INTERVIEW / Lowering the tone: What is it about her? Her Englishness? Her squeaky-cleanness? Or simply her voice? Julie Andrews talks to Edward Seckerson

SO THE little girl with bandy legs, buck teeth, and the freaky voice grew up to be Julie Andrews. Broadway made her, Hollywood immortalised her - but some things are forever England. She will always be Eliza, the cockney sparrow turned swan; she will always be the chipper Nanny with the brolly and the carpet-bag; or halfway up that mountain with a song on her lips. To some she is just too squeaky-clean to be true. Perhaps she was born out of her time, perhaps she represents a kind of bitter-sweet nostalgia for us all, something classy, something constant, something intrinsically English. That pristine voice with its unfashionably clear enunciation and open, well-lubricated vowels somehow belongs to another era: Noel and Gertie, cocktails and laughter, blithe spirits. So is that it, the secret of her success, the key to her durability? Star quality is elusive.

And yet, the real Julie Andrews is not - not at all. She was back in Blighty this week breezily celebrating a belated encounter with the one Governess to have, until now, eluded her: Anna Leonowens in Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I - a role created by Gertrude Lawrence but impatient for the Andrews touch. A lavish new recording from Philips Classics (the first in 35 years to use the original movie orchestrations) teams her with Ben Kingsley, John Mauceri and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. She is full of it: 'One of the best creative experiences I've ever had . . . there was a kind of aura, a kind of karma about the whole enterprise . . .'

Almost any of the songs might have been written for her and hearing her sing them now suggests that little has changed, save the keys. They've come down a tone or two. 'I can't sing the way I used to,' she says candidly, 'I don't have that facility at the top of the voice any more - and I do miss it. But it's like anything, as you get older you adapt, you develop other parts of your voice, other aspects of your craft. Experience enables you to make the very best of what you have. There's no mystery in that.'

Julie Andrews came up the hard, fast way. A childhood in Vaudeville was no normal childhood. Her mother and stepfather were a musical double-act. Soon they were three. Julie's singing began when she was eight - in the shelters during air raids. She had a voice of some five octaves - no one was too surprised when a throat specialist confirmed a fully-grown larynx. By the time she was 12 she was nightly popping high F above C in Titania's aria from Ambrose Thomas's Mignon in Val Parnell's revue Starlight Roof at the Hippodrome. The proof is in a recording - one of several issued on 78s. 'Aren't they priceless? So funny - and yet sort of touching. It's all so earnestly sincere. I used to do these awful bastardised versions of 'operatic arias you have loved' - I can hardly bear to listen to the genuine articles now. I keep hearing the cuts.' But she does listen, and has done avidly ever since her crush on the Swedish tenor Yussi Bjorling.

Young Julie's one and only teacher was the celebrated dramatic soprano Lilian Styles Allen (one of the 16 solo voices in the world premiere of Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music). She really nursed the Andrews voice, laid the foundations. It was never going to be an 'operatic' voice. 'I had a sixth sense that it wasn't made for opera,' says Andrews. 'It's a little too 'white' and too thin - but, boy, when I found how it embraced musical comedy, I knew where I would fit in.'

Her teacher's priorities were always the same: 'bring the voice forward, use the words, fill the words - diction.' Even now those are the Julie Andrews hallmarks. That's what gives the sound its perennial freshness. It's an open, rather quaint way of singing where gracious portamenti lend an old-fashioned sigh of gratitude to the line. Don't knock it. A song like 'Hello Young Lovers' (from The King and I) is no trifle - it needs to be lived as well as sung.

'You know, I really think that is a transcendant song - the perfect marriage of music and lyric. But what a time I had embracing it. Very tough. It has this lilting barcarolle rhythm - and you have to be true to that. But at the same time you have to rise above it to make the words matter. It has to be seamless, enthralling - a quality of reverie not reverence, which is exactly how my first takes sounded. Now that I'm using my voice differently, it's even more important to free the song and the feeling through the words. I suppose I'm approaching songs more as an actress and less as a soprano now.'

Time was, of course, when quite the reverse was true. Ask her now whether she was ready for My Fair Lady on Broadway, aged 20 . . . 'Not at all. Who was ready? I'd done the years of touring in Vaudeville and Panto, I'd spent a very homesick year on Broadway in The Boy Friend - what a baptism of fire that was. I knew how to get out there and sell a number. But drama . . . I'd never done anything like this before. Frankly I'd have been lost if it hadn't been for the director Moss Hart. He was a gentle giant coaxing and cajoling me through the role - a real mentor. So was the lyricist Alan J Lerner.'

Was there any sense, behind the scenes, of a legendary show in the making? 'I was far too busy trying to work out who I was. The pre-Broadway New Haven try-out was a nightmare. The show ran four hours, the turntables didn't work, it was snowing outside . . . But I realised that I had got incredibly lucky. I had landed perhaps the greatest musical of a golden era, and for three and a half years it became the best and most arduous learning experience of my life.

'Eliza is a great role but it is tearing on the throat: you had to be raucous cockney, you had to sing 'pure', belt dramatically - you can never coast a number like 'Just You Wait, Henry Higgins'. I learned to pace myself, sing through minor ailments, deal with changes of cast. Let's just say I developed a healthy respect for the theatre and what it takes out of you physically.'

She did go back for more. But Lerner and Loewe's Camelot was a picnic after My Fair Lady. She wasn't off once during the entire run. Then, of course, Hollywood beckoned, and the longer she stayed away, the more intimidated she felt about going back. There have been offers, and she is currently contemplating (with some trepidation) a return to Broadway next year with the stage version of her husband Blake Edwards' film Victor, Victoria.

This, the sexual identity crisis that Mary Poppins never had, was the movie that opened up a whole new arena for Julie Andrews, the cabaret performer. She was riskier, spunkier, she had begun to bend her music and lyrics in a way that we hadn't really seen before: Le Jazz, to borrow the title of one number. It was outstanding work, perhaps her best. But was this, along with the movie before it SOB (where the entire plotline hinged on whether or not she would - heaven forfend - bare her assets), a conscious attempt to bury the 'English Rose' image forever? 'Blake has always enjoyed breaking the rules and playing against type. It was fun to tilt at oneself and one's image - but it wasn't as conscious as people think.'

Andrews thrives on the movie set. Quieter, more personal work, she calls it. 'I am a little shy, and with films there is this intimate family around you - the director and crew - who are an audience of sorts but at the same time your support system. You are not out there alone.' The remark hints at a fear of live performing that Andrews has only recently begun to overcome. She'll still take a 40-piece band on the road, she'll still face an audience one-to-one in concert - and relish the encounter. Unlike that other leading lady of Broadway and now Hollywood, Barbra Streisand. Andrews is a huge fan: 'She has to be the bravest of us all as an interpreter. I mean the way she can turn a song around and make it entirely her own. Ella could do that too, and Billie Holiday before her. One day I'd like to sit down and talk to her about her fears.

'You see, I know with me it was a lot to do with projecting my own self-criticism on to the audience. So I used to assume that the audience judged me the way I judged myself. And I wasn't that fond of myself in those days. That's not to say I am now, but I've come to be more realistic about what my failings are and how best I can make things better. I'm able to give so much more now, I'm singing songs that I'd never have dreamed of singing 10 years ago. I may not have the vocal range but I'm richer for my experiences. I hope it shows.'

(Photograph omitted)

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