Friday, September 16, 2011

Seeing the Great Julie Andrews in Person at a Book Event in 2006

I arrived twenty minutes previous to the event's beginning which was miraculous considering the sludge of Chicago’s western suburbs during rush hour. There was already a huge, snaking line outside, filled with mostly middle-aged women, but there were quite a few teenagers and pre-teen girls as well. The few men who were there appeared to be very willing escorts. I struck up a conversation with the 16-year-old standing next to me, who after initially viewing “The Sound of Music” had become a die-hard Julie Andrews fan, implementing her adulation by renting or buying every TV special or film in which Ms. Andrews had appeared.

When I was handed my autographed book and entered the already-packed auditorium, I quickly changed my original seat after I noticed where the podium was situated. I sat down, ten rows back and directly in line with the podium. It was obvious that everyone in the room was as buzzed as I was but we were going to have to wait a bit. First came the sad news to many disappointed camera-holders, who had already been practicing their shots, that we were not to take pictures. Then the store owner came on stage to introduce a video highlighting Julie’s life. It began with the familiar opening shots of the Swiss Alps from the Sound of Music. Then her face from other movie roles kept popping on to the screen and you could hear the buzz of excited whispers that sounded almost like hissing: Mary Poppins! Victor Victoria!, Camelot! My Fair Lady!, Cinderella! Two images from the video impressed me. One was Julie as a twelve-year-old in 1948 standing in the luminescence of a spotlight singing the British national anthem at a “Command Performance” with an entire orchestra and a choir backing her. It was definitely Julie Andrews’ voice, but it had such an ethereal, unearthly quality that I found it quite startling. Her facial expression was one of complete earnestness as she sang “God Save the King.”

The other was a grown-up, glizty and scantily dressed Julie as “Victoria” from the VV film, dancing and singing on a stage in a film while a mesmerized James Garner is watching her from the audience. For the song’s finale, she begins on a low note and glissandos higher and higher, seeming to go through her perfectly controlled entire four-octave vocal range before finishing somewhere in the clouds. Other singers might be able to sing those notes, but would they sound as perfect on each? I doubt it.

Then . . . drum roll please . . . the real Julie Andrews walked out onto the stage amidst a thundering standing ovation. She was dressed in pants, blouse and blazer, an outfit not unlike something her “Queen Clarisse” character from the “Princess Diaries” films might have worn on a casual Friday at the palace. I can’t exactly remember how she did it, but with a few subtle-yet-polite gestures, she made it clear that enough was enough and that we should all sit down. I wish I could remember her exact first words, but I believe it was thanking the bookstore owner, thanking us for coming, or something. She also said she very much enjoyed hearing us laughing during the crazy Carol Burnett sequence wherein she and Carol have a prim but enormously messy food fight. When she then said that Carol is a good friend and a great lady, we all clapped. Of course, most people in the room probably loved Carol Burnett, but anything Julie said was going to receive thunderous applause.

She proceeded to tell us about her new book, ostensibly the reason we were all there: The Great American Mousical. Since my husband and I include Broadway history in our historical music programs, he thought that hearing a Broadway icon speak on the history of the American Musical would be very appropriate. It wasn’t until I had already paid for the ticket that I realized the Great Julie was probably going to be promoting a new kid’s book, not discussing the impact of Cohan, Gershwin, or Porter on Herald Square. “Oh, I thought the info about the kid’s book was just a typo,” he said. He later told me, typo or no, that he thought that I shouldn’t miss a chance to see the great Ms. Andrews. He knew what she had meant to me.

Now, I’m not a Julie Andrews aficionado in a filmic sense like my teenager friend; I have not seen all, or even most, of her films (although I did see that creepy Alfred Hitchcock one she stars in with Paul Newman and kept wondering through the entire film what the point of her character was). But I did see The Sound of Music. Saw it when it first came to the theaters, actually. According to Charmian Carr’s autiobiography, Forever Liesl, the film was in the theaters for five solid years, and during that time, “somewhere in my youth or childhood,” I went to see it. I remember that there was an intermission. I remember my mom laughing when the captain told the baroness that his tree-climbing children were “just some local urchins” and I remember asking her what an urchin was. I also recall her saying “I like this part” when the captain declares his love for Maria in the garden scene. It was obviously a repeated viewing for her!

We also owned the record album from the film; like most people during the time when dinosaurs existed and DVD players didn’t, one would go out to the store and purchase something called an LP. I listened to that soundtrack over and over, trying to recall the characters from the film by staring at the cover. I remember my brother and I once marching around the house while the majestic music from the wedding was being played. I don’t know if he had agreed to “marry” me or if he was a bridesmaid, but he was a good sport and we both loved that music.

Once, in a goofy mood, I pretended to be Liesl over our house intercom system and my dad thought it was the record. Guess I was a good mimic. Embarrassed, I refused his pleas to “sing it again,” even though he offered an entire quarter for a repeat performance (looking back on his paltry bribe, I guess he was either still in his Depression-era mentality or else it hadn’t been that stellar of a performance).

Since the film wasn’t played on television for quite a few years, I was thrilled when the summer, one-film-for-a-dollar neighborhood film festival was going to show the film. I was now in high school, but had never tired of listening to the album, and had even attempted to sing the theme song in public on several occasions to as rave a review as a teenager with a fairly good singing voice is likely to get. I went into the room where others were gathered to see the film. I was thrilled but was soon to be disappointed. These were not Sound of Music fans. How dare they laugh at the nuns' rendition of “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria” while Maria was walking down the isle at her wedding. Blasphemy! What was I doing here with these cultural Philistines? I wanted to walk out. I stayed. It never occurred to me that including that song in that sequence was silly. Although it may have been more than slightly embarrassing for the character of Maria, I always thought it was so cool how the majestic march coalesced in perfect counterpoint with the song bemoaning Maria’s faults.

Maria may have had some faults but in the auditorium where I was now sitting, Julie Andrews seemed flawless. We were all so thrilled to be in her presence that if had said the world was flat, she probably would have received thunderous applause. We weren’t clapping for what she said necessarily; we were clapping because we wanted to touch her in some way.

One audience member got to do just that. I think he might have had a disability of some kind because when he was given a turn to ask a question, he held up a sign that said “Dear Julie: Can I give you a high five? My hands are clean.” She agreed, walking towards him exaggeratedly wiping her own hand on her jacket as if to imply that hers might not be, and after high-fiving him, gave him a big hug. The luckiest person in the audience!

The event revealed a woman of approachable regality, an artist modestly conscious of her own accomplishments yet not drowning in narcissism.

God save the queen.

(Quotes from the Q&A in the following post).

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic post, Kathy! I wish I could write half as well as you, but I keep on anyway :)