The star of iconic and beloved musicals and films such as "My Fair Lady," "Camelot," "The Sound of Music" and "Mary Poppins" is now thinking as a director as she stages a new show, based on a book for young people she wrote with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton. "The Great American Mousical" will have a "developmental production" starting Thursday and continuing through Dec. 2 at Goodspeed Musical's Norma Terris Theatre in Chester.
It's not the first time Andrews, 77, has staged a show. In 2007 at Goodspeed's main stage she directed a revival of "The Boyfriend." She made her Broadway debut in that show in 1954 when she was 19.
But "Mousical" is the first show that Andrews is guiding from scratch, based on source material she knows especially well: the backstage world of the American musical theater.
"Listen, they say 'write what you know' so I did," says Andrews as we share cups of PG Tips black tea, petite chicken sandwiches and homemade scones and jam. "I probably wouldn't have written it if I hadn't been in iconic musicals because it is a tribute to the golden age of musicals. It seemed so easy to me."
A chat with Andrews is as friendly and gracious as one would expect, with many "lovely"s "magical"s and "adorable"s sprinkled throughout the conversation. But there's also then feeling that such upbeat feelings come naturally to the star who looks still looks rather smashing and who seems genuinely energized by her newest challenge..
Mouse In the House
The idea for the book — which is aimed for children aged 5 to 9 — happened by accident when Andrews was on Broadway in the musical "Victor/Victoria" (a show she feels due for a revival, especially at a theater like Goodspeed).
"My lovely hairdresser came in and said there was a mouse in the wardrobe room and that traps were being put out. I asked, please, that some humane ones be used so the mouse could be released somewhere in the country. She said, 'I guess he just came up to see the stars' — and a light bulb went off in my head."
The story that emerged in the book centers on a group of mice living in the basement of a Broadway theater who put on a show when the theater is "dark," inspired by the world of the musical that takes place above them. The mice take on the archetypes recognizable from many backstage shows: a Noel Coward-elegant director; the demanding diva; the pushy stage mother; the sweet ingenue; the eager assistant. The plot accelerates when the show's star suddenly disappears and a wrecking ball crashes into the building's walls, making it clear that the theater is on its way to demolition.
Andrews fondly remembers the first "real" book in her life that wasn't just about illustrations. "Mine is a book you wouldn't know. My father, who was a great lover of literature and poetry, took me to this big book store and bought it for me when I was about 8."
The 1942 book, "The Little Grey Men" by Denys Watkins-Pitchford who wrote under the name BB, had chapters telling a rich narrative, with enchanting characters (gnomes and woodland creatures), and a scattering of illustrations. It is much like the book Andrews and her daughter created and published in 2006 which she called "an homage and a valentine to the theater as is the show."
Putting It Together
Executive director Michael Price and associate producer Bob Alwine of Goodspeed Musicals thought the book was great source material for a new musical and so began the show's six-year journey to the stage.
Hunter Bell (Broadway's "[title of show]") was recruited to write the show's script; music is by composer Zina Goldrich and lyrics by Marcy Heisler; Tony Award-winning Christopher Gattelli ("Newsies") is choreographing; lighting design is by stage veteran Richard Pilbrow. Hamilton's father and Andrews' former husband, Oscar and Tony Award-winning designer Tony Walton, is creating the look of the show (he supplied the whimsical illustrations for the book, too).
"The biggest surprise to all of us is that the show has become an adult musical," says Andrews. "It's witty, the music is great and it's got an overall feeling of pleasure to it. It's about theater people and all their foibles and idiocies but it's also about life, too.
"I didn't want it to be arch and aren't-we-being-clever," she says. "I wanted it to be real."
Andrews says the musical reminds her of shows like "Annie" and "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," shows based on source material designed for young people but with an adult appeal.
The under-the-radar, no-critics developmental process of a new musical at Goodspeed is certainly a far cry from the out-of-town drama that surrounded Andrews' biggest stage success, "My Fair Lady."
"My Fair Lady" had its world premiere at the Shubert Theater in New Haven in 1956 on the night of a huge snow storm. A terrified Rex Harrison, a novice to musicals, refused to come out of his dressing room. After much persuasion and threats, Harrison stepped out on stage and first-nighters were stunned by the show's magnificence. Halfway through the first act, the audience literally stopped the show as 20-year-old Andrews took the hands of Harrison and fellow actor Robert Coote and led them in a small bow to acknowledge the response in order to satisfy the audience and to continue with the show.
"It was true theater legend, all of it," says Andrews of that and other anecdotes surrounding the development of the show when the young actress was given a role that would change her life and make her a star.
Andrews says the methodology of producing new musicals has changed with the out-of-town circuit gone and with the financing of making shows so expensive. ("The cost of 'My Fair Lady' is a mere pittance compared to something like 'Wicked'," she says.)
"But I know one thing: the talent today is enormous. In the old days, the singers were hired, the dancers were hired, the actors were hired. There weren't the triple-threat, talented people there are today in such numbers. It's not a lack of talent that's the challenge. It's a question of a lack of funds and which shows will be lucky enough to get off the ground."
When asked if she'd consider returning to the stage to act in plays — Noel Coward's "Hay Fever" comes to mind as well as George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's "You Can't Take It With You" — she says, "I guess it would depend. There's nothing more magical than the stage."
She says producers occasionally pitch projects to her, especially revivals, "but there are so many lovely things happening in my life now, all of which surprise me."
Andrews says one of the reasons she enjoys directing is that it allows her "to give back to the theater. It's also a kind of passing on, to be part of something larger."
"The reason why I did my memoirs was because of my mentor Moss Hart [director of 'My Fair Lady' and 'Camelot,' where she played Guenevere with Richard Burton as Arthur and Robert Goulet as Lancelot in 1963]," she says. "I read [Hart''s acclaimed theatrical memoir] 'Act One' and realized that I never knew the Broadway of his early days and it plugged in a piece of the jigsaw for me. So it became a reason to publish my memoir and it was not just something for my own family to remember grandma by. I wanted to say what those days [in England and America] were like for me, too."
"I was privileged to be part of the great golden age of Broadway musical theater and to meet and mingle with people like Richard Rodgers, Noel Coward, Alan Jay Lerner, Fritz Loewe and Moss.
"One thing that is maddening to me is that when you're younger you're trying to find out who you are, you're finding your feet and learning what it is you do. I think now of the questions I should have asked all of them. I should have just sat at their feet. But it was all happening so fast and I didn't do that much as I should have."
And the young company of "Mousical?" Do the performers pepper her with questions about her long career ( which goes back to the last days of vaudeville in England and when she entertained British and American troups in England during World War Two when she was a child performer — along with Petula Clark).
"Occasionally," she says. "But they're the same way I was then. They're busy learning the show. They're adorable and decent and respectful, but they're finding out who they are, too."
THE GREAT AMERICAN MOUSICAL will run from Nov. 8 to Dec. 2 at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester. Information: 860-873-8668 and www.goodspeed.org.
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