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"So we worked for the weekend and I credit Moss with the rest of my theatrical life because he made it all possible. He showed me-he cajoled, he bullied, he pleaded, he encouraged, he did everything and was the kindest, clearest human being"

Julie Andrews on Moss Hart

Theatre Week
By
Christopher Durang
24 May 1993

Christopher Durang Interviews Julie Andrews

Julie Andrews and Christopher Durang are currently starring in Putting It Together at the Manhattan Theater Club. The setting for the show is a party in a penthouse where Durang appears as a mysterious guest while Andrews faces a disintegrating marriage. Before performing last Thursday. Durang met with Andrews in order to discuss her life and career and the man who brought her back to the New York stage. Stephen Sondheim.

Christopher Durang: Okay, beginning of interview.

Julie Andrews: Beginning of interview.

Now I'm thrilled to be working with you in Putting It Together. I assume you must be thrilled to be working with me, is that correct?

[Laughs] Well, if you thin I'm going to say otherwise-

Just say yes.

Yes I am.

Oh yes, thank you. All right, well, that's the extent of anything funny I could think to say. So I'm just going to ask questions that, I bet, if you did more interviews they already would have asked you. But you told me that you knew Stephen Sondheim for a long time and that surprised me. How did you meet him?

When I was in Fair Lady, my then-to-be husband, Tony Walton, and I moved with a whole crowd: people like Steve. And Mike Nichols was part of the group. And we would have Sunday brunch together or meet at a party and so on.

When I left Broadway, Steve and I saw little of each other. That's why this is such a pleasure-not only to sing Sondheim, which I've always wanted to do, but to renew our acquaintance.

Tony [Walton] did the sets for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum-

Yes, he did. It's one of my favorite shows. I adore it. And I loved Tony's set for it, which was riotous in color, and it had wonderful, bawdy costumes. And the show was so funny. I saw it through opening night in New York and in England.

Thinking of-I'm jumping topics for a second time-but thinking of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, some critics and some audiences actually found parts of our present show sexist. They focused on "Lovely" and "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" [from Forum], which of course I do every night. And knowing the show it's from, it's hard for me to think of it as sexist because there's such a built-in burlesque feeling-excuse me, vaudeville/burlesque feeling. I wondered what thoughts you had on it?

I think it's the times we live in now. It's probably very politically correct to make a comment about it. But anybody who knows the show knows that it was written about people in Roman days who-

Well, plus, the lecherous man is a staple of both literature and life.

Today and yesterday, yes.

So I'm confused. What would they like instead? Should we come out and do a song that says, well, you're a very attractive woman but I'm only interested in your mind? I guess that's the song they want to hear.

That's lovely. [Laughs.]

Jumping topics again: Was it a decision to leave Broadway after Camelot or was it just something that unfolded as your movie career took off?

It just unfolded. My career seems to have had three monumental steps. My early years in vaudeville, when I was a kid and a child star, one of those odd people who had a big voice and who was very young and that kind of thing.

And then this huge leap, coming to Broadway and doing about six and a half very hardworking years here in New York. Then the next big move was when I went to Hollywood and Disney asked me to do Mary Poppins and I just sort of stayed.

Would you tell me a little bit about singing, performing as a child and what it was like.

Well, my parents, my mother and my stepfather, were in vaudeville. During the war, my school shut down. I guess I was underfoot a lot and a total irritant. Also, I was living with this new stepfather whom I didn't like very much. I didn't want anybody taking the place of my beloved Dad....

My stepfather was a tenor, a very fine Canadian singer, and he started to give me singing lessons and discovered that I had a really freak voice. I had about a four octave range and an adult larynx in a little kid and I could sing anything.

I thought it was a great lark. This was when I was about seven. My stepfather took me to his singing teacher and she laughed gently and said, bring her back to me when she's a little older. But the voice was so strong that my parents persevered and this good lady, a Madame Stiles-allen, took me under her wing. I never had another teacher. She was wonderful.

Very quickly my parents incorporated me into their act. So it was Ted and Barbara Andrews and Julie. And then, as vaudeville declined, but I became more successful, it quickly became Julie Andrews with Ted and Barbara, which was not terribly good for my stepfather's ego.

How old were you when that happened?

From ages 10 to 12, I appeared with them in vaudeville, occasionally as a surprise item in their act, singing duets with my stepfather and climbing onto a big beer crate in order to reach the microphone with him. I was able to learn all my material thanks to my mother because she was a wonderful pianist.

At the age of 12, I was asked to appear in a very sophisticated London revue at the London Hippodrome which was a theater in those days, but is now, sadly, a bingo hall or something like that. ...The night before we were due to open, the producers thought that I was too innocent and too young a child to put into a sophisticated London revue. At which point, my mother and my agent stormed the producer's office and said, you can't deny this kid her big chance and for God's sake, let her go on.

So they upped the stakes so to speak, and I sang a song that was twice as difficult on opening night. I was fortunate in that I absolutely stopped the show cold. I mean, the audience went crazy.

What was the song?

The song was the "Polonaise" from Mignon with an F above top C and tons of idiotic coloratura stuff. I just sang the one song every night. There was this wonderful American entertainer and comedian, Wally Boag, who made balloon animals. He would say, is there any little girl or boy in the audience that would like one of these? And I would rush up on stage and say, I'd like one, please. And then he would chat to me and
I'd tell him that I sang and so on.

I did two performances a night for about a year and thought that it was a complete fluke, that I was just a flash in the pan.

Was the vaudeville act over at that time or just in hiatus?

I hadn't really started myself as a single in vaudeville. I had only appeared as a surprise in my parents' act. And so the Hippodrome show launched me because the press picked up on it. I was sort of an English Deanna Durbin.

And then to my astonishment, a pantomime-tremendously popular and very traditional-followed at Christmas time. From then on, I toured in vaudeville and did summer concert shows up in the north of England.

I guess I must have gone around England three or four times-completely around-playing every major vaudeville theater. It was a very interesting time because vaudeville was just on its way out and all the theaters were rather run down and beginning to close. But I did get to work with some of the greatest English entertainers.

Nowadays I think that stood me in very good stead. Not just what I was able to learn by performing but what I was able to learn by watching. I learned how to deal with audiences-even very drunk ones on Saturday nights hurling bottles at each other.

Did you go to school at this time?

I had very little education which has always made me sad. Before I was 12, I went to school somewhat sporadically because we moved a lot. But from 12 to about mid15, I had a governess travel with me everywhere and teach me: a tutor, as you would say.

She was a wonderful old lady who took no nonsense and she gave me the basics. But I never went to high school.

Who would pay for her? Was that an expensive thing?

My parents, they had to.

When did your stepfather die? Assuming he did.

He did. I guess about-about 20 to 22 years ago. My mother passed away six years ago, my real father four years ago. So all my immediate relatives have gone except for my aunt, my mother's sister.

It was a difficult relationship with my stepfather. I know now that he attempted to be kind and did one or two sweet things for me. He was an alcoholic, though, which was a nightmare for the whole family.

Anyway, between 13 and 18 I toured, did some radio and some television, but very little. Television really wasn't huge in England at that time.

And then, in 1954, I was asked if I would like to come to Broadway to do The Boyfriend.

Had you done it in England?

No.

Had it been done in England?

Yes. It was a huge hit and because it was such a huge hit, the producers did not want to

Uproot the cast?

Exactly, because it was still doing so well. And the American producers, Feuer and Martin, felt that they would like to get a brand new cast anyway and start afresh over here.

The director of The Boyfriend, a lady called Vida Hope, came to see me. I was performing at the London Palladium in another Christmas pantomime at the time.

Now what exactly does one do in a Christmas pantomime?

Well, it's not pantomime as you know it. It's a seasonal Christmas show with songs and a book and tons of spectacle. Every major town in England has one for the Christmas season. And they run mid December till, oh, end of March. It's very English and I doubt it would ever go over here.

It's Cinderella or Aladdin or Mother Goose or any of the great nursery rhymes. And there's a play written and the funny Dame is always played by a man in drag. For instance, the ugly sisters in Cinderella would be played by men.

The idiocy is that the principal man, the Prince himself in the case of Cinderella, would be played by a woman, preferably with great legs in tights and high heels and so on. I was Cinderella. The principal girl was always the rather wet role, you know, where you were always bland and not terribly glamorous.

Of course, I was so bandy legged in those days, I never could have made principal boy, anyway! So I was always principal girl. I played the Egg in Humpty Dumpty, too. I played Cinderella. I played the Princess in Aladdin, and so on.

Anyway, they're huge productions. There's always the obligatory kitchen scene with a lot of slapstick. And there's the huge transformation ballet at the end of the first act. And a wedding and happy-ever-after at the end of the second act. Any popular song of the day is thrown in for good measure.

So it doesn't necessarily have a Christmas theme. It just takes place at Christmas?

Well, it has a seasonal feeling because it's always the great nursery rhymes and there's a lot of tinsel and star dust and spangles.

Anyway, there I was playing Cinderella at the London Palladium and I was asked to come and do The Boyfriend on Broadway. And I said oh no-I couldn't possibly leave home. Although I toured all around England, I was very-I always had terrible separation anxiety about leaving home.

Now, I know you were very young. How young were you?

Eighteen. I had my 19th birthday the day after The Boyfriend opened on Broadway.

How did you make the decision to come to Broadway?

My father, my real father-when in doubt, I always asked his advice. I remember walking in our garden and saying oh, Dad, what am I going to do? I'm so nervous. They want me to go to Broadway. And he said, I think it would be the most wonderful thing for you. It would open up your head, your mind.

They wanted me to sign a two year contract and it seemed like forever. Dad said, but it might only last three weeks or three months and you'll have had a phenomenal experience. It would be good for you.

I thought, well, maybe. Then, for the first time in my life, I put my foot down and said I would do it but only for a year. Thinking that didn't seem as bad as two years.

The interesting part of this story is that at the end of my year in The Boyfriend, a man called me, called Dick Lamar, as I recall. He said, I represent Lerner and Loewe. Could you just answer one question? How long a contract do you have in The Boyfriend'? And I said, oh, I'm going home in two weeks' time.

And he said, oh my God, we thought that, like everybody else in the company, you would have a two year contract. They asked me to audition for My Fair Lady and, miraculously, I got it.

Tell me about the audition for My Fair Lady. Or auditions.

Yes, various auditions. Lerner and I worked together a few times and went through certain scenes. I guess they Lerner and our director, Moss Hart-both felt that I could do it, which was certainly more than I felt. I had only known vaudeville. I had never done a straight play in my life. It seemed as if the legitimate world was on the other side of the tracks for me.

I could belt out a song all right but I had no idea how to play a scene. One-third of the way through rehearsals for My Fair Lady it became pretty obvious that I was out of my depth.

After Moss Hart had worked with Rex Harrison-who was also very needy, but because of the music-he came to me and said, I'm going to dismiss the company for the weekend and you and I are going to work.

I knew that it was a now or never situation. I thought, they're going to send me home, for sure. I'd heard stories about people being dismissed from shows without a qualm. It had happened a bit in The Boyfriend.

So we worked for the weekend and I credit Moss with the rest of my theatrical life because he made it all possible. He showed me-he cajoled, he bullied, he pleaded, he encouraged, he did everything and was the kindest, clearest human being.

How long did you play Fair Lady?

In all, three and a half years. Two on Broadway and 18 months in London. But I was a basket-case by the time I finished.

Because it was-

Vocally, I don't know any Eliza that has managed to survive for any length of time. I think Sally Ann Howes did pretty well but I don't know how long she was in the show. But any other Eliza has had-there have been horrendous tales. And I was certainly one of those tales. First of all, there's the dramatic role which is the loveliest that a lady could have whether it's a musical or not, but it is huge. It's a Cinderella story with tremendously dramatic scenes that have you screaming cockney.

And then there are songs like "Just You Wait, Henry Higgins" which tears your voice to shreds. And then you suddenly have to sing in a pure way later.

So did you lose your voice?

Yes, occasionally, and then I'd have to be off and rest. It was learning the hard way. I learned, thanks to Fair Lady, how to take care of my voice, to be disciplined. It was very good experience.

Your next musical was Camelot. Was that a happy experience?

Oh yes. Fair Lady for me was a learning experience, it was very heavy. And suddenly, Camelot came along and it was just about my size and weight. Working with Richard Burton, Robert Goulet, Roddy McDowall, and the whole crowd was a delight from start to finish.

It got average reviews, to the best of my recollection, but it wasn't a vast hit because, of course, it was compared to Fair Lady. The authors, again Moss Hart and Alan Lerner and Fritz Loewe, went away for three months then came back and rewrote the second half. It coincided with an Ed Sullivan appearance that we did.

The day after we were on television, months after we had opened, we had a line at the box office as if we had been an opening night hit. And from then on, we did just fine. I've never seen that done before.

And the changes that were made were all for the better?

They were very much for the better.

When Kennedy came to the show, was that a big deal for you all?

He never came.

He never came? You mean it's from the record?

Yes. He loved the album. The word got back that he loved it. And of course, it was a tremendous source of pride for us that he did. But speaking of great names, Churchill came to see My Fair Lady.

Really?
Yes, he was very old and very deaf. And he did a wonderful thing. He asked for the script of Fair Lady and read it the day that he came to see the show so that he knew what it was all about.
Isn't that grand?

When did Mary Poppins happen in relation to Camelot?

Towards the end of my run in Camelot was two months pregnant-I got word that Mr. Disney was going to come and see the show and that he'd like to meet with me afterwards.

And indeed he came around to the dressing room and said he loved the show and he was making a movie of Poppins and would I be interested in going to Hollywood just to see what he had done and to listen to the songs.

And my then husband, Tony Walton, and I journeyed to L.A. and had an absolutely wonderful time-I mean, Disney just spoiled us magnificently. The songs were played for us and he had about three rooms story boarded. The entire film was on the walls in sketches and with the characters and ideas for scenes.

There was a vaudeville quality to the music that I instantly identified with. I thought, I could help that, I could be good for it. I was thrilled that they asked me to do it. And they asked Tony Walton if he'd do all the costumes and some of the sets. Which he did.

Is it awful to ask if the film of My Fair Lady was terribly, terribly upsetting?

No, it's not awful to ask at all. And the stock reply really is that I completely understood at the time why they wouldn't cast me. Because I was not known, I was only known on Broadway. The rest of America didn't know who the heck I was. And they wanted box office names.

The thing is, I didn't mind at the time but.

No?

Audrey was charming. We were chums for years. We talked about it. She said, oh Julie, I didn't have the guts to turn it down. And I understood.

Many years later, I began to be sad that I hadn't put such a wonderful role down definitively. But at the time I had the best compensation in the world with Disney and Mary Poppies.

I think we were all frustrated for you. I find when musicals are made and the people are dubbed, I don't especially like it, especially if there are talented people out there who can sing. So particularly for that role, I hated having it dubbed.

Oh, who knows? I'd never made a film in my life, I could have just blown it completely.

Yeah, well, that's a modest thing to think. But in any case, Mary Poppins was certainly a success. And then furthermore, there's that eerie thing of you and Rex Harrison winning Oscars the same year. It must have seemed really like some sort of odd karmic reward for you in a strange way.

I wondered if I was given the award for Poppins as some kind of compensation for not having gotten the part in My Fair Lady. There were some phenomenal performances that year.

Who were you up against?

Anne Bancroft, for one. She was up for The Pumpkin Eater. There's a moment in that film that I quote to this day.

Oh yes, I love that movie. Tell me.

It's the smallest, smallest moment. She and Peter Finch are having this huge row and they suddenly become aware of a noise in the next room. They realize that their little son has been listening. And they sad something like-his name wasn't Jamie but supposing it was-and they say, "Jamie, is that you?" Dead silence.

And then you suddenly see this little figure tear past the door. And they say, "Jamie, what are you doing?" There's a long pause and then this fierce little voice says, "Nothing," very loudly. You know that he'd been eavesdropping and didn't know how to get out of it. It's a wonderful moment.

Did you know it was written by Harold Pinter? One of my favorite lines is when Bancroft goes to the hairdresser and this very unbalanced woman next to her recognizes her from a magazine. And the woman says to the Bancroft character, oh, you have such a lovely family and lovely husband and I so admire you. Then she suddenly says, "My life is an empty place. What are you going to do about it?" And Anne Bancroft just looks trapped, like, how can she get out of it?

I loved that movie and I kept thinking that Anne Bancroft should win the Oscar. When they gave it to me, I think I said something like, "Boy, you sure know how to make a girl feel welcome in this country."

And then Sound of Music. Did that occur right away?

No, what's amazing is that Poppins and The Americanization of Emily and The Sound of Music had all been made and all three of them were in the can but none of them had been released.

Say that again. You made-

I made three films, the first three films I ever made, and not one of them had been released. It was the nicest feeling in the world because I just got to play and have fun without any of the consequences.

I think The Sound of Music is a fabulous movie. And I really do think it's an improvement on the play, which I hope isn't wrong to say.

Mary Rodgers said that it's one of the few musicals of her father's that actually became even better on the screen.

I think it did. And also, you-it's very tricky to do. Maria's called upon to be genuinely radiant, I think, isn't she?

I don't know about that ... And I feel you do it so well. Oh, thank you.

I really think it's a very good movie. And coming from the author of Sister Mary Ignatius that's probably very odd.

Would you tell me that strange story that I've forgotten? Because I tried to retell it to someone about how you were in the Alps just wandering about...

Well, Blake and I have a home in Switzerland. We get there as often as we can. We adore it. I was trying to get myself ready for a stint at the London Palladium.

And I knew I needed more energy than I could possibly muster. So I decided to go for brisk walks every day. And I started to walk up to the farm and around because there are many hills and steep inclines and that really gets the legs strong. Then I started jogging a little and running a little.

And finally I thought well, there's not a soul in sight, I could even start vocalizing out in the fresh air. So there I was singing "The hills are alive..." and just as I turned a corner a whole bunch of Japanese tourists came over the hill.

They looked so surprised. They must have thought that I did that sort of thing all the time.

[Both laugh.]
As if you'd never left. Poor Julie Andrews, she's still singing that song!

 

 



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