Monday, October 5, 2009

It's Impossible!: Julie Andrews on TV

The incomparable Julie Andrews came to the day job this evening to speak about the work of her career that she did on television, which includes a short-lived variety series (1972 to 73); two acclaimed variety specials with Carol Burnett; several important appearances on The Muppet Show; and the only musical that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for TV, Cinderella.

Not surprisingly, she was warm and engaging. The clips from the collection showed off her enormous talent with the great talents of the 20th century, including Jackie Gleason, Gene Kelley, Harry Belafonte, Richard Burton. Her sound is so distinctly beautiful, and she has played such important musical characters of the 20th century, that many people feel an oddly emotional connection to her. It was very moving to sit with a large audience, watching her watch her performance of “Edelweiss” and “The Sound of Music” on various shows through the years, knowing that surgery in 1999 damaged her vocal chords and took away from her that stunning, ethereal singing sound.


The most historic of her tv work was Cinderella. The year was 1957. Much of tv was still live production, where dramatic anthologies like the U.S. Steel Hour and Playhouse 90 were bringing a parallel of theater into living rooms, since the creative language of TV didn’t yet exist. Julie said that the decision to go live, however, was a creative one, not a technical one.

NBC had broadcast the Broadway musical of Mary Martin’s Peter Pan live in 1955. They were looking to follow up with another musical, but CBS already had Julie Andrews signed, and so Rodgers and Hammerstein went with Paley’s network for their new work.

It was an innovative idea for the team to create a new musical for tv. The Disney animated movie of Cinderella had come out in 1950, with music by the studio stalwart, Oliver Wallace, so the story was in the air

I didn’t see Julie’s Cinderella. It was broadcast just once live, on Sunday, March 31, 1957. Rodgers remade it in 1965, with the unlikely, weak-voiced Lesley Ann Warren (corrected 12/5/14). That production was taped in 1965 and rebroadcast 8 times through February 1974. Those were my years, she was my Cinderella. Lesley was paired with Stuart Damon, who found tv fame for decades as Alain Quatermaine in General Hospital, which compares nicely with Julie’s prince, Jon Cryer, who played Chief Daniels in Hill Street Blues. Julie’s other cast members were Howard Lindsay, Ilka Chase, Edie Adams, Alice Ghostly, and Kay Ballard.

It’s All About the Dress
What dazzled me most about the annual viewing of Cinderella was that moment when LAD’s rags become a ball gown. I didn’t even see it in color, but the fir trim, the sweetheart neckline, the flow of the skirt with sparkling rhinestones that came across even in black & white was a visualization of everything I hoped being a woman some day would feel like.

It’s interesting that Jack Gould, who reviewed the original for the New York Times, didn’t like Julie Andrews’s dress: "couldn't Cinderella have been dressed in a dreamlike ball gown of fantasy rather than a chic, form-fitting number?" Julie’s is an Empire style-dress (popularized by Napoleon’s Josephine).

The Fairy Tale
Music underscores ideas greatly. I watched Cinderella every year mostly because of the music. “In My own little corner, in my own little room, I can be whatever I want to be,”;
“It’s impossible, for a plain yellow pumpkin to become a golden coach, Impossible.”

I was a girl in the first wave after the feminism of the sixties, when the patriarchal underpinning of everything was illuminated, examined, questioned. The questioning extended to was it healthy to have a fairy tale where the young woman waits for her prince to come. Fair enough.

But from another angle, what I loved about the story was the imagination: that 4 mice could become horses, a pumpkin could turn into a couch, a rat become a footsmen, that birds and mice could sew a ball gown. And it’s an older, powerful woman, her Fairy Godmother, who makes it happen.

Back to Julie

I didn’t get to stay for the whole event (I had to go slog my way through more Russian with the Gotham Scholars). One of her tidbits was that when she was filming Cinderella she started chatting with the floor manager as they were blocking a scene, and asked what his next show would be. He said he didn’t know, that he had an idea for bringing free Shakespeare to a theater in Central Park. Yes, it was Joseph Papp. Julie Andrews is one of the rare talents who really has worked with everyone.

Here’s a clip from one of my favorite movies, which I saw at Radio City with my grandmother, Darling Lili. As a little girl, I was SO happy that Julie Andrews is a fellow Libran. Sometimes it's the little connections that mean the most.

Julie Andrews Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images


Anonymous said...

We were looking this up today and noticed a minor error in your Cinderella section. It was Lesley Ann Warren who played Cinderella, Not Lesley Ann Down (different actress).

Other than that, good stuff.

Ellen O'Neill said...

Yes, curses, foiled by the double Lesley Anns. And I know Down is English, which our Cinderella was not. Thank you for pointing it out. Corrected.