Two Fair Ladies, Taking on a Grand New Role

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Sally Ann Howes as Eliza Doolittle

Loverly: Sally Ann Howes took over the part of Eliza Doolittle from Julie Andrews in the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady. Friedman-Abeles/Photofest hide caption

itoggle caption Friedman-Abeles/Photofest
Marni Nixon, looking smudgy as Eliza Doolittle

Marni Nixon dubbed Audrey Hepburn's voice in the film -- and played Eliza onstage as well, in this 1964 My Fair Lady at New York's City Center. Alix Jeffrey/Photofest hide caption

itoggle caption Alix Jeffrey/Photofest

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Marni Nixon in mourning clothes as Mrs. Higgins.

Nixon as Mrs. Higgins; Trevor Nunn's remounting puts My Fair Lady's characters in mourning blacks after the death of the English monarch. Joan Marcus hide caption

itoggle caption Joan Marcus
Howes as Mrs. Higgins, clasping her hands.

Howes steps out of Nunn's production today, as the tour closes in Washington, D.C., and prepares to move to Chicago. Joan Marcus hide caption

itoggle caption Joan Marcus

After Sunday's matinee at the Kennedy Center here in Washington, D.C., the company of My Fair Lady packs its trunks and moves to Chicago. The tour began last fall in Florida and is scheduled to end this summer in Arizona.

The show, of course, has more mileage on it than just this year's: Julie Andrews earned her first Tony Award nomination for My Fair Lady after the show's Broadway premiere in 1956.

Sally Ann Howes took over the lead role of Eliza Doolittle when Andrews left the cast in 1958. Best known for playing Truly Scrumptious in the 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Howes is a film and stage veteran.

"In fact it's 50 years since I played Eliza," says Howes — who's been playing Prof. Henry Higgins' mother in this lavish Trevor Nunn production.

Howes has logged some 150 performances as the deliciously imposing dowager; Sunday's matinee is her last.

The woman who'll be stepping in to replace her as Mrs. Higgins has her own long-time connection to the show, and to Eliza. When My Fair Lady made its way to the big screen in 1964, audiences saw Audrey Hepburn playing the Cockney flower girl and heard her speak Eliza's lines.

But Marni Nixon sang the role — as she did for many movie musicals. Now she's getting ready to take over the part of Mrs. Higgins.

"I'm at the stage, at this moment, of being terrified," Nixon confesses. "Of not enough rehearsal, and Oh my gosh, what if I forget a line, or I do this, and I stumble here? But that always happens."

After all this time?

"Always — it gets worse!" Nixon laughs. "I think when you're younger, you just don't know what can happen!"

She's never toured as extensively as she will this year.

"I've never been out this long," Nixon says. "I feel like I'm going back to my beginnings or something."

Says Howes, about what she's shared with Nixon about playing Mrs. Higgins in a lavish, physically complicated production: "I've just been taking her around the backstage, and showing her where not to trip!"

NPR's Liane Hansen joined the actresses backstage at the Kennedy Center as Howes prepared to hand off the role to Nixon.

They talked about the mechanics of stepping into a part, about the freedom that comes from playing a character with no songs, about mining as much comedy as possible from a role — and about how some things never change.

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