The most famous productions of My Fair Lady starred actual ladies — the refined, elegant Julie Andrews on stage; the chic, graceful Audrey Hepburn on film.
But such casting is a cheat.
The show’s about transforming a gutter girl into a princess. But Andrews and Hepburn were princess-like to begin with. The audience knew that the ugly duckling of the first scenes was already a swan. The casting drains tension and uncertainty out of the story.
I’m not criticizing Andrews or Hepburn, who are wonderful performers. I can even see good reasons to cast them (in addition to their obvious talent and star quality).
First, you can argue that MFL is about how Eliza always had a lady within her, so it’s appropriate to cast someone with a ladylike aura.
Also, it’s fun to watch someone as tasteful and polished as Andrews/Hepburn howl like a true prole.
(By the way, I know that neither actress had a princessy upbringing in real life. I’m talking about how the audience sees the actress, not the actress’s actual biography.)
Has anyone staged a successful production of MFL that starred someone like Bette Davis or Melissa McCarthy? I mean someone who’s less conventionally lovely than Hepburn or Andrews, and who’s known for playing scrappy fighters. The audience would be eager to see how that kind of actress would metamorphose into a lady.
Interestingly, MFL’s source, Shaw’s Pygmalion, has had a wider variety of Elizas: Diana Rigg, Michelle Dockery, Claire Danes, Margot Kidder, and even Twiggy. The audience didn’t identify them with as much gentility and charm as Andrews or Hepburn, even though all of them are attractive and no one considered them crass or coarse when they played the role.
It’d be intriguing to see Hilary Swank as Eliza. She’s beautiful and fashionable, but she earned her Oscars for playing working-class underdogs in Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby.