Almost 40 years after My Fair Lady and 35 years after Camelot, Julie Andrews is finally back on Broadway.
"It's really like a wonderful, big new adventure," she says. "It's like diving into some deep pool and hoping we'll all swim."
She is sitting in a suite more than 20 floors above the Marriott Marquis Theatre, where she is opening this month in the stage musical version of "Victor/Victoria," her 1982 hit film comedy--and she is radiant. In fact, the first thing you notice about Julie Andrews is how wonderful she looks.
She is celebrating her 60th birthday this month, but she could easily pass for 45. Her attire is classic, immaculate and flawless: black slacks, cream blouse, gray tweed jacket, pale metallic-green patterned scarf and matching earrings. Her auburn hair is precisely coiffed and short, and her make-up perfectly highlights her crystally beautiful blue eyes.
The next things you notice are her unaffected demeanor, her graciousness and her energy. Michael Nouri, her "Victor/Victoria" co-star, has said that the most amazing thing about Julie Andrews is that she doesn't seem to know she's a legend, that she doesn't behave as if she is a diva--that she doesn't seem to know she is Julie Andrews. Indeed, she is a refreshing change from this era's excess of self-conscious, self-important celebrity. Andrews has returned to Broadway to re-create her critically acclaimed movie role as a down-on-her-luck singer who pretends to be a man so she can masquerade as a woman--and who as a female impersonator becomes the rage of 1930's Paris. The musical, like the movie, is directed by her husband, Blake Edwards. The lyrics and music are by Leslie Bricusse and the late Henry Mancini. Her co-stars include Nouri as the Chicago gangster (played in the movie by James Garner) who falls in love with the drag star; Tony Roberts as her homosexual mentor (the Robert Preston film role), and Rachel York as the gangster's poorly treated girlfriend (Lesley Ann Warren in the movie).
In the 1960's Andrews left Broadway for the Hollywood superstardom of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. She returned to New York a couple of seasons ago Off-Broadway in "Putting It Together," a revue of Stephen Sondheim songs.
Now, after out-of-town tryouts for "Victor/Victoria" in Minneapolis and Chicago, she is back again in the city that made her famous. And she is frank and open about the challenges she is facing.
"I'm so nervous," she says. "I'm stimulated. I'm scared to death. We love the show very much, and we hope it will be successful. But you simply never can tell. I was driving into Manhattan from the airport the other day, and I looked at the city and the skyline, and I thought to myself, `We must be crazy aiming for the biggest thing we could imagine, a Broadway hit.' But I don't think we're being foolish about the odds we're up against. I think we're very aware of the chance we're taking. And the stakes these days are so much higher. In 1956 "My Fair Lady" cost a little more than $400,000 to put on. Today a major musical costs $10 million. It's scary, and I would be a fool not to be terrified."
Despite her fears, she says, the decision to return turned out to be a relatively easy one. "It just seemed that the movie would make such a wonderful musical," she says. "It has love and humor--great humor--and every opportunity for spectacle. It's a romance, and it's got a little twist and an edge to it. Everybody kept saying, `Why don't you take it to Broadway?' So finally, we did."
The musical, though, has taken longer than originally expected to make it to the Great White Way. Edwards, Mancini and Bricusse worked on it for more than three years.
"One of the things that set us back was Henry Mancini's death" in June 1994, she says. "That was a terrible blow. He had valiantly fought to finish the score, and he did, though it took him longer; his days were difficult for him, and we obviously didn't want to push him. Once he had passed away, the momentum picked up again, and Leslie has been carrying the torch. And we have got the feeling now that Henry's our guiding star and that he is watching over us, and we are very keen to do him proud because he's not here to speak for himself."
There have been many changes, both before the show began its tryout and during its out-of-town runs: songs added and subtracted, revisions in the libretto. "It's a little bit like a sculpture," Andrews says. "You've got the clay in your hands, and you mold it. And then you realize as you stand back that you need a different touch here and a different touch there. We just put in a new song, which we're trying. I can't even tell you if it's going to end up being in the show. But we feel it's right. That's what out-of-town is all about."
Looking back on her long and successful career, Andrews says that she has several favorites.
"I was thrilled to have been a part of `My Fair Lady,'" she says. "That was a milestone in theatre history and in my history, and it was probably the greatest learning experience I ever had. Its composer, Alan Jay Lerner, said to me that a glorious role in a long-running show was probably more beneficial to being able to learn than playing repertory and doing something different every week. I think he was right. Testing myself in a very good role day after day, fleshing it out, seeing what worked and what didn't work, if you didn't get a laugh finding out why; those kinds of things provided wonderful lessons."
As far as movies are concerned, her personal top choices include "Mary Poppins"--"the first film I ever did. And obviously The Sound of Music. But then there's The Americanization of Emily, a comedy in which I starred with James Garner and which had such a wonderful screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, and a little film Blake and I made together called That's Life."
She says that in her active and rewarding life, she has no regrets. "I've been so blessed and lucky with the things that have crossed my path," she says. "Oh, I've turned down some things I wished I hadn't, because they won somebody else an Academy Award"--no, she will not reveal what those roles were-- "but that's the way life is."
Right now, of course, her focus is on "Victor/Victoria". But there are still many other things she wants to do. "Blake and I prepared an original movie musical based on a children's book I wrote, "The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles," and I'm hoping that while the run of "Victor/Victoria" is going on, he'll be working on that," she says.
"But a great deal of my life depends on what he and the family are doing. This is a great family enterprise. Our kids are grown up now"--she and Edwards have two daughters, Amy Leigh and Joanna Lynne Edwards, Vietnamese orphans they adopted, as well as three children from previous marriages--"but I said to every one of them, you've got to help Mom and Dad get through this, because it's going to be a big job that requires a lot of hard work. We were supportive of you. Now it's your turn to be supportive of us. And they are."
Andrews rises. In a few minutes she will take an elevator down to the street and pass the Marquis' marquee, where her name will light up Broadway once again.
"I suppose I'm coming back to my roots," she says. "I'm coming back to where I started. It feels immensely challenging. But it also feels very satisfying."