Spoken Like a True Brit: Mastering Accents for My Fair Lady

By Sarah Herring '19, Communications Intern
If you have ever wondered what it would have been like to live on the streets of London during the early 1900s, then you’re in luck! This year’s Winter Musical is the critically-acclaimed My Fair Lady—a Broadway musical adapted later into film written by the playwright Alan Jay Lerner and composed by Frederick Loewe. The spotlight (both metaphorically and literally) falls upon two characters: Eliza Doolittle, a flower girl with a thick Cockney accent, and Henry Higgins, a phonetics professor. Another character, Colonel Pickering, challenges Henry Higgins into passing Eliza off at the Embassy Ball as an upper-class lady with a posh accent. The musical, based on the play, Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, revolves around style of speech as a mark of class distinction; a cast comprised of Americans must learn how to do authentic accents. Interviews with three of the cast members provide insight on the difficulties of replicating English accents, and the actors’ thoughts on their respective characters.

Q: What are the challenges you faced in trying to learn how to speak in an authentic British accent?

“Both my parents are from West Side New York, and they have essentially the complete opposite of a British accent. You know, hard ‘A’s; and drop the ‘T’s; and hard ‘R’s. I’ve adapted a bit of that, so I think I’m at a slight disadvantage regarding that. And, I don’t have a lot of time to watch British cinema, so I don’t hear many examples of the upper/middle-class British accent.” Solomon Duane ‘19, performing the role of Henry Higgins.

“The biggest problem with any accent is that every word is different; there’s not really a consistent rule-set with any language. So, even though it’s still English, you’re learning a different form of English. It’s easier to learn, but it won’t be totally perfected.” Paris Bredehoft ‘20, performing the role of Colonel Pickering.

Q: Is there anything you like about doing an accent in this kind of play?

“I think it’s so fun. I also think it’s ‘fun-ny’. When you do a British accent, you’re really becoming a different person because your voice doesn’t sound the same, which I think is so cool. I really love being able to do an accent!”
Maiya Foleck '19, performing the role of Mrs. Pearce, Mr. Higgins’ housekeeper

“Well, it is a British play so...I think it’s necessary.” (Do you like doing it, though?) “Yes, yes, I enjoy it. Accent-learning isn’t a hobby of mine, but I have enjoyed doing it. I think it’s good for public-speaking and understanding more sophisticated and articulate speech.” —Solomon Duane '19

“So, the British accent adds an atmosphere around the play that, you know, I feel is lacking in some of the other plays that we’ve done. Seussical was...entirely different to begin with. In this play, though, it gives you a better idea of the characters and their social lives.” Paris Bredehoft '20

Q:  What’s your favorite word to say in a British accent?

“[censored for the convenience of the reader]...Should I say something else? I mean, I say that in the musical, but ‘By George’ is another good phrase to say in an accent too.”
Solomon Duane '19

“That’s, like, really hard. I haven’t thought about that before. Maybe a long word? I don’t say these in the play, but I like saying really long words that make you go 'Why does that word exist?’ For example, ‘hippomonstrosesquippedaliophobia’. It means ‘to have a fear of long words’.” Maiya Foleck '19

“I actually say this one a lot in the play, and—it’s because of the name of a character—it's ‘little’. Saying ‘little’ in a British accent is fun because you have to emphasize every sound in a British accent, so I enjoy saying the double ‘T’.” Paris Bredehoft ‘'20

Q:  Last question. What do you like about playing your character?

“Well, I’m in a lot of scenes which is pretty nice. Though, I think my favorite part is probably the reactions I get from people when I do my British accent.” —
Maiya Foleck '19

“In most of the other plays that I’ve done recently, I’ve had to be mean and/or crazy, so finally being able to be the logical one who is actually nice is really refreshing on stage. I like it a lot.” Paris Bredehoft '20

“He’s a very intricate and three-dimensional character. I have a lot of fun bringing out his complexities and working together with this amazing cast of wonderfully, talented co-stars. It’s my first time [being apart of the musical], and I didn’t know what to expect, but I’m really enjoying the process. Wait, that has nothing to with my character. He’s a fun character with an unprecedented level of arrogance that is unique for a stage character, especially a protagonist, which I find really really enjoyable.” Solomon Duane '19

The cast's accent work would not be possible without the talent of Ms. Jenny De Jaager, the stage manager for the production. She has 1-on-1 sessions with the cast members in order to help perfect their British accents, and her assistance is definitely essential for our actors in crafting a more believable and authentic accent. We all greatly appreciate her hard-work in addition to her dedication to this musical!

We hope that you will join Norfolk Academy’s My Fair Lady cast and crew for their performances from February 15th-17th and hear the British accents for yourself! 
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