MORE than half a century after actor Julie Andrews’s widely popular and eponymous role in Mary Poppins (1964) as a magical nanny and her appearance as Maria von Trapp, the free-spirited governess in The Sound of Music (1965), she is training a bunch of adorable preschoolers in a Netflix show called Julie’s Greenroom, for their Broadway debut. As the teacher “Miss Julie”, she is introducing preschoolers — who are actually muppets created by Jim Henson Company and known as “Greenies” on the show that debuted recently — to “the magic of performing arts”.
Fondly referred to as “super nanny”, Andrews is probably the best person to introduce arts to tiny tots through the 13-part series, where each episode highlights certain aspects of performing arts. The 81-year-old, who made her Broadway debut at the age of 19 with The Boy Friend (1954), says, “There is no better way to teach children about teamwork, communication skills or problem-solving abilities than by introducing them to arts. When introduced to arts early, they can get curious and be passionate about these subjects when they get older. If you wait for too long, they might assume they are never going to be good at those things.” Not just Andrews but a number of her prominent guests on the show, including actor Alec Baldwin, singer-songwriter Edina Menzel and musician Josh Gobran, too appear enthusiastic to train this posse of talented muppets.
During the interview held in New York, Andrews, who has co-created the series with her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton, a theatre director and author of children’s books, appeared excited. About the process of writing for the show, she says that she tries to visualise the scenes for each 30-minute episode, as she puts them down on paper. “What if this was a film and had music — would the opening be pastoral with a quite moment before the story begins or would it be a fanfare,” says the sprightly actor, who is clad in a black top with a colourful scarf thrown around her neck. And more often than not, she goes for “fanfare”. For example, some of the stories written by her open with the rooster crowing on the roof to announce that it is morning and people need to wake up. The iconic actor has, in the past, said that writing helped her come to terms with the loss of her singing voice due to a throat operation in 1997 and even called writing books “an extension of her singing voice”.
However, it was not easy writing for puppets. “We would imagine things that puppets could do on the show, and be told by the team later that we can’t carry that out because puppeteers move in a certain way,” says Hamilton. According to Andrews, puppeteers contributed immensely to the show with their suggestions. “The puppeteers are below the stage level and have to raise their arms to manipulate the puppets looking at the camera during the shoot. While working on the show, I didn’t think of the human underneath. For me, the puppets are alive,” says the actor, who wants children to find their “inner star”.
Andrews, who has worked on a slew of television shows over the decades, conceived the show with her daughter in December 2015. Soon after, they were looking at puppet sketches. By May 2016, they finished writing the script and started the production work a couple of months later. The mother-daughter duo has been collaborating on a number of projects and they believe they have “very different strengths”. “While I am more inclined towards structure, paying attention to the nuts and bolts, my mother will come up with great ideas. She will wake up in the middle of the night and say: ‘We need a duck’. She will have that great one line which makes everyone laugh, a dramatic opening sequence or closing line to the chapter,” recounts Hamilton. Sipping on her tea, Andrews impishly adds that she can be “impatient” while her daughter is more “tactful”.
Even as Andrews takes on new roles, she remains much-loved as Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp for generations of viewers. Talking about these landmark characters, she sounds reflective and modest. “I have always known that those were the most phenomenal roles that I could have had. I didn’t make those films. I am lucky that I was asked to do those roles. Then I had to do the required learning and wondered if I would be good enough. I still have those doubts. I have been blessed more than anyone I can imagine because I was offered all those wonderful things,” adds the legend who made the hills come alive with the sound of music.