The celebrated stage and screen actress Dame Diana Rigg last appeared on Broadway nearly a quarter century ago, earning a 1994 Tony Award for the title role of Medea. The part that brought her back this past season -- to everyone’s delight -- is a very different type of mother: the elegant and wise Mrs. Higgins in Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of My Fair Lady, which is up for a total of 10 Tonys, including one for Rigg for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical.
The source material for this beloved Lerner and Loewe musical, George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, is familiar turf for Rigg, who during her long career has played both Mrs. Higgins and Eliza Dolittle -- the feisty flower seller that Professor Henry Higgins tries to mold into a proper lady in 1914 England -- in different productions of the play. “When I played Eliza years ago, I had a Mrs. Higgins who actually knew Shaw, and had worked with him,” Rigg notes. “That’s something I absolutely love about theater -- that passing off of the baton.”
Of choosing My Fair Lady for her return to the New York stage, Rigg says, with characteristic modesty, “It’s the only offer I had. Let’s be truthful about this.” In the past, she adds, “I’ve had the great honor of carrying plays, of serving plays in that capacity. I’m no longer interested in that.” Additionally, this featured role did not demand a certain skill associated with musical theater: “I was grateful I wouldn’t have to sing,” Rigg quips, “and the audience should be, too.”
Another factor was the opportunity to work with director Bartlett Sher, also a 2018 Tony nominee and a past winner for LCT’s 2008 production of South Pacific. While she hadn’t seen any of Sher’s previous work, she knew of his “extraordinary reputation, and that I would learn something from working with him. And I knew that Bart would do justice to the play [Pygmalion], which is the lynchpin. The music is sublime, but it’s sort of the icing on the cake, as it were.”
Neither Sher nor Rigg knew when they signed on for My Fair Lady that the revival would premiere in the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, making Eliza’s journey to self-actualization -- how she eventually stands up to a man who considers himself her superior and mentor -- seem especially timely to critics and audiences. “But I think we’re in a more reflective mood now, and the show reflects that,” Rigg says. “I think it’s measured.”
Having first become famous in the U.S. for playing Emma Peel on the 1960s TV series The Avengers, Rigg acquired a new generation of fans in recent years as Olenna Tyrell on Game of Thrones.
Rigg had not seen Thrones before joining the cast, but became aware of its massive popularity. “A program as far-reaching as this one, in terms of its audience -- it’s got to be good,” she reasons. “For me the priority is theater, but I don’t take the view, as some people do, that television is a sort of poorer cousin. If anything I do outside of theater feeds interest in the theater, then hooray.”
Awards, similarly, are “a welcome recognition of good work,” Rigg says, but mostly valuable “if they can put bums in the seats in theater. I’m all for anything that does that.”
As for her plans after My Fair Lady ends its run, the 79-year-old actress says, “I’ll tell you what I’m anticipating: being reunited with my grandson. He was born a year ago in March, and we’ve been separated such a long time. We do use Skype and wave at each other, but I’m missing his first steps, all those things. So that’s what I’m really looking forward to.”
The 2018 Tony Awards hosted by Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles will be handed out live at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Sunday, June 10, starting at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.