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Our Fair Julie

Julie Andrews is directing My Fair Lady. Picture: Mark Cranitch

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Several generations have grown up with her in The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. With My Fair Lady set to hit the stage in Melbourne. Julie Andrews reminisces about 60 years in showbiz.

WE HAVE grown accustomed to her face. Accustomed to the blossom in her cheeks, the bluish twinkle in her eyes. But Dame Julie Andrews still has the sort of star power no amount of familiarity can erase.

Slipping into her seat at the opening of My Fair Lady in Brisbane, wearing dark glasses, the beloved stage and screen star was easily spotted. And, as the lights dimmed ahead of the overture, ripples of applause swelled into a tsunami of affection. A sustained roar that had the original Eliza Doolittle — not to mention Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp — standing briefly and waving back with embarrassed thanks.

“Goodness me, what an ovation,’’ the 81-year-old says the morning after. But Andrews — directing an Australian revival of Lerner and Loewe’s classic Broadway musical — is quick to swivel the spotlight. “This Australian company, they work so hard and give me everything I could possibly ask for,’’ she says. “I think of them almost as my second family.’’

Andrews — sauntering into a hotel anteroom in floral jacket, black slacks and suede shoes — seems especially taken with Anna O’Byrne, the Melbourne singer (Love Never Dies) cast as Eliza in her acclaimed 60th anniversary production.

“Anna is wonderful,’’ she says. “Her voice is gorgeous and she’s finding things in the role that I’m thrilled about, things I would never have thought of.’’

Andrews was only 20, with just one big show under her belt (The Boyfriend), when she landed the coveted role of Eliza opposite Rex Harrison’s Professor Henry Higgins. They were the toast of Broadway after My Fair Lady opened in New York on March 15, 1956. Audiences seeing the show on London’s West End were just as ecstatic.

“I did My Fair Lady for almost 3½ years, eight performances a week,’’ Andrews recalls. “It was a marathon.’’

No archival record remains of that astounding production. Eliza — the Covent Garden flower seller transformed from a “squashed cabbage leaf’’ into an English rose — was defined instead by Audrey Hepburn in the Oscar-winning 1964 Hollywood movie My Fair Lady.

“Audrey and I became good friends and one day she said to me, ‘Julie, you should have done the role (on screen) … but I didn’t have the guts to turn it down’,” Andrews says. “In fact, that’s not the reason I didn’t do it. Not because Audrey wanted it but because I wasn’t known at that time. On Broadway I was known but they (Hollywood producers) wanted a huge box-office name.’’

Ironically, at the 1965 Academy Awards, it was Andrews — not Hepburn — who claimed the Best Actress Oscar: for Mary Poppins. Walt Disney had seen Andrews as Guinevere in Camelot — the fabled Lerner and Loewe musical that followed My Fair Lady — and decided she was “practically perfect’’ to play P.L. Travers’ magical nanny.

Mary Poppins opened the door to The Sound of Music, where Andrews’ do-re-mi charm in the Bavarian Alps, and mastery of Rodgers and Hammerstein music, earned her another Oscar nomination.

“I was the lucky lady asked to do those roles,’’ she says airily.

But was this dream run just luck or good judgment?

“Young students ask me (that) all the time … where the good fortune comes in is, you never know when a great role is going to float past,” she says. “The thing is, do your homework.
Be ready when they do.’’

This is the sort of sensible advice Andrews dispenses on Julie’s Greenroom, a new Netflix show where she joins Jim Henson puppets (her “Greenies”) in teaching kids — and kids at heart — about the “beautiful world of the arts’’.

“I did a lot of touring in my youth,’’ she says, “and I learnt very quickly that giving is what it’s all about. It’s about the gift of making an audience feel great and forget their cares, if only for a few hours.’’

But do actors ever really learn how to handle success? The Sound of Music, a megahit, made Andrews the America’s biggest film star in 1966.

“It certainly knocked me sideways for a while,’’ she says. “There’s a great wave of people coming at you and it does take a certain amount of discipline.

“You have to collect yourself, keep your head and realise this is not the way it’s always going to be. It’s a dream life for a little while.’’

Into the late 1960s and ’70s, Andrews scored more misses (Star!, Darling Lili) than hits (Thoroughly Modern Millie), returning to form in 1982’s Victor/Victoria — a gender-bending comedy directed by her second husband, the late Blake Edwards.

The biggest setback came in 1997 when her vocal chords were damaged after an operation. But Andrews — who epitomises buck-up, on-with-the-show optimism — has gone on to enjoy cross-generational appeal with queenly roles in Shrek movies and The Princess Diaries.

“If you’ve been fortunate enough to do a film that appeals to the entire family, that’s the audience that’s probably going to come back to you in something else,’’ she says. “Not that
I choose things for that reason.

“The loveliest roles, for me, have a growth arc — a beginning, a middle and an end — and I’m always grateful when I can find one of those emotional journeys.’’

My Fair Lady — inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion — is one of the great Cinderella stories, blessed with Alan Jay Lerner’s clever lyrics and Frederick Loewe’s marvellous melodies for Wouldn’t It Be Loverly, On The Street Where You Live and I Could Have Danced All Night.

Has Dame Julie ever danced all night?

“Let me think,’’ she says, throwing me a Cherry Tree Lane smile. “Yes. Just about. Probably in my youth when I was little more free and able to be silly.’’

So, not after a performance of My Fair Lady?

“Goodness, no. You couldn’t really party because … well, just think what Eliza has to do. She shouts, she yells, she sings in a pure way. It can be as beautiful and detailed a role as any in Shakespeare.’’

In Home, the 2008 memoir of her early years, Andrews writes that performing in My Fair Lady was “one of the most difficult, most glorious, most complex adventures of my life’’.

Two weeks into rehearsals with an irascible Harrison, she remembers being “hopelessly out of my depth’’ and struggled to the very end trying to master Eliza’s Cockney accent.

“Every role comes with the doing and experience of it. You don’t necessarily have it when you begin. You grow.’’

In agreeing to direct My Fair Lady 60 years on, Andrews was not wanting to set things right. It was more a case of “bringing honour to the piece’’ — right down to recreating original costumes and designs — and “showing a new generation how lovely it is”.

“There are certain new things — very subtle — that I hope I have brought to the production,’’ she says. “I tried to stress the class difference (between Prof Higgins and Eliza) a bit more. And I’ve been passionate about making sure everyone (in the cast) knows the power of those words.’’

Words, wisdom, wonder … this motto guides another Andrews enterprise, a publishing house dedicated to “stimulating the imagination’’ of young readers.

Since 2003, The Julie Andrews Collection has issued more than 25 books (notably The Very Fairy Princess series) and its guiding force — in tandem with daughter Emma Walton Hamilton — says the project “is as important as any production on stage”.

“The quality of the paper and the artwork, the messages you’re trying to convey … do it properly and it comes together in a marvellous way,’’ Andrews says.

But make no mistake: the theatre is Andrews’ second home, the place where her spirit has soared and dreams have come true. Every time she hears the overture to My Fair Lady, she is transported to another “magical place’’.

“It’s to do with the joy of being a vessel,’’ she says. “Of using oneself fully and totally in the service of something that brings wonder.”


My Fair Lady opens at the Regent Theatre on May 12.


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