Tony Awards spotlight: Lauren Ambrose (‘My Fair Lady’) makes Eliza Doolittle

Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” is a dream role for any soprano. The part allows the actress to showcase broad comedy, don lavish gowns, and croon Lerner and Loewe classics like “I Could Have Danced All Night.” But the role is no a favorite of the Tonys: no actress has ever won for playing Eliza. Now, 62 years after the musical’s Broadway debut, Lauren Ambrose may reverse the curse at long last.

The original 1956 production of “My Fair Lady” starred Rex Harrison and newcomer Julie Andrews. The show was a hit and claimed six Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Lead Actor in a Musical. But in a shocking twist Andrews lost Lead Actress to Judy Holliday in “Bells Are Ringing.”

Award show misfortune followed the role to the big screen when Audrey Hepburn was snubbed by the Oscars for the 1964 film version. Andrews won the Best Actress Academy Award for “Mary Poppins.” At the very least, Andrews received some vindication for not being asked to star in the movie, but the Eliza curse lived on.

There have been three previous Broadway revivals of the tuner before this current one, featuring Christine Andreas in 1976, Nancy Ringham in 1981, and Melissa Errico in 1993. None of those women even received Tony nominations.

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Luckily, Ambrose is working under the guiding hand of Tony-winning director Bartlett Sher. Prior to the production’s opening, plenty of op-ed’s fretted about presenting “My Fair Lady” in the era of #metoo. But Sher is clear eyed in his direction that presents this revival as Eliza’s story. Harry Hadden-Paton still makes for a wonderful Henry Higgins, but Ambrose’s Eliza is a force with a sense of agency the role often lacks. Ambrose crafts a measured arc for Eliza, making the show less about a man “making” a woman, and more about a woman finding her true strength and confidence. It also helps that the actress, mostly known for her screen roles, surprises audiences with “loverly” vocals.

Here’s how some of New York’s top critics praised Ambrose:

Sara Holdren (Vulture): “Ambrose has calculated Eliza’s arc. She’s building a real awakening for the character, a full transformation…when she finally lets it really soar at the climax of “I Could Have Danced All Night,” the hair on my arms stood up.”

Charles Isherwood (Broadway News): “Most New Yorkers will not have heard her sing much before, and will happily thrill to hear her unleash a voice of uncommon beauty. Ambrose is raggedly endearing when she’s the unruly flower-seller in the first scenes, all fiery wailing and whining in a Cockney accent”

Jesse Green (NY Times): The big revelation of this production is that Ms. Ambrose has a stirring voice: lustrous and rich…She delivers her first number — ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?’ — very quietly and with an intense longing that digs beneath its surface charm to find its stillness and steel.”

With such praise, a nomination is more than deserved. A win may ultimately be more difficult to pull off. Ambrose currently sits in second place for Lead Actress in a Musical in Gold Derby’s combined odds. That positions her the runner up to Katrina Lenk’s dynamic role in the Best Musical front-runner “The Band’s Visit.” Lenk already has a Lucille Lortel Award under her belt for the part and received reviews just as glowing as Ambrose.

But, one recent Tony stat may help Ambrose turn the tables on her competition: the Lead Actress category has overwhelmingly favored women starring in revivals as of late. Over the past decade, only two women were able to win the category for an original musical (Alice Ripley in “Next to Normal,” and Jessie Mueller in “Beautiful”). Voters have instead chose to reward women starring in lush revivals of classics, and Ambrose fits that bill this year. If she charms voters with her transformation as much as she did critics, the talented star could pull off a feat not even the legendary Julie Andrews could achieve.

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