"is another way of using the voice that I love to use. It was a wonderful challenge to do it. You have to arrive with your narration at the same time as the music. It requires timing and rhythm. You need to pace yourself."

Julie Andrews on recording with a piano for the book CD

By Aileen Jacobson
18 November 2007

A children's play, born of divorce

Once upon a time, "Simeon's Gift" was a project for a little girl named Emma as she traveled back and forth between her divorced parents, Julie Andrews and Tony Walton.

Andrews lived on the West Coast and Walton on the East Coast.

Many years later, the story became a children's book.

Now it's been transformed into a musical, which is having its world premiere at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor next weekend.

"Emma and I created the story, and he would illustrate it," says Andrews. "It was a way to keep a link going, a kind of unity. ... It was not an easy time for her." Andrews and her daughter, then 6, wrote a bit of the story each time she was to travel, and then Walton, an award-winning set and costume designer, added illustrations.

When the story was done, "I had it bound for Emma. It was an important moment for all of us, a gift from both of us," Andrews, 72, says, speaking from Los Angeles in a conference call with Emma Walton, a co-founder of Bay Street and its director of Education and Programming for Young Audiences. Walton, 44, now has children of her own, a boy named Sam, 11, and a girl named Hope, 4.

The original story, says Emma Walton, was about a young man sailing on a river who meets various animals that accompany him after he helps them. Each one provides a different tone or rhythm that he uses to compose his own wonderful song. But that tale is the last third of "Simeon's Gift," the children's book that mother and daughter published in 2003.

(The duo has written 17 volumes together so far. Their books are part of The Julie Andrews Collection, published by HarperCollins Children's Books. As authors, they use Julie Andrews Edwards and Emma Walton Hamilton.)

The book, illustrated by Gennady Spirin, expands the story of Simeon, now a lute player and singer who wants to win the hand of the lovely Sorrel. He decides he first needs to experience the outside world and hear new sounds so he can create his own songs. He meets drum-beating soldiers and chanting monks, then visits a city filled with a cacophony of music and sound that leaves him confused. That's when he heads home on the river.

The musical adds another complication: Sorrel's father doesn't approve of the courtship. "There's more dramatic tension," says Walton.

Composing the score

The play's musical score has its own history.

Andrews recorded the book for a CD that's included with the volume. Her reading is underscored by original music by Ian Fraser, her longtime music director. Although Andrews no longer sings, due to throat problems, recording with a piano "is another way of using the voice that I love to use. It was a wonderful challenge to do it. You have to arrive with your narration at the same time as the music. It requires timing and rhythm. You need to pace yourself."

Deciding to move the story to theater - mother and daughter both want to bring their books into other media, and Walton wants Bay Street to produce and tour original works - Fraser was a natural pick for composer. But he doesn't write lyrics. So they approached New York cabaret songwriter John Bucchino. They met him, they say, after a friend sang his song "Grateful" at a Thanksgiving dinner.

"My son was crazy about it. He wanted to listen to it over and over," says Walton. They turned his lyrics into a book, published in 2003. "This made a beautiful picture book, and we fell in love with the person as well," Walton says.

Bucchino says he normally writes both music and lyrics, but he couldn't refuse this offer. "It's lovely, lovely music," he says. He, Andrews and Walton "brainstormed about where the songs should go" and what they should say, later aided by director Marcia Milgrom Dodge. "It was really free and easy and fun," says Bucchino, who will make his Broadway debut this spring with "A Catered Affair" (his score, book by Harvey Fierstein).

A premiere and a tour

In July, Bay Street staged a benefit concert reading of "Simeon's Gift" with Andrews presenting the play's narration live. The premiere performance will use a recording of the narration and music. Starting in 2009, Bay Street plans to tour the five-actor musical with the recording. After that, says Walton, they want to license the play to other theaters, hoping to generate more revenue. "We've long been looking for a way to take our product to a larger audience. We're challenged by our small size," says Walton.

Andrews says she'd like to perform a version of the work with a symphony orchestra. "Think 'Peter and the Wolf.' I would be thrilled to do that."

Mother and daughter say they love working together. "It surprised us both," says Andrews, who keeps a house near Walton's Sag Harbor home. "It's a wonderful way for us to spend a great deal of time together without the slightly bothersome aspects a family can bring."

"We don't discuss the aches and pains, the family dramas," says Walton. "It means our time together is very creative and joyful."

"Simeon's Gift," 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor, $25 adults, $10 children up to 12, for ages 7 and older, 631-725-9500 or baystreet.org.