Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Happy birthday Julie Andrews!

Stage and screen legend Julie Andrews turns 73 today, and I want to send along my wishes for a very happy birthday. I recently finished reading her memoir, Home, an exquisitely written, wonderfully detailed look at her youth and her career on Broadway in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The book takes us through her childhood in wartime England, including the terror of being in London during the Blitz, her start as a singer in postwar musical revues and on BBC radio, and her success on Broadway. It concludes with Andrews, her then-husband, Tony Walton and their baby, Emma, heading to California in 1963 for the filming of Mary Poppins.

Before I read it, I didn't know anything about Andrews' background or what kind of childhood she had. Her mother was a pianist who left Andrews' beloved father for a young Canadian tenor she met on a USO-type tour when Andrews was 5 years old. She wasn't quite 10 when she first appeared with her mother and stepfather in their musical act.

Both Andrews' mother and stepfather were alcoholics whose careers eventually declined as hers blossomed. In contrast with her gentle, kindly father, Andrews' stepfather could be a nasty, brutish man, especially when he'd been drinking. As a teenager, Andrews basically became the breadwinner for her mother, stepfather and two half-brothers - spending long stretches of time away from home performing.

My favorite parts of the memoir deal with Andrews' experiences on Broadway. It was so interesting to read about what it was like to come to New York City as a teenager and star in three shows in quick succession.

She recalls that "Everything about New York at the beginning seemed like an assault. The pace, the customs, the pressure of being in a wonderful hit show, the exposure to so much that was exciting and new. There were days when I was so overwhelmed that I literally found myself pausing in shop doorways to gain my breath."

And she takes us through the whole process of putting together a Broadway show - from auditioning to rehearsals and costume fittings, to the out-of-town tryout and opening night, to coping with the physical strain of performing eight times a week and keeping her singing voice in proper shape.

Andrews made her Great White Way debut in September 1954, just before her 19th birthday, in The Boy Friend. Two years later came My Fair Lady, and in 1960, Camelot. She didn't return for more than 30 years, until Victor/Victoria in 1995.

But Andrews shares some great stories about the first three shows, including what it was like to work with legendary figures like Rex Harrison and Richard Burton, both of whom could be extremely difficult at times, and Moss Hart, whom she especially revered.

She's also brutally honest about the steep learning curve she had to undergo for My Fair Lady. "About two weeks into rehearsals, it became obvious to me and to everyone that I was hopelessly out of my depth as Eliza Doolittle." She describes her costar, Harrison, as being "cold and ungenerous" toward her.

At one point, Hart, the musical's director, dismissed the cast for 48 hours so he could work solely with Andrews. "By the end of the forty-eight hours, that good man had stripped my feelings bare, and disposed of my girlish inadequacy; he had molded, kneaded and helped me become the character of Eliza. He made her part of my soul. We were both exhausted."

Oh, how I wish she'd been in the film of My Fair Lady! I would love to have seen that performance. Andrews says she understood Warner Bros. need for a marquee name, which is why Audrey Hepburn got the role. But she obviously feels a twinge of regret, too. "In later years, I did wish that I had been able to record my performance somehow, somewhere, for posterity - or at least for my grandchildren."

By the end of the book, I thought, what a consummate professional, what a trouper. Andrews comes across as a warm and gracious person, and totally devoted to her art. Here's part of her description of the joy of performing on stage:

"When the orchestra swells to support your voice, when the melody is perfect and the words so right there could not possibly be any others, when a modulation occurs and lifts you to an even higher plateau, ... it is bliss. And that is the moment to share it. One senses the audience feeling it, too, and together you ride the ecstasy all the way home."

I hope Andrews is working on a sequel to Home. I'd love to hear about working on Mary Poppins, for which she won an Oscar. It's also been awhile since I've watched a lot of her movies, so a review is in order. And come to think of it, I don't believe I've ever listened to the original Broadway cast recording of My Fair Lady. I definitely need to do that now.

And just in case you're wondering, Andrews is far from retired. This month, she'll be in Vancouver filming the family oriented comedy Tooth Fairy.

1 comment:

Michelle Russell said...

You certainly have an amazing amount of blogs. This one was excellent...though older. This year I wrote my own by the same title on my blog.
Yes, her book "Home" is marvelous and she is working on part 2. I look forward to reading more of your blogs!