Julie Andrews ' The Gift of Music

"The theme of the evening is gifts old and new.

Courier Journal
06 July 2008
By Andrew Alder

Adversity gives 'Gift of Music'

Dame Julie Andrews finds her voice in a show she'll premiere with the Louisville Orchestra

Julie Andrews' 50-year-plus career arc is a prime example of how to make adversity work in your favor, or at least render it less painful to bear.

When the celebrated theater and film actress lost her singing voice after a failed 1997 operation to remove nodules from her vocal cords, she could have retreated into the Los Angeles home she shares with her husband, film director Blake Edwards. Instead, Andrews accelerated her emphasis on writing children's books, both alone and with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton.

One of these collaborations became "Simeon's Gift," a medieval fable about "a humble musician" discovering how nature sings the loveliest song of all. Published in 2003, the slender volume was adapted into a musical, first staged last November at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, N.Y., with Andrews herself narrating.

Soon afterward, "Simeon's Gift" took another growth spurt, exchanging its original piano accompaniment for a full symphony orchestra. Andrews and the Louisville Orchestra will give the premiere of this expanded version Friday night at 8 at the Kentucky Center, part of an evening dubbed "The Gift of Music."

It's a gift in two parts. The opening half features five young singers performing Rodgers & Hammerstein songs closely associated with Andrews during her stage and film career (think Maria in "The Sound of Music"). Andrews will introduce the selections and offer a few tasty biographical morsels.

Then comes "Simeon's Gift," which features music by Ian Fraser, who also conducts, and lyrics by John Bucchino, a Broadway songwriter whose most recent show is "A Catered Affair."

For Andrews, collaborating with her daughter proved to be a rare and potent satisfaction.

"Emma and I are passionate advocates of music and the arts, and we tried to wed the two in this small fable."

Andrews, now 72 and a Dame of the British Empire, spoke during a phone interview from Los Angeles. Her voice was a bit huskier than many might recall -- tinged with the grain of age and experience -- but every so often her distinctive timbre would emerge in a sparkling flash.

Born in England, with a childhood (frankly described in her recently published memoir, "Home") framed by an alcoholic mother and stepfather, she emerged an astounding prodigy.

"She was a pigtailed child with unstraightened teeth and a grown-up voice of crystalline clarity that ranged up and down four octaves in perfect pitch," Steven Bach wrote in "Dazzler," his 2001 biography of Moss Hart, who directed Andrews in "My Fair Lady."

Though Andrews had already made a name for herself starring in "The Boy Friend" in 1954, it was the role of Eliza Doolittle and "My Fair Lady" two years later that brought her sensational international success. She was all of 21.

From there her career surged onward. There was "Camelot" on Broadway and "Mary Poppins" and "The Sound of Music" on film. Her later-year triumphs included Edwards' "S.O.B" (in which she famously bared her breasts) and "Victor/ Victoria." She reprised her screen appearance in the latter by headlining a production on Broadway.

Still, all was not professionally blissful. Barely into her 20s when "My Fair Lady" opened in New York, the strain of singing multiple performances every week, week after week, took a toll on her voice.

"It's as tough as opera, maybe more so," Andrews says of the life of a Broadway musical actor. Tenor "Placido Domingo once said to me, that in terms of really full-out, full-bore singing, most operas demand maybe 25 minutes. But on Broadway you have to have a particular kind of voice that can act and speak and sing -- hopefully for eight performances a week."

When "My Fair Lady" opened in 1956, there were no such things as body microphones, only crude mikes placed by the footlights. By the time "Victor/Victoria" hit Broadway in the fall of 1995, body mikes were common. Today Andrews makes no apologies for using them.

"I actually wore two, in case one failed," she recalls, adding that as a young singer 40 years earlier, offered what quite literally was the role of a lifetime, how could she say no?

Now Andrews advises up-and-coming colleagues to be ever-careful to preserve what can never be replaced.

"Maintenance is essential," she emphasizes. "I would counsel anybody beginning in the business to have a good throat specialist who can help you. There's no shame in that. In the old days you simply had to get on and stay on."

At least singers today have largely moved away from what Andrews calls "the Broadway belt," which could either toughen your vocal cords -- or blow them out.

With microphones, "I think you are gaining because you are saving voices," she says. Indeed, "in terms of clarity of diction and meaning, I am a huge advocate of microphones -- you want the entire audience to hear you, and you don't want to tear your throat to ribbons."

Because "The Gift of Music" extends over a full evening, its singers face a bold shift in expressive style from one half to the next. Andrews recognizes that challenge.

"I'm asking quite a lot from my five performers," she acknowledges. "They have to be able to perform all the ballads of Rodgers and Hammerstein on the first half, then play all the other characters on the second" in "Simeon's Gift."

Or as Eliza-Maria-Dame Julie puts it: "The theme of the evening is gifts old and new."

Reporter Andrew Adler can be reached at (502) 582-4668.

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