While originating the role of King Francis in a musical adaptation of the film Ever After at Paper Mill Playhouse, Charles Shaughnessy is also rehearsing the part of Henry Higgins for Theatre by the Sea's upcoming production of Lerner and Lowe's My Fair Lady. It's Shaughnessy's third time playing the domineering phoneticist, making the double load seem almost manageable — until you realize that Paper Mill is in New Jersey, while Theatre by the Sea is nestled in South Kingstown, Rhode Island.
But Shaughnessy isn't fazed by having such far-flung projects. He described both opportunities as "irresistible": Ever After, for the experience of building a new show and working with a cast that includes the likes of Christine Ebersole, Tony Sheldon, and Margo Seibert; and My Fair Lady, because he just can't get enough of Henry Higgins. Using tools like Skype to digitally participate in rehearsals that he can't attend physically, Shaughnessy is able to effectively split his time between the two shows. Fortunately for his audiences, he's open to using the wonders of technology to spread his Maxwell Sheffieldian charm across the North-Atlantic.
This is your third time playing Henry Higgins. What are you looking forward to about this production of My Fair Lady?
It never gets old. It's just such a perfect show. The dialogue is so great, the book is so fantastic, the music's fantastic. It's one of those happy chances that Lerner and Lowe took this very complex political play by George Bernard Shaw and saw in it potential for this very lovely, lush piece. But they kept a lot of the obscurity, you know: What is the relationship between these two? It's not romantic. They never kiss. There's never any suggestion that they are in love. In fact, she says I don't want to be with you romantically and he agrees. So what does he see in her? And what does she see in him? It's just a role that you can never say you've got it covered. It's not done. It's always gonna have layers to peel off.
[And Theatre by the Sea] is just a beautiful place. I understand a lot of the cast on matinee days finish the matinee, go for a dip in the Atlantic, and come back and do the second show. The only downside is it may be a bit hot and sticky in all those tweeds and sort of heavy English wool suits, but we'll deal with that.
What can audiences expect from this particular Higgins?
I think that there's a kind of innate charm to him. It's the charm of an overgrown schoolboy. It's a manchild of the most annoying sort. He's a bully, he's arrogant, he's selfish, he's domineering, but he has absolutely no idea he's any of those things. And there's something very winning about that. No matter how dreadful someone is, if they believe they're a beacon of light in a world of darkness, that's a fascinating thing.
What is it like making both this and Ever After happen simultaneously?
[Ever After] has been a great. It's the first time I've ever originated a role in a new musical. And to work with this sort of talent, I mean it's just a crazy cast, so it's just been a really great experience. And we've got the show up and audiences are loving it. And we'll see what happens. It closes on the 21st and then who knows, it may have life after that.
[Then] on my days off and days when we just have an evening show, I go into New York on the train and rehearse My Fair Lady with the principals. Meanwhile, the ensemble and everyone else is rehearsing in Rhode Island. It's like assembling a really expensive car, [like] upper line Maseratis where you make the engine in one place and the chassis in another, and the leather upholstery in some sort of specialized upholstery store. And then everything gets put together in the final location and it's driven off to the showroom. It's kind of like that. We're assembling all the pieces in different places and then on the 22nd, I arrive for tech and we all get into the theater for the first time and put it together. I'm even going to be watching their rehearsals on Friday on Skype from my little place here in New Jersey so that I can see where everything is and I can talk to them. And if they stage a scene, I can do my lines. It's a whole new frontier in rehearsing. I love technology.
Are the two characters informing each other?
There are definite similarities between the King Francis in Ever After, Henry Higgins, Maxwell Sheffield, just about everyone I've played. There's a certain...how can I put it? There's a certain arrogance, a certain kind of thinking they know best about everything that's probably similar to all those characters, and a little in me [laughs], my wife would say.
What is it like playing a role you know really well and simultaneously originating a role?
Whether it's brand-new or it's something you've done a hundred times, if you're just doing it the way you did it yesterday, then it's probably already stale. In order to keep it fresh, you've just got to keep finding a different spin on it. It's the same with a brand-new role; it's always discovering something. It's trying to find the truth of it in every moment.
- My Fair Lady
- Christine Ebersole
- Paper Mill
- Paper Mill Playhouse
- Tony Sheldon
- George Bernard Shaw
- Theatre by the Sea
- Margo Seibert
- The Nanny
- Charles Shaughnessy
- King Francis
- Henry Higgins
- Maxwell Sheffield
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