My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center Theatre
by Mo Brady
Twenty-two years ago, Rent ushered in a new kind of musical. Not only was it formative for being a downtown rock opera about the AIDS crisis, it featured an tiny ensemble of eight actors each charged with playing multiple characters. In Rent, the work of many was destined down into the responsibility of the few.
Since then, small casts have been all the rage on Broadway, both for reasons artistic and financial. Last season’s Come From Away and Dear Evan Hansen both proved case in point how a small cast can deliver a full-fledged musical. These days, even larger musicals like Hamilton or Mean Girls tend to employ small ensembles with actors wearing multiple hats (figuratively and literally).
Thank god for Lincoln Center Theater, which skirts this trend by giving us large and luscious productions. Its current Broadway revival of My Fair Lady features an onstage cast of 33, including an ensemble of 22. (That’s literally twice the size of the onstage ensemble of The Addams Family, for those who enjoy 2010-era Broadway references).
What does an ensemble of 22 give? You get a chance to show nuance. When an ensemble isn’t required to do the jobs of many, they can just BE. The actors may not be showing as much versatility as when they are playing multiple roles, but they can bring a quiet depth to their performances.
In Act II’s rousing “Get Me to the Church on Time,” you can see 22 different viewpoints on Doolittle’s impending nuptials. You can have Liz McCartney perform an entire verse as a passed out drunk, her head firmly planted on a pub table. You can have Rebecca Eichenberger play a worried skeptic among a sea of drunken revelers. That’s not the kind of reaction you could have among an ensemble of ten, where every ensemblist’s reactions must speak for many.
These 22 ensemblists include a roster of Broadway regulars, from Sasha Hutchings and Samantha Sturm to Keven Quillon and Lee Zarrett. Much of the show’s score features these actors front and center, from the quartet of street denizens that sing “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” to the half-dozen actors playing Higgins’ Butlers and Maids. Yes, “I Could Have Danced All Night” is a feature for Eliza Doolittle, but it’s also a vocal feature for the two actors who sing it with her (Kerstin Anderson and Minami Yushi at the performance I attended.)
Not every show needs triple threats to tell their stories well. In My Fair Lady, we get to see dozens of great singers and actors (of all ages and body types) singing some of Broadway’s most memorable music. While the ensemble of My Fair Lady may not be Broadway’s busiest ensemble, the numbers they do perform in are true showcases for their talents.