It may be Tracy Neff’s first turn at playing one of musical theatre’s most iconic roles, but that doesn’t mean she has gone into it blind.

“I spent many years singing the songs from My Fair Lady so I came into the role knowing them all,” says Neff who will play Eliza Doolittle in the Royal City Musical Theatre (RCMT) production of the Lerner and Lowe musical.

Having performed the songs in various concerts over the years, Neff is well placed to take on the young Cockney flower girl who puts up with the badgering of her mentors in an effort to help better her life. But even with her previous work with the material, Neff is not complacent.

“It’s a huge challenge in that Eliza has this gigantic journey and most actors are attracted to characters that have a dynamic journey through a play,” she says.

Neff also says she connects with Eliza and her story, recognizing in herself Eliza’s determination and a desire to grow and better herself.

“I’ve always been that type of person that has always wanted more,” says Neff. “Eliza is very ambitious and I connect to that part of her. Early on she says she knows what she wants and even though she might not know what that entails, she is smart and as soon as she sees a way in she goes for it.  There may be obstacles that she has to overcome, but she fights for what she wants.”

In Eliza’s journey, Neff sees her own pursuit to becoming an actor.

“I remember wanting to become a performer and after graduating from school I got out and then had to ask myself, what do I do now?” she says. “There is a fabulous scene where Eliza doesn’t know where she fits anymore, she’s done all the work, she lets herself be tormented by these academics and she’s risen to the challenge and she wins. But she has to keep going. I’ve had that in my life as well. She is a very endearing.”

Michael Wild, Tracy Neff and Warren Kimmel in the Royal City Musical Theatre production of My Fair Lady
Michael Wild, Tracy Neff and Warren Kimmel in the Royal City Musical Theatre production of My Fair Lady. Photo by David Cooper.

Telling the story of a lower-class Cockney girl with modest dreams of moving up in the world, Eliza is taken under the wing of phonetician Professor Henry Higgins, played by Warren Kimmel in this RCMT production, and his sidekick Colonel Pickering, played by Michael Wild. Originally taking her on as part of a somewhat cynical bet, Higgins agrees to help Eliza in her transformation through speech and elocution lessons. Initially treating her as simply a scholarly challenge, in the end Higgins finds himself as transformed as Eliza.

Admitting the idea of Higgins as a misogynist was addressed early on in the production with director Max Reimer, Neff prefers to view Eliza’s journey in a more positive light.

“The main struggle for Eliza is in the class distinction,” says Neff who dismisses the potentially darker side of misogyny in the show. “When Max first started talking about the show, he was big on the misogyny. I can see that perspective, but I also see it as a sign of the times that Eliza lived in. I don’t think Eliza is being attacked as a woman, but is rather being bullied because of her class.”

Tracy Neff points to the enduring quality of the music in My Fair Lady for its longevity
Tracy Neff points to the quality of the music and its witty book for the longevity of My Fair Lady

Now almost 60 years-old since it first appeared on Broadway, and over a hundred since George Bernard Shaw wrote the play Pygmalion on which it is based, Neff says that much of the show’s longevity comes from the music.

“It’s like The Sound of Music,” says Neff, “it brings back memories for people. When I sing “If I Could Dance All Night” you can hear actually hear a sigh in the audience. They just love the music.”

Neff also points to the musical’s book for its ability to connect with an audience decades later.

“The musical’s book is also very funny and very witty,” she says. “People connect with it. They love Eliza’s spunk, and while Higgins is a bit of a bully, he does endear himself and care for her.”

My Fair Lady plays the Massey Theatre (735 Eighth Ave, New Westminster) April 9-26. Visit http://royalcitymusicaltheatre.com for tickets and information.