“Since her inception in Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle was an incredibly empowered woman,” Shereen Ahmed tells Houstonia. Ahmed plays the role of Eliza in the nationally lauded production of My Fair Lady, which just made its Houston debut last week.
Pygmalion first opened in 1913 and was adapted into many musicals, most successful being the Broadway premiere of My Fair Lady in 1956. The movie reworking was released in 1964, and the already-adored Lerner and Lowe musical became a global sensation.
Set in London, the story follows a Covent Garden flower seller, Eliza Doolittle. One cold night coming out of the opera, a pompous professor, Henry Higgins, hears her hawking her blooms and is appalled by how she speaks. He bets his pal Colonel Pickering that he can teach her such proper English.
“But it’s her choice that she shows up at his house, and asks him for lessons. It’s her own ambition that makes her say, ‘I want to have a better life.’ This revival really harkens back to the original source material, where Eliza owns her choices,” Ahmed says.
Ahmed, who understudied the role in the critically acclaimed Lincoln Center Theater production of My Fair Lady directed by Bartlett Sher, is endlessly fascinated by her character. She loves that Eliza isn’t presented as having a romantic relationship with Higgins, but notes the pair have an intellectual one.
"What does it mean to work with a man and how do we look at that in this MeToo moment? And there are questions of class, too. Eliza surpasses her wildest dreams. But once she does, what choices does she really have? Her story resonates in so, so many ways. Her story resonates in so, so many ways.”
Ahmed’s excitement is contagious. My Fair Lady is a classic for a reason. It’s a timeless story and watching Eliza transform herself is a compelling, joyful journey. The musical numbers, with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and a score by Frederick Loewe, are Broadway gold. From the lamenting-but-hopeful “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” to the buoyant “I Could Have Danced All Night,” each selection serves as both character exploration and a cunning plot device that allows for witty banter and cheeky observations.
Another striking element of the production is that Shereen Ahmed is the first woman of color to step into Eliza’s shoes, a point she doesn’t dwell on much. The Egyptian-American actress infused her performance with insight gleaned from her immigrant father and reminds herself that My Fair Lady is a story about seizing opportunity.
“For a moment in time, being the first woman of color to play this role was something I was crumbling under,” she says. “Then I realized it was a standard that I didn’t set. I wanted to represent my community in the best way possible. But what’s exciting now is that the door of possibilities is open to others. It’s not about me. It’s about the opportunity.”
It’s a demanding role, transforming into Eliza every night.
“I’m throwing things and jumping on furniture and running up and down,” Ahmed says. “And going from Cockney to the Queen’s English is hard on the jaw. It’s exhausting but my heart is so full.”
The actress shares her excitement to kick off the musical U.S. tour in the Bayou City, and thinks the play will be just what audiences needs, after so much pain and turmoil.
“It’s my first time to Texas, my first time to the South,” she says, her voice lifting in anticipation. “I’m so excited to discover the country. And, you know, after these 18 months of sorrow and grief and turmoil, how beautiful is it that we can share Eliza’s story for a night, that we can watch this strong, ambitious woman as she finds her voice," Ahmed concludes.
For more information on where to catch My Fair Lady next, click here.