When Julie Andrews received her damehood from the Queen in 2000, it felt incredibly apt. Prim, posh perfection is the pervasive image of the British-born star of stage and screen. Of course, she must be a dame! And yet behind the polish and the innocent magic of her most famous roles – Mary Poppins and novice nun turned incomparable stepmum Maria von Trapp – is a personal life filled with struggle and fortitude, failure and passion, and plenty of heartache. Julie was raised “on the other side of the tracks” by an alcoholic and abusive stepfather and a mum who also descended into alcoholism. Her childhood was poor and troubled, and it was young Julie’s unique talent that became the much-needed meal ticket for the whole family.
After her exceptional singing voice was discovered – literally an adult’s vocal range in a child’s chords – she was thrust into vaudeville from the age of 10, performing on stage with her parents and touring England through World War II. At 13 Julie performed at the Royal Variety Command Performance in front of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. At the same time, thanks to the shortcomings of her addled parents, Julie was caring for her half-brothers and by the age of 15, the whole family was relying on her pay cheque.
On the eve of her 19th birthday, Julie made her Broadway debut in The Boy Friend – “the audience danced the Charleston down the aisles as they exited the theatre,” recalls Julie. And so began a pattern in Julie’s career; with every new venture another door opened.
Julie was noticed by musical theatre geniuses Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, who asked her to audition for the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. The work was gruelling, and committing to a life in New York for a two-year contract away from her family who she felt needed her, was tough. “I was deeply anxious about leaving my family for such an extended time. I spent the better part of the flight back to the States weeping copiously.”
But it was worth it. Even though she was passed over for the film – Audrey Hepburn landed it – Eliza proved to be Julie’s entry pass to Hollywood. After the New York run, the show played in London’s West End for a year and Julie subsequently starred opposite Richard Burton in the musical Camelot. Towards the end of its Broadway run, Julie received a backstage visit from Walt Disney, who cast her as the nanny with a carpetbag full of tricks and a musical score that showcased her intoxicating range.
Mary Poppins was box office gold, sparking stardom on a scale Julie still wonders at. To the rest of us marvelling at her nightingale four-octave range, it seems completely appropriate.
By this time Julie had married her first love, set and costume designer Tony Walton, and together they had daughter Emma. It was Tony who designed her costumes for Mary Poppins.
These early years from rags to if not riches, certainly success, were charted in Julie’s first memoir Home, published 11 years ago. What came next is the subject of her new work, Home Work.
Both books were co-written with her eldest daughter Emma, now 56 and a mum of two herself. And when I ask Emma to sum up her 84-year-old mother in one word, she immediately offers “resilience” – which is interesting because it’s the moniker Julie used earlier when I asked her to describe her own mother, Barbara Ward Wells.
Despite her shortcomings, Julie adored her mum and confesses she learned a great deal from her. “She had a love and respect for music. She was a wonderful pianist, a very funny lady, and much more full of life than I think I ever could be ... I think I'm much, much paler compared with her. In my eyes, anyway. She wasn’t a stage mum as such. She was very strict: ‘Don’t you dare get swollen heads, don’t you dare complain, you’re lucky to have what you have, and blah blah blah’ – which I thought was rather good. I still do.”
Emma describes her grandma Barbara as “a hedonist, who loved good food, music, handsome men ... and booze.”
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