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Allan Corduner on playing Pickering in the Broadway revival
Pompous phonetics professor Henry Higgins and his Cockney flower girl protégé Eliza Doolittle may have a will-they-or-won't-they relationship in My Fair Lady, but his pal Colonel Pickering is really his soul mate. Their bromance in on enchanting display in Bartlett Sher's Lincoln Center Theater revival of Lerner and Loewe's classic musical, based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion.
"They're overgrown schoolboys," says Allan Corduner who plays Pickering opposite Downton Abbey star Harry Hadden-Paton's Higgins. Pickering sets the plot in motion when he wagers that Higgins cannot make over Eliza (Lauren Ambrose) to pass as upper-crust. But as Higgins cruelly molds her into his idea of a lady, Pickering is careful to always treat her with kindness. "They're a double act: Pickering is the heart and Higgins is the head," says Corduner. "He's Higgins' moral conscience in a way. He really cares about Eliza. As she says to Higgins at the end, Pickering ' treats a flower girl as if she was a duchess.' He has genuine old-world manners, but he's also this sort of boy who's willing to place a bet on this woman. He's a complex cocktail, Pickering is."
Although Corduner previously appeared in Titanic on Broadway, he rarely does musicals. The Sweden-born, England-raised character actor started out in repertory theatre before becoming a familiar face on TV (including a recent stint on Homeland) and in movies (Defiance, Mike Leigh's Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy). But the sexagenarian performer actually turned down a dramatic stage role to take on Pickering. "I was already booked to do something else in America," he says. "Last year I had played Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express at New Jersey's McCarter Theatre and it was coming back to Hartford Stage this spring. But it was a no-brainer, really, as I had done it before and, much as I loved it, this was a big Broadway revival. I saw mileage in doing Pickering."
Corduner and Hadden-Paton's chemistry is evident throughout the show as their characters trade witticisms and criticisms, and sing and dance around Higgins' lavish parlor while tutoring Eliza (their "The Rain in Spain" is particularly delightful). But one of their most exuberant numbers, "You Did It," actually has an ugly undertone. Pickering leads it as a tribute to Higgins after Eliza is embraced as royalty at an embassy ball. But while Pickering and the servants applaud Higgins' accomplishment, no one congratulates Eliza. In fact, they ignore her. "That's the hardest scene for me," admits Corduner. "They're both like kids in their excitement at having achieved this impossible bet. But it's a very complicated scene and it's the most difficult for Pickering to square with the rest of the time. And yet it's very clear that Pickering is concerned about Eliza when she runs off. It doesn't derail his caring for her."
Director Sher has been very up front about trying to mount a more feminist My Fair Lady that's all about Eliza's journey. He's made some notable changes, such as casting actors around the same age as Eliza and Higgins (in the original, 21-year-old Julie Andrews played opposite 48-year-old Rex Harrison) and tweaking the ending (no spoilers).
Corduner believes these adjustments are not only smart, but actually make the show closer in spirit to the source material. "Shaw was an extraordinary champion of women's rights," he says. "He supported the women's suffrage movement and believed in the equality of the sexes. It's a play about class and gender, and I think that's why the musical is so enduring, not just because of the tunes but because of what it's about. Bart has also restored some of the text from Pygmalion between Higgins and Pickering that make the social content and the satire clearer."
All of this, Corduner insists, is necessary considering what's "swirling around" politically these days. "It's very timely because, you know, this is actually a woman standing up to men -- even though she's being manipulated by them," he says. "It's a very complicated scenario. I know Lauren and Bart didn't want her to be a victim in any way, and that's so important. You can't ignore what's going on in the world around us. I think in this production respects that enormously."
To read about a student's experience at My Fair Lady, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Top image: Harry Hadden-Paton, Lauren Ambrose and Allan Corduner in My Fair Lady. Photos by Joan Marcus.
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