Sunday, January 20, 2019

That Hairy Hound from Budapest

Those who follow my blog or my Facebook know that I have a passion for acting as my own dramaturge with each role I assay, and adore researching the origins of my character--and, in the case of revivals--the actors who played the role before me.  Not only does this research provide context for, and texture to my performance, it also gives me a greater appreciation for the originating
creative talents that collaborated on the piece at hand.

This February, I return to one of my favorite theaters in one of my favorite spots: Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach, Florida, to play the delicious cameo role of Zoltan Karpathy in one of the greatest of all musicals, "My Fair Lady."  This top notch regional theatre, lovingly supported by an enthusiastic snowbird community, brings beautiful productions to the stage each season.  My debut there was as another Hungarian, impresario Bela Zangler in "Crazy For You," directed by the wonderful James Brennan; I returned two seasons later to play headwaiter Rudolph Reisenweber in "Hello, Dolly!," also directed by Jimmy.   

I have long been a lover of the works of George Bernard Shaw, and "Pygmalion," upon which "My Fair Lady" is based, is one of my favorites of his plays.  I also adore the film version, produced in 1938 with the participation of Shaw, who won the Oscar for his screenplay.  The film starred Leslie Howard and the incomparable Wendy Hiller, who was Shaw's choice for the role of Eliza Doolittle. Alan Jay Lerner's book for the musical is based upon the "Pygmalion" screenplay, which is why Zoltan Karpathy--who is not in the original play--appears in "My Fair Lady."

The reason audiences of the original play never met Karpathy is that the scene at the Embassy Ball, where Eliza dazzles high society with her poise and elocution, was only added to "Pygmalion" for the 1938 film.  There's some fun dramaturgy behind how this character came to be.

Hungarian-born Gabriel Pascal, who was also a long time friend of Shaw's, was the producer of many of the great writer's plays, including "Pygmalion," which was a huge international hit.  After failing to persuade Shaw in the '30s to allow a musical adaptation of the play (!), he did convince him to collaborate on the film version.  The movie medium allowed for much more freedom of location, and the Embassy Ball sequence was added--along with Karpathy.  I can't help but see this Hungarian fop as an in-joke between Shaw and Pascal!

Shaw wrote the part specially for actor Esmé Percy.  Trained as an actor by the divine Sarah Bernhardt, Percy had been a big star of the English stage and something of a matinee idol, and had originated several of Shaw's leading men.  He even played Henry Higgins at one point, opposite the original Eliza Doolittle Mrs. Patrick Campbell.

Esmé Percy 
By the 1930s, Percy had lost his good looks (as well as an eye, in an accident involving a Great Dane--he had a glass one for the rest of his life) and had become an established character man on the screen.  For him, the delectable Karpathy (originally "Count Aristide Karpathy") was created.  The character is a former student of Professor Higgins, who took his knowledge of phonetics and languages to the courts of Europe, making it his business to unmask social climbers and aristocratic frauds.  He of course poses a big threat to Higgins and his "Galatea," Eliza... but ultimately, he concludes that her English is so good she has to be foreign born; and her manners so impeccable he concludes she is a Hungarian princess in disguise!

Theodore Bikel as Karpathy

The part of Karpathy (now with the first name of Zoltan) in "My Fair Lady" on Broadway was played by Christopher Hewett, best known for his brilliant portrayal of Roger DeBris in the original film of Mel Brooks' "The Producers."  When the musical was brought to the screen by legendary director George Cukor, the part was played by Theodore Bikel.  Bikel was another stage leading man who had become a character actor.  He was the original Captain Von Trapp in "The Sound of Music."  Bikel was a guitarist and folk singer and the song "Edelweiss" (incidentally the last song Oscar Hammerstein wrote) was composed for him, to maximize on these talents.  By the time "My Fair Lady" came along, he had become known for his virtuosity with dialects--on screen he played German, Russian, French--even a redneck sheriff from the deep South.  Who better to prance through the Hungarian affectations of Karpathy?

I take pride in having evolved into something of a "chameleon" and I enjoy submerging myself into delicious characters with crazy dialect challenges.  Karpathy is another great cameo to add to the pantheon of characters I've been fortunate to play.  Oh, let's face it! I am incredibly blessed not only to work with Jimmy Brennan again, and to do this great musical, but to return to the genteel and sunny environs of Vero Beach once more in the dead of a New York winter.  "My Fair Lady" runs March 12-31. For tickets, and more information, visit the Riverside Theatre website.