"This show is definitely a high point for me. I remind myself I've been lucky in every way. And I still am!"

The Bulletin
30 July 2008
By Sally Friedman

Taking Life With A Spoonful Of Sugar

Her voice is as crisp and cool as a fresh breeze. Even at the other end of a telephone line, Julie Andrews comes across as gracious, elegant and unfailingly polite.

Ms. Andrews (one would never call her just "Julie") has just finished a photo session and is delighted, she says, to reminisce a bit. So we do. And the conversation turns somewhat solemn once we get past the niceties about her remarkable career, her enduring legacy and her delight about bringing her "Gift of Music" show to the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia on Aug. 7.

We drift back to other times, specifically to her childhood in wartime England.

"Everything that happened to me then has made me exceedingly grateful for everything that's happened to me since," said Ms. Andrews, who remembers functioning as the neighborhood "alert system" by going out to watch and listen for German fighter planes, then blowing a shrill whistle that warned of raids. Wailing sirens still evoke difficult memories for her, she said.

"But I've been lucky in every way," insisted the star of the iconic "Sound of Music" film that made Julie Andrews a household name, and a symbol of all things lovely and brave as the plucky Maria, the acolyte-turned-governess-turned-wife.

Born Julie Elizabeth Wells, the future star had a mother who left her husband during wartime to go off and entertain with Ted Andrews, whom she subsequently married.

In 1940, Ms. Andrews went to live with the couple, and began appearing in their variety stage show. She became a hit, and ultimately, the headliner. Ms. Andrews attributes it to her self-described "freakish voice," which stretched over three octaves.

"I didn't have your average childhood," she acknowledged. "But I was still far more naïve than my own grandchildren are today. The world was simpler back then, even in wartime."

Not so simple was Ms. Andrews' relationship with her stepfather, who adopted her and gave her his name. In her best-selling autobiography Home, published this year, she describes a complicated man who was physically abusive to her brother and inappropriate in his attention toward her several times. Her flamboyant mother, who later struggled with alcohol problems, left her feeling insecure.

Ms. Andrews' legendary big break came when she made her solo debut in a musical revue at the London Hippodrome in 1947. She stayed at the Hippodrome for a year, then became the youngest performer ever to appear in a Royal Command Variety Performance at the London Palladium. From there, the doors opened for the gifted Ms. Andrews, who performed on radio, TV and in live theater in England.

By the eve of her 19th birthday, Ms. Andrews was debuting on Broadway in The Boyfriend. She was the hit of the show.

"I was so very green, but I was given opportunities few ever get," she says decades later.

Two years later, in 1956, she was Eliza Doolittle, the feisty flower-peddler of My Fair Lady. Her fame grew, and soon, she had the most-watched TV special of the era, "Cinderella," under her belt, along with the 1964 Academy Award for Best Actress in "Mary Poppins."

From live theater and film to a TV variety show, Ms. Andrews seemed destined to simply go on and on. And she did, until an operation to remove non-cancerous nodules from her throat in 1997 interrupted the singing career of a voice that had once done vocal calisthenics to the delight of millions.

"I go back to my wartime experiences - I didn't expect life to be easy, and it hasn't been,' said Ms. Andrews. "You go on."

And she has.

In "The Princess Diaries 2," she sang for the first time since her throat surgery.

The song was "Your Crowning Glory," and it was carefully set in a limited range of one octave to take into account the star's recovering voice. Reportedly, there were plenty of tears on the set when Ms. Andrews nailed the song on the film's first take.

The woman so many think of as the lovely Maria or the plucky Eliza has discovered another part of herself that delights her.

"I've written for children for 35 years, but lately, writing has truly become my passion," she said.
When she teamed up with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, they produced a series of children's books that began with Dumpy The Dump Truck, and continued with over 15 other titles.
"Emma's strengths are structure and organization, and I tend to be the flights-of-fancy writer," Ms. Andrews said.
When Ms. Andrews appears in Philadelphia for "The Gift of Music," she will narrate a new work called Simeon's Gift that she and Emma co-authored.

"I'll be narrating the tale of a 15th-century minstrel who is on a quest to discover his own musical gifts," she said. "Music has always been, and continues to be, one of the most important gifts of my life."

A score by Ian Fraser and lyrics by John Buccino will take Simeon's Gift, which was directed by the legendary Graciela Daniele, from page to stage through a cast of five singers, hand-picked by Ms. Andrews to honor the work. The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia will accompany the singers.

The first half of the Mann program will have Ms. Andrews again narrating as the same five performers, including Jubilant Sykes, Stephen Buntrock, Kevin Odekirk, Christine Noll and Anne Runolffson, share the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein. "And there is no more glorious music than theirs," said Ms. Andrews.
The inevitable question: Will she be singing at all?

"Let's just say I'll sometimes be sing-speaking and doing what I can. And that's enough for me."

But Julie Andrews ends the conversation as it began: with robust optimism and good cheer.

"This show is definitely a high point for me. I remind myself I've been lucky in every way. And I still am!"

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