I Could Have Danced All Night from the original Broadway case recording of My Fair Lady
Here’s the thing. I’ve been a fan of Julie Andrews since the first time I heard the original Broadway cast recording of My Fair Lady as a child. The LP, one of my mother’s souvenirs from a trip to New York in 1956 when the show was playing, was almost constantly on the turntable, and that crystalline Andrews soprano had me enthralled as she metamorphosed from guttersnipe to lady through those brilliant Lerner and Lowe songs.
In due course, My Fair Lady was joined in my affections by The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, and much later, Victor/Victoria, which I saw on Broadway in 1996, admiring Andrews’ fascinating stage presence – that artful mixture of regal poise and sophisticated comedy, and still-commanding vocal artistry.
Since then, the consequences of a notorious operation on her vocal chords have been widely reported and Andrews has spoken movingly about the loss of one of the greatest instruments in the history of stage and film musicals. But she has soldiered on with her career as a movie actress and children’s author, coming to terms with it in a way that probably owes everything to the show-must-go-on discipline of her vaudeville roots.
My musical tastes have expanded in all sorts of directions but Andrews has continued to command a special place in my affections. Never exactly fashionable and much – if affectionately – mocked for the clarity of her diction, she nonetheless represents a style of singing that epitomises the glory days of the Broadway musical in a way that few of today’s pop-influenced performers can approach.
And since the singing came to its premature halt, Andrews has continued to grace any film lucky enough to have her in the cast with the same considerable acting skills that won her an Oscar for Mary Poppins and made her the definitive Maria von Trapp. All of which makes writing what must follow feel like an act of sacrilege.
Julie Andrews returned to the concert stage in London for the first time in more than 30 years on Saturday 8th May at the O2 Arena. The show, billed as The Gift of Music – An Evening With Julie Andrews, was a tribute to the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose words and music have been such a constant thread in Andrews’ career. Their songs provided the framework for the first half of the evening, while the second was a semi-staged performance of Simeon’s Gift, a musical adaptation of one of Andrews’ most successful children’s books, co-written with her daughter Emma Walton.
As a concept, alas, the concert was doomed to disappoint on multiple levels: two unequal halves welded together by the singing of five Broadway artists (Stephen Buntrock, Christiane Noll, Kevin Odekirk, Anne Runolfsson and Jubilant Sykes), overseen by a gracious Andrews who too often resembled a benevolent teacher encouraging her charges through a public master class.
How could it fall so far short of expectations? Let’s start with the venue. The O2 is a vast cavern, pure and simple. There could hardly be a less appropriate arena for a concert that by its very title promised a warm, intimate exchange between the star of the show and her audience.
Then there was the title itself, which suggested that even if Andrews would not be singing a great deal, she would at least be a constant presence on the stage, doing rather more than supplying brief introductions for her guest artists. Competent as they generally were, they were not the reason we had trekked out to North Greenwich, and the programme’s over-reliance on their efforts created a constant sense of impatience for something more from the Dame herself.
Instead, she came and went during a first half that was little more than a loosely linked selection of ballads and waltzes, occasionally – and not nearly enough – dropping in a short anecdote.
Which brings us to the voice, a subject on which sensitivity must inevitably be tempered by reality. Andrews had been brutally honest in keeping our expectations of her own vocal performance realistic, explaining that her discovery of a handful of bass notes now allows her to talk-sing her way through a number.
Even so, it was impossible not to feel a wave of nostalgia and sadness when on the giant screen, at the start of the evening, the young Julie in her novice’s habit came running towards us across the Alpine fields and that voice soared direct from the soundtrack above the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s live accompaniment.
The audience was so galvanised by this poignant moment that Andrews’ emergence in the spotlight as “The Sound of Music” reached its climax was greeted by a prolonged and passionate ovation. And here was the evening’s major problem. What more could we expect, apart from simply basking in her presence – albeit at a distance of several hundred feet for most of us – for the next two hours? In truth, the answer was, not as much as we would have liked.
Occasionally, a note was held with all the old power, and the audience whooped with appreciation. But Andrews’ strength was always in her melodic line and the enforced changes to accommodate her limited range sounded mechanical rather than fluid and instinctive.
My Funny Valentine: a poignant moment at the O2
Plenty of older singers find ways to develop their story telling and phrasing to compensate for diminishing vocal qualities, and it would be good to hear her exploring these possibilities. Judging by her poignant renditions of “My Funny Valentine” and “Cockeyed Optimist” – the only two complete numbers she performed at the O2 – that would be an effective route, and it would certainly allow her to build a more autobiographical programme with plenty of options for interacting with video of her younger self, if that is her preferred medium.
These two songs aside, we were left with the snippets that she contributed to numbers largely performed by the guest singers, and if we felt a little short-changed, I don’t think anyone could blame us.
Simeon’s Gift, with music by Ian Fraser, who also conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra throughout the evening, is a thoroughly decent, old-fashioned family entertainment. As a chamber musical, it would work a treat. Fraser’s songs are big, sumptuous ballads, and the story is a touching fable of the importance and triumph of ideas and music.
But even with Andrews as the narrator, firmly steering things along, it was entirely swallowed by the darkness of the cavernous arena. And it simply felt too unconnected with the first half of the programme. The steady trickle of early leavers who contributed to a slightly restive feel around the audience suggested that I was not alone in my reservations.
If Julie Andrews ever returns to London with a programme that does more justice to the considerable whole of her career, finds new ways to bring the stories of her best-loved songs alive herself, and offers it in a more meaningful auditorium so that the audience really can connect with her, I’ll happily pay to go and see her again. Until then, I’ll stick to the albums. With the ‘best’ seats at more than £80 and souvenir programmes at £12, the cost of this evening was way too high, even for two hours in the presence of a legend.