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Get him to the Bowl on time

Rock legend Roger Daltrey of the Who will play Alfred P. Doolittle in 'My Fair Lady' on Sunday.

August 02, 2003|James Verini | Special to The Times

Stomping and strutting like a peacock around a rehearsal space on a shabby corner in Burbank, Roger Daltrey looks like nothing less than the eternal youth of rock 'n' roll embodied. The once and future frontman for the Who and a bona fide rock demigod, Daltrey seems only slightly dulled from that summer 34 years ago when he belted out "I Can See for Miles" at a little concert called Woodstock and permanently redefined the way rock singers were supposed to work.

In Burbank, Daltrey still is wearing his tight jeans and a dirty shirt (or at least a shirt made to look dirty) and cursing like a London metalworker, which is what he happened to be before he became a rock star in the mid-1960s. He's still every inch the musician, giddy one moment, sullen the next, though he never appears ready to ram a snare drum through the wall. His neck muscles still bulge and his blue eyes scream. And at 59, Daltrey, who in the era-making Who anthem "My Generation" once stuttered "Ho-ho-hope I die before I get old," seems in better physical shape than most of the men in their 20s dancing behind him. That he happens to be rehearsing "Get Me to the Church on Time," a number from "My Fair Lady," is, Daltrey insists, nothing to be surprised about. And no, the song's lyrics -- "There's just a few more hours / That's all the time you've got" -- don't strike him as particularly weighty, given his age.

"The rehearsal period is 10 ... days! That's dangerous! That's when you're most alive," he says, during a break from rehearsal last Saturday. Of the musical itself he adds, "I love the music and I love the writing."

Daltrey will play Alfred P. Doolittle, the drunken London dustman and moralist, in a one-night-only performance Sunday of Lerner and Loewe's 1956 musical at the Hollywood Bowl. His agent suggested him for the part in late May -- Daltrey says he auditioned; the Bowl people say the part was his for the taking -- and before he knew it, Daltrey was aboard, only eight weeks prior to show time.

To participate, he took a break from "Extreme History," a History Channel series he's hosting in which he and a camera crew revisit the exploits of adventurers through the ages. In the latest segment, they paddle up the Colorado River in a 19th century-style wooden boat a la John Wesley Powell. "In a ... wooden boat!" says Daltrey, who splits his time between Los Angeles and England, where his wife and eight children and eight grandchildren live. "They were extraordinary people, these explorers."

Is he a history buff?

"No," he says, adding nothing.

But Daltrey is just being modest or, as he would put it, unpretentious. For an unwillingness to show off or speak too much about himself has always marked this Hammersmith laborer's personal style. Although he puffed out his chest and swung his microphone in sync with guitarist Pete Townshend's string-breaking windmills, although he still wears that knowing smirk when, during "Baba O'Reilly," he looks out on the crowd and pronounces it a "teenage wasteland," Daltrey always was unpretentious. He and bassist John Entwistle, who died a year ago last month, left the Who's preening and higher artistic ambitions to Townshend and drummer Keith Moon (who died in 1978).

In fact, Daltrey is a part of history himself -- the Who, numerous breakups and reunions notwithstanding, will turn 40 next year. And he does know a lot about history. He's smart and, for the man who once snarled at an English talk show host, "Rock 'n' roll don't got no future!" is shamefully well spoken when he chooses to be. It's just that he's reluctant to dwell on history. The working-class lad from the Who, he just wants to keep working.

"My Fair Lady" is based on George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion," about a wealthy London gentleman, professor Henry Higgins, and his efforts to improve Eliza Doolittle, a cockney flower girl, and her father, Alfred. The play caused a sensation when it premiered in London in 1916.

"It's a great study of Edwardian morality," Daltrey says. "[Alfred] is quite happy to be poor. Americans find it very difficult to understand the English class system, but money doesn't buy you out of it. You're either upper class, middle class or working class. Now I might be a multimillionaire, but I'm still working class. Whereas America is classless. You're either rich or you're poor."

John Lithgow, who will play Henry Higgins to Daltrey's Doolittle on Sunday, says the singer is a "diamond in the rough."

"He's a little hesitant as an actor, although completely confident as a musical actor," Lithgow says.

For Daltrey, it's not a matter of choosing between acting and singing. "I don't think about it. It's my life, it's what I do."

How do being a rock star and performing in a musical differ?

"Rock 'n' roll is jazz," he says. "It's free, especially the way the Who play. In a musical like this you can't go free form -- it would be a train wreck."

How are they the same?

"I haven't done it yet, so I don't know," he says.

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