DIVA TALK: Chatting with Oscar Winner Julie Andrews, Co-Creator and Director of The Great American Mousical
By Andrew Gans
News, views and reviews about the women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
In terms of show business Julie Andrews has pretty much done it all, conquering Broadway and concert stages, film, TV, recordings and even the children's book market with her inimitable mix of rare talent and charm. Yet, her current venture is one new to the beloved actress: co-creator and director of a brand-new musical, The Great American Mousical, now playing an extended engagement through Dec. 9 at Goodspeed Musicals' Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, CT.
The story of an acting troupe of mice rehearsing their own new musical began as a children's book penned by Academy Award winner Andrews and her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton, co-founder of the Bay Street Theatre.
Andrews, who had previously directed Goodspeed's production of The Boy Friend — one of her own early stage triumphs — told me earlier this week that the musical was born out of friendship. "Our little book had just come out about seven years ago," Andrews explained, "and we sent it — because we thought they'd enjoy the fun of it — to Michael Price and to Bob Alwine at Goodspeed. And, honestly, within a few days, we received a call back saying they loved the gift, and, to our surprise, they said they'd really love to develop it as a musical.
"It was very surprising because I had always, if anything, imagined that it would probably be something that might — with good fortune — go to animation, but I'd never thought of it as a live piece of musical theatre. And, I truly, at that time, couldn't imagine how that would be [realized with] the issues of perspective and the fact that there are mice on stage… But with Goodspeed's guidance, particularly Bob Alwine, he found us wonderful people, and we're thrilled with them!"
Goodspeed's creative team includes composer Zina Goldrich and lyricist Marcy Heisler, the duo responsible for the Drama Desk-nominated Dear Edwina as well as the cabaret favorite "Taylor the Latte Boy"; librettist Hunter Bell, Tony-nominated for Best Book of a Musical for the meta-musical [title of show]; Tony-winning Newsies choreographer Christopher Gattelli; Oscar, Emmy and Tony-winning set and costume designer Tony Walton, who provided illustrations for the original children's book; lighting designer Richard Pilbrow; sound designer Jay Hilton; music supervisor Mary Mitchell Campbell; music director Adam Souza; and orchestrator Oran Eldor.
"We have a wonderful team, and they have just done my daughter and me proud — done the book proud — and created a really sweet, endearing, and quite witty, in the adult sense, musical," said Andrews, who has been involved every step of the way. "Obviously, Hunter made a first crack at [the book], but then after that, in terms of the music and the lyrics and the placing of songs, and what the book itself says and where it goes, we had many meetings. And, you know, this began about seven years ago, but about two years ago, we found the right mix, and it began to pull together."
The process of creating a musical, a new experience for the celebrated artist, has been a joyous one. "[It's] very, very new for me, and obviously, I tried to pull from everything I'd ever learned from the best people in the business. And, I am really thrilled with the results. It's, as I say, from being originally a children's book — sort of middle-grade children's book — this is now a fairly adult, witty musical, much along the lines that Annie would be considered adult."
As for daughter Emma, who is a faculty member for Stony Brook Southampton's MFA in Writing and Literature Program, Andrews said, "She's been keeping her quiet eye on all of it, and she's been out to see it, and she'll be coming again. She's offered thoughts and advice, but I think in terms of the actual, physical side of the production, she's just sort of left that part to me knowing that we both know what we want."
Andrews explained that her decision to also direct the burgeoning musical stems from "the fact that I knew the piece very well, having written it… I kind of knew, I hoped, where it was going and what I'd like to see. So it was a very easy thing, and I think that the Goodspeed people hoped that I would. It was sort of part of the understanding that it would be developed and that I would direct it."
The Academy Award winner for her performance in "Mary Poppins" and Tony nominee for her work in My Fair Lady, Camelot and Victor/Victoria said she believes her work as an actress helps inform her directorial choices. "[There is] a great deal of understanding in where the actor is coming from and what they are bringing to it. And, then, I think allowing them and being the eyes and ears for them up front and making them, hopefully, as great as they can be." Andrews, in fact, has nothing but praise for her cast, including Tony nominee Emily Skinner, who heads the company as the diva Adelaide. "[She is] wonderful," Andrews exclaimed. "She is superb in this piece. She is very, very professional — very intelligent about her character — and I was going to say she hasn't put a 'foot' wrong, but I could say she hasn't put a paw wrong!"
Watching the first public performance of The Great American Mousical, though, Andrews said with a laugh, "was like giving birth! I was so nervous that you can't believe — for [the cast]. This is on the Goodspeed second stage at this point, so it was right down to the wire, and Hurricane Sandy had delayed us in the scene shops for quite a few days, and we were barely ready. And, of course, much of the audience knew that … Nevertheless, it was biting-nails time, but the company came through magnificently. I was so very proud of them."
Audiences, she added, have been reacting "wonderfully! We've been getting standing ovations, and we've been extended a week in the theatre… It is good, and a lot of people are coming down to see it — not quite sure where this goes from here, but I'm just thrilled with it so far. I think we all know there are maybe a couple of things that need to be tweaked and made even better, but I'm quite satisfied with it at this point." Because the work is being mounted on Goodspeed's developmental stage, changes can be incorporated throughout the run. "We've changed the ending a little bit, and we've added dialogue and deleted dialogue and tightened it — the usual things. It's a lot like being out of town, but we stay in one place," Andrews said.
Choosing a favorite moment in the new musical is difficult for "The Sound of Music" star because "there are several!… It depends whether it's very funny or very endearing… There are moments that are both. I think the whole piece is an homage to Broadway musicals and to the theatre — to the great shows that we know and love. When these kind of endearing mice do the best they can to reproduce their version of something that they've seen on the big stage above them… everything that they do is an attempted recreation of what they've seen, and of course, being mice, it's funny and sweet and endearing. But it's definitely meant to be a loving, warm gesture to the shows that we love."
Can Andrews picture these mice dancing on Broadway? "I'm not sure yet where we're headed," she answered. "I think, perhaps, we'll hopefully, if we can, take it somewhere else after this — and I think there's every possibility that we will. Then, eventually, we'd hone it and refine it and bring it in somewhere, and then I wouldn't be unhappy if it went to regional theatre because it could be very adaptable for that. We'll see. I mean, it would be a dream come true if we did come to Broadway."
As The Great American Mousical finds its footing, Andrews will undoubtedly be at work on another children's book. In fact, her latest creation arrives in stores this week. "It's the fourth and last book of a series called 'The Little Bo.' The first was 'Little Bo.' It's a little travel series. The second was 'Little Bo in France.' Third was 'Little Bo in Italy.' And, this final one is 'Little Bo in London.' And, although each book was a complete story, an adventure, the four books, together, cover one big arc that is wound up in the last book, so I'm very thrilled that I've brought it to a conclusion."
About her process as a writer, Andrews admitted she particularly enjoys writing with her daughter, who co-wrote this last book in the "Little Bo" series. "The first two were written by me, and then she and I collaborated on the second two of this series. First of all, it's a joy to work with her. If anybody had told me when she was a little girl that we would end up facing each other as two adult women loving the collaboration, I would have been amazed, but it's a thrill for me. We really enjoy playing in that particular sandbox, if you will. It kind of takes us away from family issues or what's going on in the outer world, and we play so happily together, in terms of stories that we create, and we — to this date — I think we've done about 27 books together. It's been a joy, and I love it. We work together as much as possible. If not, I'll be on one coast, and she'll be on the other, and thank God for electronic devices such as the Internet that allow us to see each other. We get on iChat or we Skype. Usually get up at an ungodly hour because L.A. is three hours ahead of New York, so we work most mornings when we're writing together."
"Oh my! That's an almost impossible question," the stellar artist said when asked of what she is most proud when looking back at her award-winning career. "Every single thing that one does, it seems, is a learning process — performing in a musical play is a learning process, directing is a learning process, but it's all, for me, vital and interesting, and I enjoy it very much. I love working with people, and I love the fact that perhaps these days I can give back a little bit to exceptional young talent. And, there's a lot of great talent around these days, but to be able to convey to them some of the things that I've felt and seen over the years is a great pleasure for me… Each film is different. I've loved each one for a different reason: the director that I'd been working with or the location or the actor or the screenplay. It's a little bit — excuse the stupid analogy — 'If you had X number of delicious puppies in a basket, which would be your favorite?' It's hard. You love them all for different reasons."
And, one couldn't resist asking Andrews whether she would consider gracing Broadway once again, perhaps in a comedy or drama? "Well, I don't think that I would ever say no," Andrews said. "I'm very much enjoying this particular phase in my life at the moment, and I seem, oddly enough, to be busier than ever. And, I'm delighted about it, but no, of course I wouldn't throw anything out at this point."
[The Norma Terris Theatre is located at 33 North Main Street in Chester. For tickets and information, call (860) 873-8668 or visit goodspeed.org.]
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