.

“I went back to the original character description in the script that describes Higgins as being a boy-man, given to adolescent, explosive bursts of temper and petulance and great passion. So, you see, he is quite adolescent, but no matter what he says it’s never with malice, it’s always with a passion for trying to get something right. And that’s somehow very endearing about this character. You can see it, for example, when Eliza does the whole ‘Rain in Spain’ correctly and [Higgins] is like a 5-year-old who won the Christmas tree at Macy’s.

“Harrison chose not to do [that interpretation]. His Higgins strikes me more as a misogynistic, upper-class bully from beginning to end. I felt for audience to watch that in 2017 was not very interesting. There has to be a transformation for this man. In the same way ‘Pygmalion’ is based on a Greek sculptor who fell in love with the statue he was forming, as Eliza is transformed and changes, so does Higgins. … I’ve meticulously charted the transformation he goes through, that he must go through. Of course, while Eliza’s transformation is more outward, Higgins’ is much more [on the inside], but it is there.”

Elizabeth McGovern as Cora and Richard E. Grant as Simon Bricker,  in season 5 of “Downton Abbey.” |  Copyright Nick Briggs/Carnival Films 2014 for MASTERPIECE

Grant recalls his four-episode story arc on “Downton Abbey” as interesting (he had worked with much of the cast years earlier in “The Scarlet Pimpernel”) and one particular moment as unexpectedly realistic.

“There were 18 takes of the scene where Hugh [Bonneville, as the Earl of Grantham] justifiably punches me when I try to steal Lady Cora’s heart. On the final take, he cracked my rib. So the agony you see on the screen was very real. [Laughing] Hugh was so sorry.”

As for “Game of Thrones,” Grant said it was, on one level, a case of going home again.

“The two creators of the show had been fans of [my first] film ‘Withnail & I’ [which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year], in which I played a drug-addicted, out-of-work actor. They said they’d been trying to find a role to pay homage to that character. So they asked me if I wanted to play this over-the-top, touring, bitter, hammy actor. [Laughs] And I said, ‘Of course I’m going to do that!’ “