Playing the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady would be an incredible opportunity for any performer, but being directed by none-other-than Dame Julie Andrews herself takes that incredible opportunity to whole different level.This was a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Indeed, a “once in many lifetimes experience” suggested Anna O’Byrne.
During rehearsals for My Fair Lady, Anna O’Byrne began making notes, scribbling things down in the margins of her script. Anna O’Byrne was taking on the iconic role made famous by Dame Julie Andrews, and here she was, working directly with her in a recreation of that original production. When fellow cast member Robin Nevin asked if she was writing it all down, O’Byrne realised she needed to get a little more organised in how she was recording this incredible experience.
And so Anna O’Byrne took notes – lots of them. During her time playing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady Anna O’Byrne filled several notebooks. O’Byrne had been living in London when she was cast into the role, and upon completion of the tour of My Fair Lady, she returned to London. She gave herself a couple of weeks to write down her thoughts and process the whole experience.
During a conversation with producer Enda Markey he asked Anna O’Byrne what they could do, to which she replied, “Oh look, I’ve written this thing. I’ve got this idea of using Julie songs to illustrate the story of working with Julie, and talking about this amazing character of Eliza Doolittle.”
Enda Markey replied, “That’s a great idea, please don’t talk to anyone else about that!”
And from that conversation, Becoming Eliza was born. Guy Simpson, who had worked on My Fair Lady, was brought on board as the Musical Director.
“We started workshopping some things, and making something that was very simple, shaped in my original writings, into something that was much more of a theatrical piece,” explained O’Byrne.
The workshop included input from Guy Simpson, Sharon Millerchip, Enda Markey and Jack Earle, who did some of the arrangements, but the story itself is all the work of Anna O’Byrne.
“That’s been really amazing – to have something that I’ve written have a premiere at the Sydney Opera House and now showing around Australia. We’ve done seasons in Perth and Adelaide and I’m just so thrilled to be bringing it to Melbourne. We’ve just been waiting for the right opportunity and here it is!” exclaimed O’Byrne.
On Saturday 26th August, Becoming Eliza will play for one performance only at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne’s East End Theatre District.
After performing in the Comedy Theatre during Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, O’Byrne says she fell in love with this theatre.
“I was going exploring between matinee and evening shows because I was completely fascinated by the space and I couldn’t get enough of it! It’s just the most perfect space. It’s just beautiful, so I’m thrilled to be taking it there.”
As for writing Becoming Eliza?
“I’ve always written. It’s something I’ve always done, I’ve just never been very public about it.”
Anna O’Byrne admits that writing Becoming Eliza was very personal and, at times, quite hard to write. Like so many shows, the opening was delayed due to the COVID pandemic, but O’Byrne feels this actually turned out well.
“In the pandemic, I just went, ‘What am I hiding behind?’ I just sort of thought, I haven’t been really good at telling our story of our we work. We’re always meant to keep it behind the curtain, we’re meant to keep it hidden. And then in the pandemic, with the lack of support of artists, that’s what I felt the most traumatising was the lack of government support and the complete misunderstanding from a wider perspective of the work that artists do.”
During the pandemic O’Byrne worked on her draft of Becoming Eliza and decided, “I’m just going to say it all, put it all out into the open, take the audience with me into the audition room and the rehearsal room and dressing room before you go on stage on opening night – figuratively of course – but really show people what that process is like. What is quite a private process I’m going to try to put that onto the stage and let people see what happens when you don’t get it, and what happens when you’re frustrated in the rehearsal room, and what happens when you do get it – the ups and downs of that. I really wanted to give the audience a close idea of that.”
Anna O’Byrne acknowledges that Eliza Doolittle changed her.
“On reflection it’s been completely fascinating, and completely fascinating to spend time with it over years now, because Eliza did change me, and I’ve always been fascinated as to why imaginary people can do that. Because she isn’t real, she’s not a real person, but we all have that experience of reading a book ,or watching a musical, and having a character really stay with us and really make us think, and I think My Fair Lady really stays with people.”
Part of the ongoing appeal of My Fair Lady is that it’s not what you expect.
“You expect it to be Cinderella story and it’s not. You expect it to be a coming of age story, and it is, but it’s more about Higgins’ coming of age than it is about Eliza’s coming of age.”
While our conversation carefully avoided revealing any of the insights into working with Dame Julie Andrews that Anna O’Byrne will share during her show, it was impossible for her name to not come up repeatedly.
“I’m also fascinated by the concept of Julie, because she’s a person who has been hugely pivotal to people throughout their lives and the experience of watching her, mainly on screen these days, but also listening to her.”
Anna O’Byrne went on to talk about the fact that when the My Fair Lady cast recording was released on LP, it was owned by one in four homes, and how My Fair Lady then becomes an experience that people want to pass on to their own children.
“And it becomes this shared experience of people and characters in our lives that we don’t really know, but somehow really touch us. So I think, reflecting on that with Eliza, when I was writing, when I was performing Eliza, it really struck me that the journey of the person playing Eliza is really similar to Eliza’s own journey. That you go from being one person, you know a Cockney flower girl or just a girl from Melbourne, to becoming somebody else.”
O’Byrne then explained that the story of My Fair Lady is based on the Greek myth of Pygmalion and the sculpture that he carves, and that is from Ovid’s epic poem called Metamorphoses.
“So this idea of metamorphosis really struck me that you become the sculptor of your own character. Again, not wanting to spoil anything in the show, but when I was writing it, that was a really powerful thought to me. You know – the responsibility we have in bringing these beloved characters to life really hit home to me”.
I asked O’Byrne what the take home message is for Becoming Eliza.
Apart from her audience hearing what Dame Julie Andrews is really like (Anna O’Byrne said she’s everything you would think she’d be and so much more!) she wants audiences to come away with a feeling of peeking behind the curtain and getting a little behind the scenes glimpse at what really goes on in the theatre industry,
“And I really hope that just like people relate to Eliza Doolittle, that they will relate to their own processes and their own lives.”
While Dame Julie Andrews has not yet seen Becoming Eliza, she has given Anna O’Byrne her full blessings to share her journey and experiences through this show.
Following the Melbourne performance on Saturday 26th August there will be another opportunity to see Becoming Eliza in Geelong on November 22nd. After that, Anna O’Byrne would definitely love to take her show overseas – and perhaps to London’s West End.
Pondering that dream Anna O’Byrne exclaimed, “Wouldn’t it be loverly!
But for now, it’s Melbourne’s turn.
When: Saturday 26 August
Performance times: 7.30 pm
Venue: Comedy Theatre, Melbourne
Price: $59 – $89
Bookings: ticketek.com.au or phone 13 28 49
Becoming Eliza will also play at Geelong Arts Centre on 22 November.