Saturday, March 12, 2011

Book Review: Home - A Memoir of My Early Years (Julie Andrews)

I have been listening to Julie Andrews sing for as long as I can remember.  My father was a big fan and on long car trips, we’d all sing along to the soundtracks of My Fair Lady, Camelot and The Sound of Music.  With each song, I’d make believe I was her.  I’d be furious with Henry Higgins and irritated by Freddie Eynsford-Hill right along with her. I’d decry the unfairness of arranged marriages to St. Genevieve and then turn around and whistle with King Arthur as I fell reluctantly, but completely in love with Lancelot.  And though I never came close, always I would try to match her pure, exuberant sound.  So naturally, I was very eager to read her autobiography, Home: A Memoir of My Early Years, and discover more about what it was like to perform those fantastic roles on Broadway.

The autobiography was a bit slow to me at first.  She begins by explaining the various elder branches of her family tree in a bit more detail than I was really interested in.  Still, Julie Andrews is a wonderful storyteller (as evidenced by her many successful works of fiction) and I soon was caught up in the drama of her early life.  Her stories of growing up in a broken home were heartbreaking, but even more compelling were her memories of London during WWII.  She provides a firsthand account of hiding in underground bomb shelters and literally dodging enemy attacks.  Her life was quite thoroughly in discord from within and without.

Along the way, she provides the reader with fascinating tidbits about the vaudeville scene in England, while explaining her family’s history with musical performance.  It was her step-father, whose name (Ted Andrews) she was forced to adopt, who first gave her voice lessons and who quickly and wisely insisted she move on to a more experienced vocal instructor (Madame Lilian Stiles-Allen) once he realized the potential of her power and range.  But it’s clear that there’s no love lost between her and her stepfather.  She describes him as an alcoholic, violent jerk who came close, on more than one occasion, to molesting her.

Admittedly, I was eager to get on to her career on Broadway and was a bit impatient to get past all of her family background, but her descriptions of how she learned vocal technique were fascinating and I loved learning about her early vocal performances and how she used to wow the crowds with her high F (2 ½ octaves above middle C) when she sang the aria “Je Suis Titania” from Mignon (see Youtube clip below).  Looking back at the autobiography as a whole, I’m glad she included so much of her childhood.  She really was a child prodigy and performed extensively from the age of 12 on, so those early experiences certainly shed light on who she is both as an individual and as a performer.  Nevertheless, I was grateful when she finally turned her attention to her first big lead performance in The Boy Friend and those first days in rehearsal for My Fair Lady.

Her stories about working with Lerner & Lowe, and learning her craft at the direction of Moss Hart are really the heart of the book for me.  She describes meeting various celebrities who came to see the hit show and tells hilarious tales about working with Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway.  Equally compelling is her personal story of living in New York with relatively little money, despite hobnobbing with Broadway’s elite.  She’s quite honest about her own inexperience and insecurities as she struggled over how to portray Eliza Doolittle and later Queen Guenevere.

I so wish there were film footage of her performances of My Fair Lady and Camelot.  All I’ve ever had to appreciate are the original Broadway soundtracks and I can’t help but curse the idiots in Hollywood who cast poor substitutes in what will always be quintessentially, her roles.  Reading her account of these shows in Home gave me an inkling of what they must have been like, but made me all the more sad to have never seen her.  I have of course, seen her television performance of Cinderella, filmed during this same basic time period.  It’s grainy, but still wonderful.

The autobiography concludes with her marriage to set designer Tony Walton, the birth of her daughter Emma and her call to Hollywood to film Mary Poppins.  I can’t wait for her to write Volume 2 of her fascinating story.  Even though I know the basic outline of her later life, I feel like I’ve been left with a cliffhanger and I’m eager for the sequel.    Until then, enjoy this clips from her early days as a performer:

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