Shubert Theatre

The problem with Julie Andrews’s career, conventional show-biz wisdom holds, is her goody-goody image. “I don’t want to be thought of as wholesome,” Andrews declared in 1966 after playing folksinging nun-turned-nanny Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music, and in subsequent movies she seemed bent on proving her point: jumping into bed with Paul Newman in Torn Curtain, playing the wronged wife in 10, flashing her tits in S.O.B. But none of this really worked, and she lost the star status that family films had given her.

That’s because conventional wisdom was wrong: the problem wasn’t that Andrews was wholesome, it was that she was stagy. Born into and bred for the legitimate theater, she was unsuited to films; even in close-up she always seemed to be playing to a fourth wall. Because the intimacy of movies demands a pseudospontaneity, she seemed forced and fake–especially in nonmusical films, but even in The Sound of Music and Thoroughly Modern Millie. Only Mary Poppins, with its music-hall touches and its combination of live action and cartoon animation, really showed her to advantage.

The 1982 film Victor/Victoria attempted a solution to the dilemma. Inspired by First a Girl–an English film musical that starred the great Jessie Matthews and was released in 1935, the year Andrews was born–Victor/Victoria cast Andrews as a sexual impostor, and a double agent to boot: a straight woman posing as a gay-male female impersonator. Because this role put Andrews’s on-screen artificiality to work for her, Victor/Victoria–written and directed by her husband, Blake Edwards–was her most successful vehicle since the 60s. But the rest of the 80s found her back in the doldrums–where an artist of her caliber decidedly does not belong.

What becomes a legend most? Returning to the medium that made her a legend. On the stage of the Shubert Theatre, where the long-awaited stage version of Victor/Victoria is being tried out before it hits New York, Andrews is like a racehorse back on a first-class track after years of pulling a milk cart. At last Sunday’s press opening she seemed a little reserved and tired–due, I think, to the extra hours she’s put in, rehearsing changes by day while performing at night–but the lady was most definitely in her element. Inhabiting the proscenium with the easy confidence of a practiced pro, she seems natural in a way she never has on-screen. I’m not saying she was natural–lyric theater is an inherently unnatural form, after all–but that the musical stage suits her in a way films never have, and that she suits it the way few others can. One of the last of a vanishing breed (including Carol Channing, Chita Rivera, and Barbara Cook) nurtured in the heyday of musicals, Andrews needs the distance of a big theater. There her precision, her control, her timing, her extraordinary way of cradling a consonant before spinning it out into the auditorium all work to create a reality unique to that moment in that place with that particular audience.

Now what Andrews needs is material worthy of her abilities. She has it some of the time; one hopes that as playwright-director Edwards and his collaborators continue the process of adapting the movie they will deliver their star the stage show she deserves.

Victor/Victoria has many good things. The story (which came originally from a 1933 German film, Viktor und Viktoria) is a clever starting point: Victoria Grant, an English operetta star on the skids in 1930s Paris, is befriended by a lonely gay cabaret singer, “Toddy” Todd; he hits on the idea of passing her off as a female impersonator, figuring the novelty will add an extra element of interest. When Victoria falls for King Marchan, a handsome Chicago gangster who attends her show, she’s torn by her desire to reveal herself to him and her commitment to keeping up the pretense. Meanwhile King, sensing she’s a woman and determined to woo her, sets out to unmask her.

The plot offers plenty of opportunity for lavish production numbers, campy comedy, and witty twists on classic themes of illusion and deception. For the stage version, Edwards and company–principally the late composer Henry Mancini (an Edwards associate since the 50s), lyricist Leslie Bricusse, and Frank Wildhorn, the tunesmith brought in after Mancini’s death last year–have availed themselves of some of that opportunity. Mancini’s “Le Jazz Hot,” from the movie, has been expanded to surround Andrews (clad in costume designer Willa Kim’s stunning Erte-inspired gown) with a sexy multiracial chorus choreographed by Rob Marshall, while “Louis Says” is a glitzy new Wildhorn song evoking a Ziegfeldian extravaganza. The Pal Joey-inspired “Chicago, Illinois”–a traditional 11 o’clock number designed to goose the audience’s energy level so they applaud louder for the finale–features Rachel York as King’s moll Norma leading scantily clad chorines in a brassy gangster parody; and the climactic title tune, boasting a “Mame”-like melody and lyrics like “She’s the Victor, not the victim,” both spoofs and celebrates old-fashioned musical-comedy glitz as Victoria relinquishes her drag-queen celebrity to a real drag queen, her pal Toddy. There are also farce sequences that will be familiar to anyone who’s laughed through Edwards’s best films and suffered through his worst. A chase through two hotel rooms, complete with slamming doors and men hiding under beds, recalls the first two Inspector Clouseau movies, and a bit with a man who gets literally swallowed up by a balloon is a surefire laugh-getter; but a second-act barroom brawl seems as contrived as the failed slapstick in The Great Race.

What’s needed now is a more powerful connection between the central characters. The friendship between Toddy and Victoria is the strongest thing in the show, but it’s nowhere near as fun as it was in the movie; Tony Roberts is confident and likable, but he’s a pale successor to Robert Preston, whose bubbly, slyly revealing performance in the film (the Music Man at his most “musical”) created a perfect chemistry with the cooler Andrews. Perhaps Roberts will grow into the part; it would help a lot if the writers gave him and Andrews a song in which he teaches her how to act like a man–a gay man posing as a woman. Such a number, written in the word-based Lerner-and-Loewe style Mancini’s new songs have affected, has terrific potential for both character revelation and physical comedy.

More problematic is the romance between Andrews and TV-movie hunk Michael Nouri as King. The role is underwritten, as it was in the film; but where James Garner’s established persona filled in the screenplay’s gaps, Nouri is only as good as his material, and that’s not very good. The play emphasizes the sense of conflict in King’s attraction to Victor–does it mean he’s a latent homosexual?–but the result merely vulgarizes King by making him seem obsessed with sex. We never sense that he’s drawn to Victor by his style or intelligence–which are the reasons one would be drawn to Julie Andrews, whatever she’s wearing–and we’re nonplussed when she tells him that they share a sense of humor: we’ve never seen the guy laugh. Meanwhile, Edwards has lost track of the movie’s paradox that straight lovers are forced to pose as gay so they can express their feelings, an instructive reversal on the hypocrisy gays face. And when Andrews and Nouri finally go to bed together, it comes off as impulsive lust; other gay musicals like Kiss of the Spider Woman and La Cage aux Folles worked for a wide audience because they put affection and friendship first and allowed the sex to flow from them.

Other problems: York’s Norma is a shrill, sexist dumb-blond caricature with no place in a show that relentlessly attacks sexual stereotyping. And a running gag in which Andrews’s high B-flat shatters glass is embarrassing because the prerecorded note reminds us of the star’s deteriorated top range. Other strong points: Robin Wagner’s fabulous art deco set; Gregory Jbara’s chunky charm and incongruous operatic singing as Squash, King’s closet-gay bodyguard (played by Alex Karras in the film); and a marvelous routine in which Andrews partners York in a tango, patting her butt to “prove” she’s a man–a bit of deadpan clowning that recalls the great Carnegie Hall comedy revue Andrews did with Carol Burnett, back before Hollywood turned her from her true calling.

Best of all is Andrews’s balladeering. “Crazy World,” performed in the movie as a part of Victor’s act, is rendered here as a sweet soliloquy; singing of her own confusion, a tuxedoed Andrews evokes a long history of male impersonation that includes continental cabaret and Judy Garland’s tramp drag. It’s a worthy showcase for one of Mancini’s loveliest ballads, a terrific moment that needs to be heightened just a bit. And the second act’s penultimate ballad–Wildhorn’s “Living in the Shadows”–brings Andrews exactly where she belongs: center stage, down front, doing what she does best: singing to a big audience. Andrews puts across a text (this one concludes with the gay-liberation slogan “come out”) with an intelligence and directness un-matched by any other singer today. Cook is more passionate, Streisand’s more stylish, Minnelli’s more intense, Julie Wilson’s drier, and Channing’s much funnier, but no singer sings smarter than Julie Andrews when she’s working a room–not a camera, a room. Welcome back, Julie. It’s about time.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carol Rosegg/Joan Marcus.