Dame Julie Andrews is probably best known throughout the world for her iconic roles in the movies The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, but her career in the entertainment industry first started as a young child on the stage in London. Then, at the age of 18, Andrews made her Broadway debut as Polly Browne in The Boyfriend. Critics raved that Andrews was the stand-out performer in the musical and Andrews was invited to audition for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Pipe Dream. Speaking to the Australian media this week at the Sydney Opera House, Andrews shared that she had belted out her best song with “all the trills and things” for the audition. Rodgers came onto the stage and said, “That was absolutely …. adequate,” before adding that he was only teasing.
Rodgers asked if she had been auditioned by anyone else and Andrews replied that she had been singing for Loewe and Lerner’s musical adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw book, Pygmalion. Despite wanting her for his own musical, Rodgers advised Andrews that if she was offered the role in Loewe and Lerner’s musical, she should accept. Andrews did accept that role and in 1956, at the age of 20, Julie Andrews appeared on stage as Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady.
As Andrews said, “The rest is history.”
Reflecting back on that role, Andrews admits, “I was very young, very green and very inexperienced at the time. I knew, and I felt, that I understood Eliza, but I needed to be guided and a wonderful gentleman, who was our director originally, Moss Hart … was very considerate and very kind to a raw girl. He really guided me and helped me create Eliza Dolittle.”
Andrews went on to play Eliza Dolittle eight performances a week for more than three years, with two years on Broadway and a further eighteen months in London.
“I think I got to know her well!” laughed Andrews.
Ironically, Andrews was overlooked for the film version of My Fair Lady because she wasn’t a big enough name. The role, instead, was given to Audrey Hepburn. Casting was being done for the movie of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music and, since she now available, Andrews was given the part of Maria.
Sixty years later, Andrews returns to My Fair Lady, but this time as the director for the 60th anniversary production which will open at the Sydney Opera House in August, 2016. The production is another collaboration between John Frost of the Gordon Frost Organisation (GFO) and Lyndon Terracini of Opera Australia (OA).
“It was the most wonderful offer I couldn’t refuse! John and the Australia Opera Company have given me just about everything I could ask for and enormous support,” said Andrews, enthusiastically.
Andrews is currently in Sydney auditioning the 1,000 hopeful performers who applied for roles. I asked Andrews what she is looking for amongst all those wanting to play the role of Eliza.
“Well, obviously she has to have a good strong singing voice, because it’s a huge role for a young lady, especially if they’re new to the theatre. They’ve got to be able to sustain that number of shows a week vocally and that role demands cockney and screaming rage and big dramatic scenes and then pure soprano singing and so I’m looking for all of that, and trying to be as helpful as I can, in making sure the girl that I’m looking for has those qualities, because it’s going to aid her in the long run if she’s got something in reserve.”
“Spending a week in the audition room with Julie has been extraordinary because she’s treated everybody so beautifully and it’s been like a masterclass for each performer that comes up,” said producer John Frost.
“Every now and then we get a little gem from Julie that we haven’t heard before … and it’s absolutely electric. But for the performers coming up to audition, they are going away, regardless if they get the role or not, with a wealth of information to pursue for the rest of their career.”
Andrews said she has seen some wonderful talent already and acknowledges she was unaware of the vast talent pool in Australia. As she auditions these hopefuls Andrews explains she has a deep recognition as to why she was chosen in the first place, admitting she never understood this at the time. She is also genuinely grateful for being chosen to be part of My Fair Lady all those years ago.
What is evident, is Andrews’ desire to share her experience and wisdom. She knows what helped her to create the role of Eliza Dolittle and she wants to pass this knowledge on to the next generation of performers: think about your lyrics, stick to your words, think the role through.
She explained that My Fairy Lady is full of gorgeous, rolling sounds and highs and lows. She also believes that the role of Eliza Dolittle is one of the most daunting roles in musical theatre due to the vocal range and styles required.
“It’s a phenomonal role for any actress,” said Andrews. “She was desperately poor but she was bright and had ambition and guts and eventually transcended for herself.”
When offered the role of Eliza Dolittle, Andrews said she was the right age, she was well trained, she was able to sing the songs well and also had the sense of innocence and vulnerability of Eliza.
When My Fair Lady first opened, out of town, the show ran for four hours, the turntables got stuck, the leading man was saying they shouldn’t even go on and there was a blizzard. Andrews said you couldn’t imagine a worse situation! By the time the show opened on Broadway, Andrews felt like a prize-fighter who was well and truly in shape and ready.
When it opens next year at the Sydney Opera House, this 60th anniversary production of My Fair Lady will be a replica of that original Broadway production. The producers have sought out the original costume and set designs to recreate the debut production.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” replied Andrews, when asked why they were doing a replica production of the original. “It was so glorious and I don’t know how many times that original gem has been shown.”
Andrews explained the designs, sets and costumes in that original production made the audience gasp and she is looking forward to introducing My Fair Lady to a new generation. However, Andrews is also well aware that theatre has changed and developed over the years and wants to deliver a more real version. She admits it is both exciting and daunting. However, what Andrews is wanting to do the most is to give back.
“If I can help any one of these wonderful girls and boys in the company, and some of the adults too, to find something fresh and new for themselves and learn a little about theatre and words and dialogue, then I’ve done what I’m here to do,” said Andrews.
Joining Dame Julie Andrews on the creative team will be Guy Simpson as the Musical Director, Karen Mortimer-Johnson as the assistant director and Tony Award winning choreographer Christopher Gatteli.
“I have the best of the best of the best. So now it’s up to me to do my best. And we are going to enjoy it. How could we not?”
My Fair Lady opens at the Sydney Opera House on 30th August 2016.
Tickets go on sale from 21st November.
Venue: Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Season: From 30th August, 2016
Performance times: Wed-Sat 7.30pm, Matinees Wed and Sat 1pm, Sun 3pm
Price: From $89.90
Bookings: myfairladymusical.com.au or call: 02 9318 8200 or 02 9250 7777 or 1300 723 038
Groups of 12 or more call 02 8240 2290
*An additional transaction fee and/or credit/debit payment processing fee may apply
Photo Credit: David Hilbig