by Patricia Grandjean
Nov 4, 2012
06:57 PMBox Office
Q&A Exclusive: Julie Andrews
Julie Andrews has returned to Goodspeed Musicals to direct The Great American Mousical at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, a stage show based on the 2006 book by Andrews and her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton. It's Dame Andrews' second directorial effort—her first since The Boy Friend, which played the Goodspeed Opera House in 2005 before going on national tour—and thus, my first chance to interview her since our Connecticut Magazine cover story on her Boy Friend production in July 2005. (Amidst its creative team, the new show includes esteemed movie/stage set designer Tony Walton, Andrews' first husband and Hamilton's father.) In addition to talking about a number of things Mousical, we also touched on a couple of other recent subjects close to her heart (and her funny bone). As a bonus, I've attached her hilarious interview with Stephen Colbert from earlier this year, as well as the 13-year-old Andrews' performance of "God Save the King" for King George VI in 1948. Ah, the joys of YouTube.
How did the idea come about to turn Mousical into a stage show?
It's quite simple and rather amazing. Once the book was finished, purely as a gesture of fun, I sent advanced copies to Michael Price and Bob Alwine at Goodspeed, simply because they are both such passionate lovers of theater. This story is all about musicals and our love of the theater, and I thought they would enjoy it. It was just done as a gesture, and within something like 24 hours, Bob Alwine got back to me and said, "We think this would make the most amazing musical, and we'd love to help develop it."
Emma and I were quite stunned, because it was nothing that we'd thought about. I said, "Are you sure?" and yes, they were quite sure and wanted to get into it. It took a few years to get together and get the right creative team together—the book came out in 2006, and we've been working on the show for the past year-and-a-half, two years. It was such a joy, and it's turned into such an amazing piece. I really do have to thank the Goodspeed people for being such great godfathers, because they helped bring it to life.
How has the book been adapted . . .
It's a musical, truthfully, about musicals—and is, I think, very witty and funny. It's about life in the theater, and all its idiocies and its sweetness and love and collaboration. It's written for adults, because there are many, many levels on which you can enjoy this musical. But I think all ages will love it, much like Annie or Shrek.
I remember that at the end of the book, there was a list of theatrical terms that were explained, which I found charming, because it was educational for someone who was young and maybe not so well acquainted with theater, and even I learned a couple of things.
Hopefully, if you bring the youngsters with you, they'll enjoy it on one level and as I say, adults will certainly enjoy it on another. It's really a love story; the music is just wonderful. The collaboration we have with the lyricist and composer . . . I'm not sure if you have their names, do you?
I understand that Hunter Bell wrote the book . . .
Yes, and he's done a beautiful job of fleshing out the characters and bringing them to life for us. Couldn't be more pleased. He honored us, you know?
And he won a Tony for [title of show]. You also have Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, who did Dear Edwina . . .
Right, they wrote our lyrics and music, respectively. The songs are wonderful; they're toe-tapping and there are some beautiful ballads. It is really fun, and I'm thrilled with the entire team.
And of course, you've worked with Tony [Walton] many times as a set designer.
Oh, yes! He designed The Boy Friend when we did it at Goodspeed, as you know. We're great friends, have been all our lives. We might as well keep it in the family—the book was written by our daughter and me, and he did the designs for that, so we might as well keep it that way.
So, you assembled your team together with Michael and Bob of the Goodspeed?
Yes. Bob Alwine in particular was hugely influential in everything from the casting to the team themselves. They really were godfathers; they guided us beautifully.
I also wanted to mention that you're working with Christopher Gattelli, the choreographer of Broadway's Newsies . . .
Another Tony winner!
So this is a world-class operation.
[Laughs] From your lips to everyone's ears, I hope. We just had two huge rehearsals in New York City, and the whole cast got together for the first time. It was very successful, and we discovered that we really do have a strong show. It was a wonderful discovery for all of us.
Tell us who's in the cast.
Adelaide—we call her Aunt Beaver—who is the leading lady, is played by Emily Skinner. David Beach plays the professor who loves her; Paul Carlin plays the Shakespearian orator in the cast. There's just a whole bunch of wonderful people. We have a lovely young man called Noah Galvin, who plays the young intern who is the sort of glue who holds the whole piece together. It's seen through his eyes—he's our Pippin.
Your book really has a large cast of characters. Will there be that big a cast onstage?
Not quite. Obviously, expenses and all of that dictate the limits. At the moment, this is a piece in development, which is why it's at Goodspeed's second theater, the Norma Terris. I think that what we've done is combine characters a great deal, and there will be some doubling up, too—people who play one character in the first act will play others in the second act.
You've said it's a love letter to musical theater, but is there a deeper theme to Mousical?
Yes, I think there is one, which is that—it's actually said about the young intern—that "someone so small can do so much for so many." The smallest mouse really works miracles by the end of the show, saves the theater and so on. So there is that theme going on. I think the most important thing is to spawn a love of musicals. We have such a love for them, Emma and I, and Tony. And the tribute that we pay to all the other great musicals—not all of them, really, there are far too many to count—but audiences chuckle at the references, and the songs are a mixture of homages to other musicals and true book songs. So we have to tiptoe our way through the pure book songs and what I would call the pastiche songs, that are tributes. So far, the mix seems to work wonderfully well.
You talk about your love of musical theater—what about musical theater, from your perspective, makes it so special?
Oh my Lord—that's a huge question. I think the music, first and foremost, just elevates you. Believe me, sitting in your dressing room, hearing the overture played to My Fair Lady, is goose-bump time. That's true even today, if I hear it. The great musicals are just that; they are so exciting when they work. And it is the dedication and collaboration within the cast and crew of a great musical . . . if you think about it, they do eight shows a week, they work hugely hard embarking on, hopefully, a long journey together.
But I think it is the music for me, first and foremost, and how it works, and how it fits; how it weaves into the story and stands apart from the story. That is the first joy. Think about Gypsy, or Guys and Dolls, or Annie Get Your Gun, or West Side Story. There such an inspired joy in all of them, each one having it's own special character.
If you love the show they're attached to, the songs stay with you all your life.
I think ours will too; that was the wonderful discovery of these past two rehearsals that we did. The songs were just wonderful.
I think I asked you a similar question when you were working on The Boy Friend, but . . . what have you learned about being an effective director?
Well, I've learned that I'm still hoping that I am one [laughs]. There are so many times that you ask yourself, "Have I forgotten something? Is there something that I could really be bringing to this that I haven't thought of?" I think it is probably a culmination of all that I've done and seen. We are so influenced by all that has happened in our lives. And as you know, I've had the best examples, not only on Broadway but in working with my husband Blake [Edwards], and watching him direct. I think you bring a piece of all of that into the work process.
They always talk about people being an actor's director. Do you think you fit that?
I hope I do. I really understand the difficulty of fleshing out a full character, and how necessary it is. I think the greatest joy for me is passing on, to the company, one or two of the things I've been fortunate enough to learn. Just to give back a little bit is a great pleasure for me.
I think of you as someone who was involved in the golden age of musical theater. What do you think of the state of theater right now?
I think, funnily enough, that theater and movies have a similarity; they're cyclical. In other words, they go through phases. I think you're right, I was fortunate enough to work at the peak of the great golden age of musicals. And then for awhile, I think they were being advanced in different ways. Andrew Lloyd-Webber brought the rock beat to musicals; people tried different things. The joy of musicals is that there is no perfect recipe; it is what you throw into it. Today I'm really quite happy with what I see out there. There are so many musicals again on Broadway, and for awhile, there were only a handful. And the great ones are still great—it's wonderful to see so many coming back; it testifies to the strength and greatness of those shows. This season is a wonderful one.
Are there any musicals you've seen recently that are particular favorites?
I haven't seen nearly as much as I want to. I try to see what I can when I come into New York, but I've only just recently come from Los Angeles and I'm trying to make my base now more on the East Coast. So, to be honest with you, I haven't seen a lot. I've seen Newsies, which I loved. I haven't seen The Book of Mormon, which I want to see. Then, of course, I try to see plays and all sorts of things, as much as I can. I want to see more.
Let me ask you a couple more questions about Mousical. Do you know what style of set Tony is planning?
I think, because we're in development, it will be effective but minimal. I'm asked quite often, "How will you portray the mice?" Again, in minimal fashion—they won't be fully dressed as mice. There will only be suggestions, because I want the characters to come through very strongly. It's mostly establishing the perspective of humans to mice at the beginning of the show, which we do—we bring it down to a "mouse level," if you know what I mean. Once the audience gets that, I hope they'll accept that the characters are mice from then on.
What are your hopes for the show, ultimately? Are you hoping for a Broadway production?
That would be wonderful. What surprised us about the two rehearsals we did in New York was that the piece is quite strong. I wasn't so sure of that when we began. But I do feel that we have a very strong, witty, charming musical. I'm not sure what it's life will be; I hope people love it as much as we do and as much as everybody seemed to in the past week.
I know that you've written more than two dozen children's books. What are the rewards of that for you? And what keeps you going?
The rewards are lovely. I work with my daughter, as you know, and we have this small publishing company, called the Julie Andrews Collection. Working with her is a joy that I never anticipated when she was a little girl and growing up. But now we face each other as two equal women, and the pleasure of writing together is huge. We have two books coming out within a month of each other this fall: One, Julie Andrews' Treasury for All Seasons, is a big anthology of poems and songs that celebrate the seasons, high days and holidays. It's a beautifully illustrated book, and we're very proud of it. And of course, there are long introductory pieces to each group of poems and songs that I contribute, which are greatly biographical. The illustrator is a lady called Majorie Priceman, who is pretty wonderful in her own right and very successful. We're thrilled that she joined us for this.
And the second book is the fourth in a series of books about a little ship's cat that travels all over the world, called Little Bo. So we've done Little Bo, Little Bo in Paris, Little Bo in Italy and now, Little Bo in London, which is the culmination of four books in one, so to speak. It's a story I enjoyed very much. And we've got others in the pipeline, and all sorts of things coming up. But just working with Emma is such a joy, and we find that we have different strengths, so we complement each other a great deal.
I've been wanting to ask you about this ever since I saw it: your interview on The Colbert Report last spring.
[Laughs heartily] That was such fun; I can't tell you. He's adorable. I was scared to death, because I thought, "He's gonna make mincemeat out of me." But in fact, he was so funny and so enchanting and so witty. I enjoyed it enormously, and apparently, everyone liked it.
Was it an improv, or did you plan beforehand?
No, it was an improv! That was what made me so nervous. I said hello to him before we started, and he was just lovely. He said, "You know the character I play; I play an idiot. So I give you full permission, anytime you can, to take me down." I tried to do just that, and it sort of worked. But it was great fun, and very stimulating. He's got this impish, wicked gleam in his eye, and he keeps you on your toes.
Another thing that was fun about it—you may disagree with this—but I think some people see you as being very proper.
[Guffaws] Yes, I would say that is true!
And this segment played against that image in such a great way.
Thank you. I think that image comes from those movies that I was fortunate to be in, that were so successful—and anything that's that big and successful to some extent, kind of labels you. But no, I was thrilled, and as I said, he was just darling.
The other thing I wanted to talk to you about—because it's been in the news just recently—is that you work with the Voice Health Institute in Massachusetts as honorary chair of the advisory board. I understand this is connected with the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Laryngeal Surgery and Voice Rehabilitation.
Yes! Oh, gosh, I'm so happy you asked. It's in Boston; it's run by a brilliant, brilliant man, Dr. Steven Zeitels. He's probably the foremost vocal specialist in the world these days. And he is doing such amazing things for voices—he's truly part scientist, part genius surgeon. I'm happy to support what he's doing, because I passionately believe in it.
What is his technique, his focus?
He has magnificent skills as a surgeon—he does micro- microsurgery, which is extremely difficult. He pulls it off with such genius, saving many people. Restoring voice boxes; giving hope to, let's say, premature babies who are quite often born and little tubes are put down their throats so they are able to breathe. They often have damaged vocal cords, but as they grow, he's able to restore these and give them back their voices. Orators and lawyers who have lost vocal power because they've had to speak a great deal. And particularly opera and Broadway artists who do so many shows per week. Taking care of and maintaining those voices is his passion. He lives and breathes and eats and sleeps all of that. He rebuilds vocal cords, rebuilds throats, takes out dangerous cancers and is brilliant.
A friend of mine just went up there and was due to have serious, serious surgery, and Steven was able to not do anything invasive; he went in through the mouth and was able to take out everything he needed to, and literally gave my friend his life back. It's amazing what he's doing.
O brave new world.
It is. I mean, it is so intensely focused. He has his own equipment that he designed; he has his own team. Microsurgery is just . . . you have to do it right every time. And there are so many challenges.
Are you working on a followup to your 2009 memoir, Home?
How sweet. I am asked about it so much, and I think about it a lot. There are so many ways that I might approach it, if I do it. Thre are so many stories that I'd like to tell, but what voice I find for them and what style I find for them . . . you know, my beloved husband Blake passed away, and it's not two years yet. And so I'm still adjusting and sorting, and it's a brand-new life in a way for me, without him. And I think and hope that one day, there will be another. And I am collecting notes and diary jottings and things like that. One of the hardest things is, I seem to have blessedly lived an awfully long time, so there are an awful lot of years to gather up and remember when I did what. But I hope there will be another at some point—just not for awhile.
On the first book, I was approached 14 years before it came out. But probably the last five were the heavy writing years. It took some doing—just the research alone, which one forgets about. The truth is, I wasn't sure whether a memoir was anything I wanted to do. I kept thinking, "Why publish?" One could certainly write it for one's family, which I intended to do, so they'd have an idea of what Grandma was all about. But then I remembered the wonderful book by Moss Hart called Act One, about his early days in the theater. It taught me so much, gave me a piece of theater history that I knew nothing about. And I suddenly thought, "Ah, that may be a reason to publish." Because my early days in Engliash vaudeville, when vaudeville was sort of dying and on its last legs, is something not too many people know about. So that sort of gave me courage.
That reminds me—I'm sure you know this—that there are videos of you on YouTube performing as a very young girl.
[Laughs] I know! Thank god for YouTube, because those would have disappeared; I wouldn't even know they existed. People send me things, and I'm just amazed—I think, "Who saved that? Where did it come from?" I'm mostly very grateful.
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|Grim Colberty Tales with Julie Andrews|
Q&A Exclusive: Julie Andrews