Tag Archives: Julie Andrews

Mary Poppins, She Wrote, by Valerie Lawson – and Mary Poppins’ Age

I was recently trying to read Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers, by Valerie Lawson, and quite frankly I got bored. My reading progress was slowing down to almost nil and that is always a sign to me that I should give up. There are too many books I want to read to get bogged down by dull books. I picked up several other books about Jane Austen and Mary Astor and it’s amazing how much reading I’ve gotten done since.

I used to feel intensely guilty about not finishing a book, but I’ve developed a scheme to help me. If I am one-third of the way through a book and I still don’t like it or am struggling, then I can put it down. If I’m halfway through or more, then I just need to push through, boring or not. But I was two-thirds of the way through Mary Poppins, She Wrote, however, I was making such desultory progress and there were so many books I had from the library, sitting in a basket, begging me to read them, that I finally gave up. I felt instant release.

Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. TraversMary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers by Valerie Lawson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Perhaps I just wasn’t interested enough in the life of P.L. Travers. She seems to have been a very unhappy woman, always seeking peace or solace in the spiritual. She was very interested in the mystical and seems to have had fraught relationships with a variety of people, but the books very rarely explains in what way. It’s all surface detail or assertion. I’ve read books that contain a lot of surface detail – usually because there really is no personal information available – but do a better job of connecting that person’s life with the times they live in. In this, we never get a sense of any of her relationships with others, even with her adopted son, Camillus. We learn she was born in Australia, did some acting, wrote some poetry, went to England, wrote Mary Poppins, adopted a son without taking his twin, went to America during WWII, and so on, but it’s just cold facts.

I did glean a few interesting facts about the character and origins of Mary Poppins, however. One of the first mentions of Mary Poppins was in a short story Travers wrote while she was still in Australia. Mary Poppins was the seventeen years old nanny who goes out with her boyfriend, the match man, and they jump into a chalk picture and have tea. Apparently, Travers took the whole short story and put it into her book, presumably minus the romance. She was reportedly annoyed that Disney chose that particular episode to go in the movie.

Another interesting tidbit is about Mary Poppins’ age. I always thought she was in her late thirties or early forties (though my sister tells me she always imagined her younger) and Walt Disney apparently was concerned that she was, too. He asked Travers and she replied that Mary Poppins is between twenty-four and twenty-seven…so Julie Andrews, at almost thirty, was actually about the correct age.

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Posted by on June 20, 2014 in Biographies


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The Making of My Fair Lady – Keith Garebian

Julie_Andrews_Rex_Harrison_Robert_Coote_My_Fair_Lady[2]When I get interested in something, I really get interested in something and I want to know everything there is to know about it…I think it’s called obsession. Anyway, my current obsession is “My Fair Lady.” I’ve been listening to it for months now; I take it with me when I have errands to run and sing and gesture while I’m driving and hum my way happily through stores and libraries. If I am in the middle of a song when I finally pull up to the house, I pause a moment with the motor idling so I can finish it. I even fall asleep listening to it.

I’ve been feeding this obsession with a book called The Making of My Fair Lady (1993) by Keith Garebian. Garebian takes the reader through a brief history of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and how it was made into a movie in 1938 by the unlikely producer, Gabriel Pascal….who was broke at the time. Garebian then proceeds to a brief summary of the life of Alan Jay Lerner, the lyricist, and his collaboration with composer Frederick Loewe. Before “My Fairy Lady,” the two had done “Brigadoon” and “Paint Your Wagon” and would go on to write “Gigi” and “Camelot.”

Evidently, many composers had considered turning Shaw’s play into a musical, but had all found the task too challenging. Oscar Hammerstein felt that it couldn’t be done. At the time, musicals were supposed to have subplots (“Pygmalion” does not) and a chorus, which no one could figure out how to insert into a musical Pygmalion. There was also the problem of how the play was not a romance (believed to be necessary for a musical) and was essentially confined to a drawing room (many of the events we associate with the musical – the ball, Eliza’s finally speaking correctly – occur offstage in the play).

They solved their difficulties, however, by determining to follow the film version more than the stage version of Pygmalion. They also felt they could dispense with adding any subplots since the characters present were sufficiently interesting. Likewise, they decided to embrace  romance, although Lerner felt that Leslie Howard (Professor Higgins in the movie) was a little too sympathetic and aware of Eliza’s feelings and Lerner wanted to make the musical Higgins more self-absorbed, as in the play. “My Fair Lady’s” Higgins only has his moment of self-awareness and revelation at the end, when he sings “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

Julie_Andrews_My_Fair_Lady[1]From a very early stage, Lerner and Loewe wanted Rex Harrison to play Higgins. He couldn’t technically sing, but developed something similar to Sprechstimme (German for speech-voice) and would basically talk on pitch. Lerner and Loewe  wanted the actress who played Eliza to be roughly the same age as the character Eliza and they cast nineteen year old Julie Andrews, who was getting good notices for her performance in “The Boyfriend.”

The rehearsals were slightly tense. Rex Harrison was irascible (just like Higgins) and was constantly trying to make sure that the Americans writing the musical (Lerner and Loewe) stayed true to the very British “Pygmalion” and the lines. He was so insecure about singing (especially with the full orchestra, which made it difficult for him to find his pitch in the mass of sound) that he nearly refused to sing on the opening night in Connecticut. People had come through a blizzard to attend the opening and Rex Harrison only emerged 30 minutes before the show began.

Julie Andrews also encountered difficulties. She’d been performing for most of her life, but she was lost at the beginning of rehearsals. Eliza Dolittle is a difficult role to play and she couldn’t get a handle on the character. The stage director, Moss Hart, wasn’t sure she would ultimately cut it, so he dismissed the rest of the cast and spent two days drilling her in the role. Miles Krueger, who as acting as an assistant, was the only witness to the session and later said “it was like lifting the veils. And two days later, when rehearsals resumed, Julie Andrews was, full-blown, the Julie Andrews we know today…”

The results for the musical were spectacular. Both Andrews and Harrison were superb on opening night (and how I wish I could have been there). Along with rave reviews, it became the longest running musical of the time and won 6 Tony awards, was nominated for 10 (Harrison won, Andrews lost). Alan Jay Lerner always thought it was simply the  perfect combination of actors, director, set designer, costume design, everything.

Garebian spends the last portion of the book detailing why the musical was so successful and how the songs fit so well, psychologically, to the story. Garebian considers it one of the most literate musicals ever performed, with an attempt to take Shaw seriously and not just use his play as inspiration. Dedicated Shavians never quite forgave the addition of a romance, but they did admit the musical was delightful.

Garebian also makes the case that although it does not look like a particularly cutting-edge musical, it was quite unique at the time. There are no duets, no real choruses. Eliza and Higgins never have a duet…let alone a romantic one. In fact, the word “love” is never even mentioned. It is the music that brings in the romantic subtext, while the lyrics stay largely true to Shaw’s original words.

My_Fair_Lady_Cast_Recording[1]Notes: I have been alternating between listening to two cast recordings. “The Original Broadway Cast Recording” (1956) and the “Original London Cast Recording” (1959). Both Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews reprised their roles in London several years after opening in New York, where the British were eagerly – almost ecstatically – waiting for the musical to arrive in England, where they adored it and were impressed at how well Americans were able to adapt one of their plays.

Both recordings have Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway (as Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Dolittle). One difference is that the Broadway album was recorded in mono and the London album was recorded in stereo, but I’m not a very astute listener, apparently, and difference is almost negligible to me.

The big difference is the speed of the music. The London recording is much more upbeat and when I’m listening to it while driving, I find myself speeding along at a slightly unlawful pace, especially with songs like “Show Me”. Also, Julie Andrews had to put back some of the Cockney in her accent for the British audiences that she had toned down for the Americans.

When the original Broadway recording was released, it became such a huge seller that it topped the charts for 15 weeks (at various stages in 1956). I wonder what was the last time a musical topped the charts?

Random Thought: I was thinking about what “My Fair Lady” would be like as a non-romantic musical. I don’t think it would have been as good a musical…at least musically speaking. I’m not sure what kind of a musical it would have made. Garebian argues that Lerner and Loewe make the romance work, mostly through the music (specifically through the last song “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”) and that his last line “Where the devil are my slippers’ is more an example of saving face than anything else. However, whether you agree with him or not, I don’t think there’s any denying that without a romantic framework, Lerner and Loewe could not have written music as gloriously, romantically, sweepingly thrilling as they did.


See here for images of the recording session for “My Fair Lady.”

And to hear Jeff Lunden’s story, on NPR, about the making of “My Fair Lady,” see here.

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Posted by on April 24, 2014 in Books


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I Could Have Sung All Night: My Story – Marni Nixon

With Stephen Cole

Part Book Review and Part Tribute to A Great Singer

I’ve often read of Marni Nixon described as “The Ghostess with the Mostest,” a phrase which came from Time magazine. It’s very appropriate; though Marni Nixon is much more than a ghost singer for famous Hollywood stars.

Though you have to admit that as a ghost singer, there’s no one quite like her. Most famously, she dubbed Audrey Hepburn’s singing voice in My Fair Lady. She also dubbed Natalie Woods (and Rita Moreno for the one song “Tonight”) in West Side Story and Deborah Kerr in both The King and I and An Affair to Remember. She was the singing voice of Grandma Fa in Mulan. When Margaret O’Brien had to sing a short Hindu song in the 1949 The Secret Garden, they got Marni Nixon (she was seventeen at the time and it was her first job dubbing for anyone). She was all three geese who sing during the chalk picture interlude “Jolly Holiday” in Mary Poppins. And if you happen to notice that Marilyn Monroe hits some unusually lovely high notes in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, that is because those notes belonged to Nixon.


Marni Nixon, singing a trio with herself in Mary Poppins

Marni Nixon was not a huge star, like Julie Andrews, but it was fascinating to read her autobiography I Could Have Sung All Night: My Story (2006). She seems to have done nearly everything there is to do in musical entertainment (and even non-musical entertainment) and there’s scarcely a medium she didn’t try (stage, film, radio, television, recordings; she was a dialect coach and teacher), and in the process she encountered many diverse people. It’s a wonderful look at the performance world: the stars, the composers, the music directors, the actors, the directors, agents, musicians, the writers. One comes away from the book with a wonderful sense what a lifetime of work is like – not as abstract art or glamorous jobs – but what it really means, in all its glamorous and un-glamours aspects to

She is quite honest and open in her book, about her personal life (like her nineteen year marriage to the composer Ernest Gold, who wrote the scores for Exodus and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World), her choices, her disappointments and her successes and triumphs. She started young, as a child. While participating in choral works, concerts and shows, she also worked as an extra in movies, such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, In the Good Old Summertime.

As an adult she did everything from working with Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein to recording television jingles. She sang in operas, did a tour with Victor Borge ( pianist and comedian) and with Liberace in Las Vegas. She did musicals, playing the role of Eliza Doolittle and Anna Leonowens on stage. She had a solo career and recorded several albums (for example, Disney asked her to record an album of the songs from Mary Poppins) and also appeared on the radio. Also, look for her, in person, as Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music.

She had a beautiful soprano voice; very clear and bright, and she had perfect pitch, even as a child. Conductors would tell her to sing an A and would tune according to that. She could sight read nearly any piece of music, including difficult modern composers like Arnold Schoenberg, and this ability led her into circles where she met and recorded for Igor Stravinsky.

Of course, it’s for her ghosting that she is most remembered and nowhere is there a better example than in The King and I. Unlike with Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn, who both desperately wanted to sing on their own and took lessons while preparing to film (though studio heads were ultimately unwilling to allow them to sing) Deborah Kerr knew that she could not sing the role of Anna Leonowens.

She and Marni Nixon worked very closely together to blend their sound. Marni Nixon would shadow Deborah Kerr while she was blocking out how each song would be choreographed, even imitating hand motions, to try and get inside the character. Marni Nixon also worked very hard to match her voice to the timbre and accent of Deborah Kerr’s speaking voice (Nixon’s various accents in films include proper British, Cockney, Hispanic, and Irish – as well as a song sung in Hindi). They wanted to know exactly how Deborah Kerr was going to act the song, so Marni Nixon could record it to match.

The most brilliant example of their work together can be heard in the song “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You,” which was cut from the movie, though the song can still be heard on the soundtrack. The song alternates between full out singing and talking on pitch and Deborah Kerr and Marni Nixon rehearsed the song over and over again until they could record it, each in separate recording booths. Deborah Kerr started it off, then pointed at Marni Nixon, who would sing the more sustained parts, then point back at Kerr, who would take over the more talking parts; and they did this back and forth for the entire song. (Note: I can’t show the video on this site, but you should definitely watch it, here; which shows when Deborah Kerr is talking/singing and when Marni Nixon is singing).

Sadly, on all three of the top selling albums, The King and I, West Side Story, and My Fair Lady, Marni Nixon’s name was nowhere to be seen (even though her singing made up more than half the music) and she had to fight to earn any royalties at all from West Side Story and My Fair Lady and received none for The King and I.

In all, I Could Have Sung All Night was a very engaging book and I enjoyed learning about her life. She always seemed to be expanding, trying new things, taking opportunities, working to improve her art. She had a remarkable and utterly unique career that was a pleasure to read about.

Notes: for an excellent article about how Marni Nixon went about her work dubbing the singers, see this one in The Guardian, “Standing in for the stars – the art of dubbing singers”. She also makes several spot-on observations about how, in recent movies (like Les Miserables), there has been a dramatic shift from the extreme of the excessive use of dubbing (without credit) to no use of any vocal help for the actors, when they really could use some help. I couldn’t agree with her more on that.

Below, is the clip of Margaret O’Brien, “singing” a Hindu lullaby to her cousin, Colin. MGM had brought in an Indian swami to teach Marni Nixon how to sing the words properly.

Click here for an interview with Marni Nixon, about her dubbing and how the studios attempted to keep it a secret that their stars were not actually doing their own singing, about how the stars felt about her dubbing their voices, and more about how she went about her dubbing work. And it is lovely to finally see her in person and hear her own speaking voice.

If you’re curious what Audrey Hepburn sounded like in My Fair Lady, click to hear the clip of her, in her own voice, singing “Show Me.”


Posted by on April 6, 2014 in Books, Musicals


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