17 December 2009

Julie Andrews


It’s snowing in Beynes, in flakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes, while the coming of Christmas brings a remembered soundtrack of Julie Andrews’ recordings of carols. In Paris, the current stage production of The Sound of Music (a.k.a. La mélodie du bonheur) at the Théâtre du Châtelet mean that Andrews’ face and voice are popping up all over television these days. And so the first diva I ever worshipped has been much on my mind lately.

I met Julie Andrews backstage after a performance of Putting It Together, a Sondheim pastiche that represented her return to Broadway after a three-decade absence. You’d never have guessed she’d been away, however: she commanded the stage with total mastery. I couldn’t identify the secret source of her presence, but I could see the results, and while the piece wasn’t very good, she was phenomenal.

Scott Frankel, the show’s music director, introduced me to Andrews in her dressing room. I was terrified that I’d start gushing, so I kept my comments to a minimum and mostly listened while they discussed that evening’s performance, what had worked and what they agreed needed more work. Andrews was thoroughly professional about all this, but something more: she made clear that she admired my friend, and she took care to praise him in my presence. “Isn’t he a genius?” she asked me.

I was struck by her generosity. Yes, Scott is a genius, as it happens, but nobody was forcing Andrews to say so, least of all in front of his friend. This was the antithesis of stereotypical diva behavior, and I remember thinking as I left the theater, “I need to be this way, if ever I’m in anything like her exalted position in the world.” Not that there’s much chance, but I’ll try to remember the lesson.

By this point in his career, Scott had worked already with several legendary ladies of musical theater: Bernadette Peters, Teresa Stratas, Shirley MacLaine, Barbra Streisand. He wasn’t in awe of Julie Andrews, therefore, and as he told me, his boyhood idol was Streisand.* Was it something in our family backgrounds, we wondered, that made us gravitate toward the diva who most reflected our heritage? For just as Streisand is Jewish, so Andrews couldn’t be more a WASP.

I quite literally cut my teeth on Julie Andrews records, and when I was a baby, my mother used to sweep me in her arms and waltz around the room while listening to the My Fair Lady cast album. Evidently there were occasions when I did dance all night. And so deep was my infatuation with Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins that I used to dress up like her, grab an umbrella, and fly around the neighborhood.

Practically Perfect in Every Way

Her performances paved the way for my later explorations of opera, and some elements of her work continue to influence my taste: the clarity of her projection and the intimately conversational quality in her singing, and the precision of her diction are qualities I seek in other singers now. Sometimes, it turns out that these singers were influenced by Andrews’ technique: in the course of an interview, the wonderful Barbara Bonney told me excitedly of her early admiration of Julie Andrews, and indeed Bonney’s own bell-like soprano has often been heard in Salzburg.

Sitting around and wondering what simple folk would do.

As I grew older, my enthusiasm for Andrews diminished a bit, tempered not only by the mediocrity of so many of her vehicles but also by her limitations as an actress. She portrays only five emotions, as discrete as the gears on a car’s transmission, with comparably pronounced shifts between them. (Shifting into anger is especially difficult for her.) I found greater openness and truth in her singing — and in her writing, particularly her first book, a novel for children entitled Mandy.


Nowadays she’s pursuing her writing quite seriously, and reportedly drawing great satisfaction from it — though the profusion of children’s stories arrives a bit late to do me much good. A pity she didn’t take up the pen earlier and more often: how many of her movies, in a bundle, would I trade for just one more Whangdoodle!

Yet when she was good, she was sublime, and if you have never found yourself on a green hillside, outstretched your arms and twirled around, then burst into song — you have never truly lived.

*NOTE: Streisand’s style was inculcated in Scott to such a degree that, when he worked with her on the Back to Broadway album, she sometimes turned to him to sing a particular phrase — that is, to show her how to do it her way.


Girl From Texas said...

I grew up listening to her version of the Broadway show "Camelot", and still sing those songs to myself (with her pacing and inflections)

Dani said...

What you've written is beautiful- excuse my apparent cheesiness. I admire Julie Andrews so much as well. I would dance and sing to Mary Poppins at the young age of two, and she has been a big part of my life.

Your blog was a joy to read.