Tony-nominated leading man crosses pond to breathe new life into classic as Henry Higgins
Known for his roles on “Downton Abbey” and “The Crown,” among others, London native Harry Hadden-Paton has taken the American stage by storm with his Broadway debut as Henry Higgins in an updated adaptation of Lerner & Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” at Lincoln Center Theater. Hadden-Paton brings panache to the privileged and prickly phonetics professor, making him charming and likable even in the midst of misogynistic proclamations—so much so that the performance earned him a Tony nomination. Tucked in the corner of a New York City book shop, the father of two young daughters and husband to actress Rebecca Night—all of whom emigrated to the US for his role— talked with DiningOut about the show, the upcoming “Downton Abbey” film, and some of his favorite eateries in the city he loves.
DININGOUT: There’s been a lot of discussion about the show’s adaptation for 2018. What changes have been made, and did the update affect your performance?
I think the whole point of doing a revival is to put it into a new context and give the audience the experience of seeing how far society may have come or not since they last saw it. We have a duty to give people both what they expect and what they want for nostalgic reasons, but also to challenge them and make them question the society they live in today. That’s what we tried to do, and easily for us, it was more of a case of going back to what George Bernard Shaw intended. His ending of “Pygmalion” is much more in line with what we’re doing in our show than what Rex Harrison did in the first production and in the film. We were lucky, because Lerner & Loewe’s estates gave us permission to look at the Pygmalion script and use some dialogue from there and from the Leslie Howard film, “Pygmalion.” Bernard Shaw wrote that, as well. From comparing these texts, we were able to see what he had intended. Thankfully, through looking through it and doing our research, we realized I was able to go on more of a journey than has traditionally been done. I’m proud of what we’ve done. Danny Burstein [Albert P. Doolittle] and Christian Dante White [Freddy Eynsford-Hill] joined yesterday, two new cast members, who with one show under their belt, I could already see are going to be amazing. I’m really excited that the show is fresh and has a future.
DO: You somehow managed to bring likability to Henry Higgins’ character. Was it scary at first to bring such a brash and chauvinistic character to audiences?
HARRY HADDEN-PATON: Yes, it’s daunting. The key was to find a part of him that people could empathize with. Looking at it, we decided that if he was around today, we might place him on the autism spectrum in a certain degree, because he doesn’t understand emotions and he’s fascinated in only one thing. That’s the journey for him, to go from a place of not really taking anyone else’s opinions or emotions into consideration and realizing that he has to by the end. For me, that’s his excuse for some of it and that makes it easier to play. But he has all these wonderful lines and I think the humor helps people. It’s an internal struggle he has going on, and this girl is changing him. I have to portray this struggle and show the audience what he’s going through to try to be a better person. I think that gives people a sympathy toward him, that he’s at the point of potential change.
DO: You and Henry share the common ground of both having language degrees. Were you able to find any other commonalities with the character?
HARRY HADDEN-PATON: No. I guess I had quite a privileged education. I didn’t have to work too hard on the accent for him. But as you said, I did a language degree in French and Spanish. I studied phonetics, and that was really helpful. I’m more of a sensitive soul than him, so I really had to think about moving his energy and his thought into his head, as opposed to his heart, which is where it lies with me. For me, it was the songs—I never did a musical before, so this was all new to me. I’d sang in choirs as a child but in Latin. So I’d always thought about harmonies more than the lyrics of songs. His songs are so repetitive that I had to work on the thoughts he’s having and then find ways to make them work and be meaningful.
DO: So was the singing part daunting for you?
HARRY HADDEN-PATON: Yeah. I’ve always loved it, but I haven’t done it professionally. I did a musical in college. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I was just waiting for the right role. Initially, I had some singing lessons and I decided I was going to sing every note, because that hadn’t been done, as far as I was aware. So that’s what I did. I showed up at the audition and I sang every note. We soon realized that it’s actually less interesting to sing it all. So we borrowed a bit from Rex Harrison’s style and came up with a middle ground. I do sing it more than anyone else has before, but there’s lots of talking in it, as well. It’s a wonderful mix. Ted Sperling, our musical director, really helped me with that.
DO: Henry makes something of a transformation and has some realizations by the end. How profound were the changes in him?
HARRY HADDEN-PATON: I think they’re as profound as they get. Eliza has completely rocked his world, and his behavior in the future will be different than what it is at the moment. I think there’s room for a sequel, isn’t there?
DO: Speaking of sequels, you just announced that you’ll extend your run as Henry through July. You’re also set to begin filming the Downton Abbey movie.
I actually did it in August and September. I took four weeks off, and it was amazing. I’m so grateful that the theater let me disappear to go and do that. Almost the entire cast was there, through an amazing feat of organization to get everyone together. I haven’t seen anything yet, but I was really happy with the script. Julian Fellowes has written it all again, and he has done an incredible job of weaving so many characters into a film, each of them with their own journey. It’s a real accomplishment. And it’s a New York director, Michael Engler, who filmed some of the last couple of series. I worked with him when I was doing the series at the end. He was on the film. It was lovely to see him and do that. I think we’re going to be very proud of it. I’m excited.
DO: A lot of other people are excited, too. Was it surprising to you how much the show caught on in the US?
It is what people talk about the most in a way that they don’t in England. Enthusiasm for it kind of waned after three or four series, but with the exhibition over here and everything, it’s been lovely to feel the fondness people have for it.
DO: Do people approach you on the street?
Yeah, but only ever really positively. That’s what I love about New York and the welcome New York and particularly, the Broadway community, have given to me and my family. It has just been extraordinary. We’ve been embraced with nothing but positivity and we never want to leave. It’s wonderful, it’s amazing—it’s why I’ve extended. We’re not ready to go home yet. It’s just an incredible production in a theater that really looks after its people, within a community that really looks after its people. In London, I think we can learn a lot from what you guys do here. And yeah, I’m well aware that this could be the pinnacle of my career, and I want to enjoy it as much as possible.
DO: Absolutely. What are the differences between doing theater in the US versus England?
I can’t speak for other theaters, but the Lincoln Center Theater is, for me, like walking into Charlie’s chocolate factory. The support given by everyone is such that I only have to worry about my job, and in England I find that I have to worry about a lot more than that, getting involved with my costumes and my props and making sure everything is where it’s meant to be. Maybe it’s because of the unions and the strength people have that everyone’s happy to be at work, everyone has a job to do and does it really well. As a result, all my energy can go into the show and being as creative and open and sparky as I can possibly be, which is a gift, and frankly, a luxury for a man of my past experience. They’re going to have to pry me from the door. Security will be called.
DO: You’re loving New York, but was it a huge adjustment for you and your family?
Yeah. We are in an apartment. We’ve downsized but we’re in the center of Manhattan. We can walk to everything; we don’t have a car. We’re living a greener life. My daughter’s school is a small walk. It was a big adjustment. If we miss anything, it’s our friends and family, of course. We’re getting to spend a lot of time as a family unit. The good thing about New York is that everyone wants to visit, so we are permanently hosting friends and visitors, which is wonderful. It was a big difference, but a good one and it has made us re-evaluate what we thought were our priorities. Maybe they’re different now. And we’re big foodies. I don’t think I’ve had a bad meal in New York, so it’s great.
DO: Well, you must be psychic, because you’ve segued right into my next question. What are some of your favorite restaurants in New York?
I have a few. Café Fiorello by the Lincoln Center has been like a second home for us. The maître D’, Matteo, has really gone above and beyond. My daughter was ill and she was in hospital for a bit—the 2-year-old—up on the Upper East Side, and they don’t usually deliver that far. But the maître D’ got in his car and and delivered us her favorite meal. That, again, I’m not sure would happen in England. Her favorite thing there is the focaccia, which is free. It’s amazing, as are the pancakes at breakfast and the burrata ravioli. We go there a lot. For them, we are extremely grateful. We went to Via Carota [in the West Village] this week, which we adored. We love ABC Kitchen and ABCV [in the Flatiron District]. Indian Accent [in Midtown West], an Indian restaurant, was one of the best meals I’ve had. We love Indian food and there’s a lot less of it here in New York. I have a long, long list that’s getting longer.
DO: Have you gotten into New Jersey at all?
I’m afraid we have not yet. We have lots of friends over there, so we have been invited but my schedule is such that I don’t have weekends at the same time anyone else has weekends. I think now that our visitors are beginning to wane, we want to start trying to go somewhere new every week, and New Jersey is definitely on the top of our list.
By Jessica D’Amico