Julie Andrews: She's climbed every mountain

Nearly half a century after the films that turned her into a screen legend, the star with the purest of voices has a new stage show. And if cruel fortune has stopped her singing quite like she used to, her place in people's hearts is assured.

If any surviving audience members from Julie Andrews' original, 1956 Broadway run of My Fair Lady happen to be in the crowd at the O2 in London tonight, they may be in for a shock.

Andrews, singing on a British stage for the first time in 30 years – the 23,000-capacity O2 stage, at that – has warned them to expect from her not the four-octave range with which she fashioned "I Could Have Danced All Night", "A Spoonful of Sugar" or, of course, "The Sound of Music", but instead the so-called "sing-speak" that her My Fair Lady co-star Rex Harrison lent to Professor Henry Higgins.

In 1997, Andrews endured a routine operation to remove a benign polyp from her vocal cords, only to emerge from surgery having been stripped of her famous vocal reach. The lawsuit she fought against her surgeons was settled for about £20m; she subsequently underwent grief therapy at an exclusive Arizona clinic. Though her voice has since returned, she claims it remains a shadow of its former self. If this was one intimation that the unblemished life Andrews appeared to have led was not entirely perfect, then that impression was merely deepened by the revelations of childhood trauma in her 2008 memoir Home. Yet even with those secrets on show, and now aged 74, Andrews remains a model for a peculiarly dignified variety of fame.

She was born Julia Elizabeth Wells in October 1935 in Walton-on-Thames. Her mother Barbara was a professional pianist, married to a woodwork teacher, Ted Wells, whom Andrews grew up believing was her father. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, however, Barbara left Ted to join the Entertainments National Service Association, where she entertained troops alongside her second husband Ted Andrews.

Only when Julie was a young teenager did Barbara admit that she'd been conceived during an affair with a third man. Famously protective of her privacy Andrews finally recounted the episode in her autobiography, having kept it a secret for 58 years: after taking her to perform at the home of a family friend, Barbara had given her daughter the devastating news – the friend was, in fact, her father. Julie nonetheless enjoyed a close relationship with Wells, a decent and caring man whom she considered her father. "I adored [him]," she told one interviewer, "and constantly worried that I was being disloyal to him and his schoolteacher roots if I spent too much time performing and enjoying it."

It was her stepfather who persuaded her to perform professionally – and whose name she had reluctantly taken. Ted Andrews, a song-and-dance man, turned his wife and stepdaughter into a popular family musical troupe, but behind closed doors he was an occasionally abusive alcoholic, whose attentions towards Julie were not always fatherly. Ironically, it was the talent he nurtured – talent demonstrated by her appearance as the youngest ever solo performer at a Royal Variety Performance in 1948 – that gave Julie the chance to escape his influence. In 1954, aged 19, she won the lead role of Polly in Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend on Broadway and crossed the Atlantic alone to take it up.

That success led to further work in the US, and in 1956 hers was the first, defining incarnation of Eliza Doolittle in Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady. "She was an English girl thrust into the very core of an American artform at a time when its audience was expanding because of film," explains the composer Howard Goodall, whose newest musical, an adaptation of the film Love Story, opens in Chichester next month.

"She had a completely different vocal quality to anything in American musical theatre before then," Goodall explains. "A clear, crisp, bell-like voice rather than the chesty 'Broadway belt' that was the sound of the musical at that time. It's odd that someone with her qualities became so central to the American musical in the 1960s, given that it wasn't really what they were looking for. She was lucky that two major Broadway writers, Lerner and Loewe, had written a musical about England, My Fair Lady."

Four years later the pair cast her as Guinevere in another new musical, Camelot. In the popular imagination, however, she will always be associated with a different writing partnership, Rodgers and Hammerstein. When the film version of My Fair Lady was made in 1964, Andrews was famously passed over by studio head Jack Warner in favour of Audrey Hepburn (who, equally famously, did not sing her own songs in the movie). Walt Disney, on the other hand, wanted Andrews to play the titular governess in Mary Poppins, and was willing to delay production until after the birth of her daughter Emma. His patience was rewarded: the film earned its star an Oscar and a Golden Globe. At the end of her Globe acceptance speech, this thoroughly earnest performer demonstrated an unexpected capacity for irony, thanking "a man who made a wonderful movie, and who made all this possible in the first place: Mr Jack Warner".

While on the set of Mary Poppins, Andrews was snapped up by 20th Century Fox for the film that would crystallise both the fame and the image she had gained with Poppins. Her performance as Maria in Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music ensured Andrews' status as one of the few British actors truly to conquer America, where she has lived ever since. Yet it also enshrined her as the archetypal squeaky-clean English Miss. Like her fellow musical star Judy Garland, Andrews became both a gay icon and a family favourite. Some suggest she might have preferred to be thought of as a screen siren. "I hate the word wholesome," she once said. "Richard Burton rang me up once and said, 'Do you know you're my only leading lady I've never slept with?' I said, 'Well, please don't tell everybody, it's the worst image'."

In her husband Blake Edwards' 1981 film SOB, Andrews appeared as a "wholesome" actress persuaded to disrobe by an unscrupulous director. Yet even when she took her clothes off on screen, few allowed it to alter their goody-two-shoes image of the star. Edwards, best known as the director of the Pink Panther films, is Andrews' second husband. Her first, to set designer Tony Walton (father of Emma), lasted from 1959 until 1967. She married Edwards two years later, and the couple adopted two daughters from Vietnam, Amy and Joanna, now in their thirties.

Andrews never again scaled the heights of celebrity she had achieved in the mid-1960s, but she remained an international treasure on the strength of that success, and was made a dame in 1999. She returned to Disney for the first time since Mary Poppins in a non-singing role as Queen Clarisse of Genovia, a fictional European nation, in 2001's The Princess Diaries. In the sequel, she did sing, but a song confined to a single octave to accommodate her fragile new voice. Andrews' latest movie is, if anything, an even more lightweight affair. In Tooth Fairy (released on 28 May) Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson stars as a rough-and-tumble ice hockey player forced to become, yes, a tooth fairy. Andrews plays his boss in the Tooth Fairy Department.

Her appearance at the O2, meanwhile, is the beginning of a worldwide tour of her stage show The Gift of Music. Its first half, which features an ensemble of five seasoned Broadway regulars, is devoted to the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The latter half is based on Simeon's Gift, a children's fable she wrote with her daughter Emma; Andrews has enjoyed a second successful career as an author, publishing almost 30 children's books. As nervous as she professes to be at the thought of tonight's performance, she has a reputation not only for utter professionalism, but also for a polite steeliness of will. Her onstage and offstage personas are remarkably similar, say those who've worked with her – and she knows exactly how to get her own way: in the most charming fashion possible.

A Life in brief

Born: Julia Elizabeth Wells, 1 October 1935, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey.

Family: Her mother was married to a teacher when Andrews was conceived as the result of an affair. She has been married to her second husband, film director Blake Edwards, since 1969. They have five children.

Career: Made her stage debut in 1947 singing an aria at the London Hippodrome. She made her Broadway debut in 1954 with The Boy Friend. She won an Oscar in 1964 for Mary Poppins and was nominated in 1965 for The Sound of Music. She has continued to star in films, musicals and television shows. She was made a dame in 2000 and in 2002 was voted 59th in a poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.

She says: "I was raised never to carp about things and never to moan, because in vaudeville, which is my background, you just got on with it through all kinds of adversities."

They say: "Working with Julie Andrews is like getting hit over the head with a Valentine." Christopher Plummer, co-star, The Sound of Music

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