In My Fair Lady, Rosemary Harris Relishes Her Time as a Broadway Replacement

The 91-year-old Harris plays Mrs. Higgins in the Lincoln Center Theater production.

There are legends, and then there's Rosemary Harris.

Harris has acted for nearly 70 years. She has originated roles (Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter earned her a Tony), put her stamp on classics like Agnes in A Delicate Balance, and even played Peter Parker's aunt May in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man'' trilogy from the early 2000s.

Now, at 91, Harris is adding another new entry to her pages-long résumé. For the first time in her illustrious career, Harris has replaced someone in a Broadway musical. In Lincoln Center Theater's My Fair Lady, she has assumed the role of the formidable Mrs. Higgins, a part she's played not once, but twice before in the past (in both the Lerner & Loewe property and Shaw's source play, Pygmalion). And she's having a great time.

Rosemary Harris as Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady on Broadway.
Rosemary Harris as Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady on Broadway.
(© Joan Marcus)

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Did you go searching for this part or did this production search for you?
André Bishop emailed me when Dame Diana Rigg decided that she was going to leave to see if I would like to take her place. I have to say, it's a mixed blessing. I lost my beloved husband in March and we were always together. He wouldn't have been well enough for me to have done it before. In my mind, I said no. I'd always been with something from the beginning, so it would be like getting on a fast-moving express train. It was something I didn't think I'd be able to accomplish. But I thought about it a bit more, and with a little bit of encouragement, I was able to get the guts to do it.

What was it like to step into an already-running production?
You know those awful dreams that you have where you're supposed to know your words and you haven't studied them? I thought, "This is not going to be the reality." I remember sitting backstage waiting for my cue with my heart beating, but I was very strangely calm. You'd think I'd be a jabbering idiot. They certainly make it easy for people, with rehearsals off-campus and "put-ins." I'm learning all of this new jargon! Mrs. Higgins is not a massive role, so it's not like you're taking over one of the larger ones. I made perfectly sure that I knew all the words, and I've been in this business long enough to know not to bump into the furniture. What threw me was that there isn't any furniture here!

Does having played this role twice before help in terms of the memorization?
Oh, no. It may have made it easier to learn, but I don't know. You store these things way, way, way back in your mind, but that was rather a long time ago. The first was 1948 or 1949 [at age 21], when the great Jessie Matthews, a big musical comedy star of the '30s, went round the country giving her Eliza Doolittle to small theater companies. I guess there wasn't anyone to play Mrs. Higgins, so they put a gray wig on me and put me onstage. That was a great honor. My father was a great fan of Jessie Matthews, and he couldn't believe that I was Mrs. Higgins to her Eliza.

Then, the second time was at the Hollywood Bowl, with John Lithgow and Melissa Errico and Roger Daltry from the Who as Mr. Doolittle. The audience loved that. It was a complete fluke, because I was doing Spider-Man and had a little week of not being called. It just fitted into the rehearsal schedule.

There have been so many Spider-Man movies since you played Aunt May in the early 2000s. Do you get recognized, still?
I do. I'm much older, but I'm still vaguely recognizable. I was coming out of Marks & Spencer in London and there was a lady with a little girl in a carriage. She was very polite and said, "Excuse me, my little girl says that you're the lady in Spider-Man." I said, "Your little girl is quite right. How old is your little girl?" And she said, "She's 4, yesterday." Isn't that amazing? What an observant little girl. She was only 4 yesterday, so she was 3 when she saw it. It's a scary film to show a 3-year-old! I know my grandson wasn't too keen on seeing it for a while, because it does have some scary bits, like when I'm finishing my prayers and the Green Goblin says, "FINISH IT. FINISH IT." Sometimes, people ask me to do that. [laughs] It's very nice. It's very charming. It never occurred to me that I would be recognizable for something like that, but I can't say I don't enjoy it.

Looking back, what were some of your favorite productions?
The Lion in Winter was great fun. The Royal Family, the first time [in 1976], when I played Julie. I especially loved doing that. And then [in 2009] when we redid it, I got to play the grandmother. A Delicate Balance was, of course, another one. Edward Albee and I were at a Kennedy Center function, and at the dinner table, he started saying Agnes's first speech and said, "I can hear your voice saying this." That was probably five years before we actually did it. I lie in bed sometimes thinking about that speech and saying it. "What I find most astonishing…" It's just fun to say.

Do you look at being an actor as a "fun" job?
Oh, yes. It's a dream job. It's more than a dream: I would never have dreamt it up. I'm so grateful to Diana, and I'm so happy to have stepped into her shoes. It's a lovely company, and I've worked with Allan Corduner, who plays Colonel Pickering, before on Arsenic and Old Lace at Chichester Festival Theatre. That's one of the lovely things about the theater business. You never know when old friends, old pals, are going to show up.

What's the key to longevity in show business?
It depends what cards you're dealt. It's all to do with your health, but that's not up to you. Good fortune and good genes? I don't know. If your memory will sustain you, and you're able to put one foot in front of the other, there's no reason to stop. I think it's just the luck of the game, don't you?

Rosemary Harris as Agnes in the 1996 revival of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance.
Rosemary Harris as Agnes in the 1996 revival of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance.
(© Joan Marcus)

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My Fair Lady

Closed: July 7, 2019